Based on the average exchange rate for 2020, the South African rand depreciated by -11.9% against the US dollar since 2016 and declined by -13.9% from 2019 to 2020. South Africa’s weaker local currency makes its exports paid for in stronger US dollars relatively less expensive for international buyers.
South Africa’s biggest export products by value in 2020 were platinum, gold, iron, cars and coal. In aggregate, those major exports accounted for 37.5% of overall exports sales from South Africa. That percentage suggests a relatively diversified range of exported goods.
South Africa places number one for exporting platinum, ranks among world-leading export nations for iron, and is a major competitor selling coal on international markets.
The latest available country-specific data shows that 60.8% of products exported from South Africa were bought by importers in: China (11.4% of the global total), United States (8.3%), Germany (8.2%), United Kingdom (4.9%), Japan (4.4%), Netherlands (3.8%), Botswana (3.8%), India (3.8%), Mozambique (3.6%), Namibia (3.1%), Belgium (2.8%) and Zimbabwe (2.6%).
From a continental perspective, about 33.8% of South African exports by value were delivered to importers in Asia while 28.6% were sold to European countries. South Africa shipped another 25.2% worth of its goods to fellow African nations. Smaller percentages arrived in North America (9.7%), Oceania (1.1%) led by Australia, and Latin America (0.9%) excluding Mexico but including the Caribbean.
Given South Africa’s population of 59.7 million people, its total $86.1 billion in 2020 exports translates to roughly $1,450 for every resident in the relatively wealthy African nation.
South Africa’s Top 10 Exports
The following export product groups represent the highest dollar value in South African global shipments during 2020. Also shown is the percentage share each export category represents in terms of overall exports from South Africa.
- Gems, precious metals: US$20 billion (23.3% of total exports)
- Ores, slag, ash: $12.8 billion (14.9%)
- Vehicles: $8.5 billion (9.8%)
- Mineral fuels including oil: $6.9 billion (8%)
- Machinery including computers: $5 billion (5.8%)
- Iron, steel: $4 billion (4.6%)
- Fruits, nuts: $3.8 billion (4.4%)
- Aluminum: $1.6 billion (1.9%)
- Electrical machinery, equipment: $1.5 billion (1.8%)
- Other chemical goods: $1.5 billion (1.8%)
South Africa’s top 10 exports accounted for over three-quarters (76.2%) of the overall value of its global shipments.
Gems and precious metals was the fastest grower among the top 10 export categories, up by 30.4% year over year since 2019 led by greater international sales of platinum and gold. In second place for improving export sales was miscellaneous chemical goods which was up by 29.3%. South Africa’s shipments of fruits and nuts posted the third-fastest gain in value up by 9.8% year over year.
The leading decliner among South Africa’s top 10 export categories were its exported vehicles via a -26.2% drop.
Note that the results listed above are at the categorized two-digit Harmonized Tariff System (HTS) code level. For a more granular view of exported goods at the four-digit HTS code level, see the section Searchable List of South Africa’s Most Valuable Export Products further down near the bottom of this article.
Overall South Africa posted a $17.1 billion trade surplus for 2020, up by 677.9% from the $2.2 billion in black ink one year earlier.
The following types of South African product shipments represent positive net exports or a trade balance surplus. Investopedia defines net exports as the value of a country’s total exports minus the value of its total imports.
In a nutshell, net exports represent the amount by which foreign spending on a home country’s goods or services exceeds or lags the home country’s spending on foreign goods or services.
- Gems, precious metals: US$18.9 billion (Up by 33.4% since 2019)
- Ores, slag, ash: $12.8 billion (Down by -1.9%)
- Vehicles: $4 billion (Down by -8.7%)
- Fruits, nuts: $3.6 billion (Up by 10.9%)
- Iron, steel: $3.1 billion (Down by -27.5%)
- Aluminum: $1.1 billion (Down by -1.5%)
- Woodpulp: $695.9 million (Up by 51.5%)
- Beverages, spirits, vinegar: $681 million (Up by 19.1%)
- Vegetable/fruit/nut preparations: $337.2 million (Down by -4.6%)
- Nickel: $306.4 million (Down by -2.8%)
South Africa has highly positive net exports in the international trade of platinum, gold and diamonds. In turn, these cashflows indicate South Africa’s strong competitive advantages under the gems and precious metals product category.
Below are exports from South Africa that result in negative net exports or product trade balance deficits. These negative net exports reveal product categories where foreign spending on home country South Africa’s goods trail South African importer spending on foreign products.
- Electrical machinery, equipment: US-$5.5 billion (Down by -18.6% since 2019)
- Machinery including computers: -$4.1 billion (Down by -28.4%)
- Mineral fuels including oil: -$2.7 billion (Down by -51.9%)
- Pharmaceuticals: -$2 billion (Up by 0.7%)
- Optical, technical, medical apparatus: -$1.4 billion (Down by -17.9%)
- Books, newspapers, pictures: -$1 billion (Down by -12.9%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: -$798.8 million (Down by -24.1%)
- Clothing, accessories (not knit or crochet): -$639.2 million (Down by -20.2%)
- Rubber, rubber articles: -$589.3 million (Down by -25.4%)
- Knit or crochet clothing, accessories: -$549.4 million (Down by -15.4%)
South Africa has highly negative net exports and therefore deep international trade deficits for electrical machinery and equipment.
These cashflow deficiencies clearly indicate South Africa’s competitive disadvantages in the electronics market, but also represent key opportunities for South Africa to improve its position in the global economy through focused innovations.
South African Export Companies
Fifteen South African corporations rank among Forbes Global 2000. Below are major South African companies involved in international trade.
- Sasol (diversified chemicals)
- MTN Group (telecommunications)
- Steinhoff International (furniture)
- Naspers (broadcasting, cable)
- Bidvest Group (industrials conglomerate)
- Aspen Pharmacare Holdings (pharmaceuticals)
- Remgro (industrials conglomerate)
Searchable List of South Africa’s Most Valuable Export Products
The following searchable table displays 100 of the most in-demand goods shipped from South Africa during 2020. Shown beside each product label is its total export value then the percentage increase or decrease since 2019.
|Rank||South African Export Product||2020 Value (US$)||Change|
|3||Iron ores, concentrates||$6,157,904,000||+7.1%|
|5||Coal, solid fuels made from coal||$3,941,918,000||-18.5%|
|8||Manganese ores, concentrates||$2,473,819,000||-21.9%|
|9||Processed petroleum oils||$1,833,610,000||-39.4%|
|10||Centrifuges, filters and purifiers||$1,790,594,000||+7.6%|
|11||Fresh or dried citrus fruit||$1,629,984,000||+19.1%|
|12||Chromium ores, concentrates||$1,542,055,000||-21.4%|
|15||Precious metal ores, concentrates||$966,962,000||+112%|
|16||Chemical woodpulp (dissolving)||$692,067,000||+51.8%|
|17||Grapes (fresh or dried)||$681,248,000||+6.5%|
|18||Initiators/accelerators, catalytic preps||$677,547,000||+66.9%|
|22||Apples, pears (fresh)||$581,544,000||+4.4%|
|25||Titanium ores, concentrates||$479,370,000||-15.8%|
|27||Flat-rolled stainless steel items||$402,557,000||-25.5%|
|28||Niobium/zirconium ores, concentrates||$397,944,000||-11.8%|
|30||Sugar (cane or beet)||$358,539,000||-27.2%|
|35||Aluminum plates, sheets, strips||$314,627,000||-24%|
|37||Precious metal waste, scrap||$303,900,000||-0.6%|
|38||Miscellaneous iron and steel structures||$299,788,000||-0.9%|
|40||Copper ores, concentrates||$291,160,000||+24.9%|
|42||Liquid pumps and elevators||$280,672,000||-12.1%|
|43||Medication mixes in dosage||$275,238,000||-17.8%|
|44||Beauty/makeup/skin care preparations||$270,888,000||+5.3%|
|45||Wool (uncarded, uncombed)||$263,143,000||-13.8%|
|46||Fruit and vegetable juices||$250,061,000||-6%|
|47||Phone system devices||$231,341,000||+12.4%|
|48||Rubber tires (new)||$218,566,000||-12.3%|
|49||Iron or steel granulated slag sand||$217,581,000||-10.8%|
|50||Petroleum jelly, mineral waxes||$211,159,000||+19.6%|
|52||Other organic cleaning preparations||$206,517,000||+2.8%|
|53||Zinc ores, concentrates||$205,930,000||+14.4%|
|54||Other food preparations||$201,302,000||-0.6%|
|55||Miscellaneous fruits (fresh)||$193,348,000||+15.6%|
|56||Piston engine parts||$187,654,000||-33.3%|
|57||Miscellaneous iron or steel items||$179,114,000||-33.3%|
|58||Heavy machinery (bulldozers, excavators, road rollers)||$178,135,000||-9.8%|
|59||Miscellaneous preserved fruits||$175,763,000||-17.2%|
|60||Refined copper, unwrought alloys||$172,175,000||+28.6%|
|62||Flat-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products (plated/coated)||$166,906,000||-20.6%|
|64||Computers, optical readers||$164,317,000||-6.7%|
|66||Plastic packing goods, lids, caps||$163,410,000||-11.3%|
|67||Miscellaneous animal feed preparations||$159,519,000||-9.6%|
|68||Cereal groats, meal, pellets||$155,948,000||+64.9%|
|69||Transmission shafts, gears, clutches||$152,752,000||-2.2%|
|71||Other diagnostic/lab reagents||$149,845,000||+109.5%|
|72||Organic surface-active products, soa||$144,383,000||-5%|
|73||Fuel wood, wood chips, sawdust||$143,591,000||-25%|
|74||Whole fish (frozen)||$141,214,000||+1.5%|
|75||Chemical industry products/residuals||$138,929,000||-0.2%|
|78||Taps, valves, similar appliances||$136,514,000||-6.2%|
|79||Sauces, mixed condiments/seasonings||$136,442,000||-0.3%|
|80||Electro-medical equip (e.g. xrays)||$135,774,000||+13.9%|
|83||Uncoated kraft paper||$133,346,000||-5.3%|
|84||Yachts, other pleasure/sports vessels||$132,528,000||-1.3%|
|85||Non-alcoholic drinks (not water/juice/milk)||$131,042,000||-23%|
|91||Fish fillets, pieces||$122,518,000||-15.3%|
|94||Alcohol (including spirits, liqueurs)||$110,377,000||-16.5%|
|95||Apricots, cherries, peaches, nectarines, plums||$108,205,000||+3.6%|
|96||Inedible meat flour||$106,331,000||+77%|
|98||Lower-voltage switches, fuses||$105,339,000||-9%|
These 100 exported goods were worth a subtotal of US$70.8 billion or 82.2% by value for all products exported from South Africa during 2020.
In macroeconomic terms, South Africa’s total exported goods represent 12.1% of its overall Gross Domestic Product for 2020 ($710.8 billion valued in Purchasing Power Parity US dollars). That 12.1% for exports to overall GDP per PPP in 2020 compares to 11.2% one year earlier, seeming to indicate an increasing reliance on products sold on international markets for South Africa’s total economic performance.
Another key indicator of a country’s economic performance is its unemployment rate. South Africa’s unemployment rate was 30.8% at September 2020, up from an average 27.855% in 2020 according to the International Monetary Fund.
See also South Africa’s Top 10 Imports, Top South African Trading Partners and Top African Export Countries
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Forbes Global 2000 rankings, The World’s Biggest Public Companies. Accessed on May 6, 2021
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International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on May 6, 2021
International Trade Centre, Trade Map. Accessed on May 6, 2021
Investopedia, Net Exports Definition. Accessed on May 6, 2021
Richest Country Reports, Key Statistics Powering Global Wealth. Accessed on May 6, 2021
Wikipedia, Gross domestic product. Accessed on May 6, 2021
Wikipedia, Purchasing power parity. Accessed on May 6, 2021
Wikipedia, South Africa. Accessed on May 6, 2021