South Africa shipped US$123.8 billion worth of goods around the globe in 2021. That dollar amount reflects a 38.3% gain since 2017 and a 44.5% acceleration from 2020 to 2021.
The value of international South African shipments represents 0.7% of all global exports estimated at $17.503 trillion one year earlier in 2020.
Applying a continental lens, 34.6% of South Africa exports by value were delivered to Asian countries while 29.2% were sold to importers in Europe. South Africa shipped another 22.6% worth of goods to Africa with 11.9% going to North America (11.9%).
Tinier percentages are attributable to importers in Latin America (0.9%) excluding Mexico but including the Caribbean, and Oceania (0.8%) led by Australia.
South Africa’s Top Trading Partners
Below is a list showcasing 25 of South Africa’s top trading partners in terms of its export sales. That is, countries that imported the most South African shipments by dollar value during 2021. Also shown is each import country’s percentage of total South African exports.
- China: US$13.9 billion (11.2% of total South African exports)
- United States: $13.1 billion (10.6%)
- Germany: $10.5 billion (8.5%)
- Japan: $8.3 billion (6.7%)
- United Kingdom: $8.2 billion (6.6%)
- Botswana: $4.4 billion (3.5%)
- Mozambique: $4.34 billion (3.5%)
- India: $4.27 billion (3.4%)
- Netherlands: $4.2 billion (3.4%)
- Belgium: $3.6 billion (2.9%)
- Namibia: $3.4 billion (2.8%)
- Zimbabwe: $2.9 billion (2.4%)
- Hong Kong: $2.5 billion (2%)
- Zambia: $2.33 billion (1.9%)
- United Arab Emirates: $2.3 billion (1.9%)
- South Korea: $2.2 billion (1.7%)
- Eswatini: $1.5 billion (1.2%)
- Lesotho: $1.41 billion (1.1%)
- Spain: $1.36 billion (1.1%)
- Italy: $1.18 billion (1%)
- Pakistan: $1.17 billion (0.9%)
- Democratic Rep. Congo: $1.1 billion (0.9%)
- Australia: $840.5 million (0.7%)
- Switzerland: $832.1 million (0.7%)
- France: $824.7 million (0.7%)
Over four-fifths (81.2%) of South African exports in 2021 were delivered to the above 25 trade partners.
Switzerland was the only top importer that decreased its purchases from South Africa from 2020 to 2021, down in value by -1.8%. Among the other 24 countries, gains ranged from minimum year-over-year gains of 11% for Australia and 27% for the Netherlands to accelerations of 118.4% for Japan and 94.3% for the Netherlands.
Countries Causing the Greatest Deficits for South Africa
As defined by Investopedia, a country whose total value of all imported goods is higher than its value of all exports is said to have a negative trade balance or deficit.
It would be unrealistic for any exporting nation to expect across-the-board positive trade balances with all its importing partners. Similarly, that export country doesn’t necessarily post a negative trade balance with each individual partner with which it exchanges exports and imports.
South Africa incurred the highest trade deficits with the following countries.
- China: -US$5.3 billion (country-specific trade deficit in 2021)
- Saudi Arabia: -$3.7 billion
- Thailand: -$2.5 billion
- Oman: -$1.8 billion
- Nigeria: -$1.7 billion
- Italy: -$1.4 billion
- France: -$1.14 billion
- India: -$1.07 billion
- Brazil: -$842.4 million
- Sweden: -$766.5 million
Among South Africa’s trading partners that cause the greatest negative trade balances, South African deficits with India (up 202.2%), Oman (up 193.9%) and Saudi Arabia (up 59.5%) grew at the fastest pace from 2020 to 2021.
These cashflow deficiencies clearly indicate South Africa’s competitive disadvantages with the above countries, but also represent key opportunities for South Africa to develop country-specific strategies to strengthen its overall position in international trade.
Countries Generating the Biggest Surpluses for South Africa
South Africa posted an overall $30.3 billion trade surplus for 2021, up by 78.7% from the $17 billion in black ink one year earlier.
Based on Investopedia’s definition of net importer, a country whose total value of all imported goods is lower than its value of all exports is said to have a positive trade balance or surplus.
South Africa incurred the highest trade surpluses with the following countries.
- United States of America: US$6.5 billion (country-specific trade surplus in 2021)
- United Kingdom: $6.3 billion
- Japan: $5.7 billion
- Botswana: $3.8 billion
- Mozambique: $3.6 billion
- Germany: $2.9 billion
- Zimbabwe: $2.7 billion
- Netherlands: $2.6 billion
- Namibia: $2.4 billion
- Hong Kong: $2.3 billion
Among South Africa’s trading partners that generate the greatest positive trade balances, South African surpluses with Germany (up 307.7%), Japan (up 202.2%) and the United Kingdom (up 149.6%) grew at the fastest pace from 2020 to 2021.
These positive cashflow streams clearly indicate South Africa’s competitive advantages with the above countries, but also represent key opportunities for South Africa to develop country-specific strategies to optimize its overall position in international trade.
Major South African Export Companies
Fifteen South African corporations rank among Forbes Global 2000. Below is a sample of the major South African companies that Forbes included.
- Aspen Pharmacare Holdings (pharmaceuticals)
- Bidvest Group (industrials conglomerate)
- MTN Group (telecommunications)
- Naspers (broadcasting, cable)
- Remgro (industrials conglomerate)
- Sasol (diversified chemicals)
- Steinhoff International (furniture)
See also South Africa’s Top 10 Imports, South Africa’s Top 10 Exports and Top African Export Countries
Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook: Country Profiles. Accessed on March 23, 2022
Forbes Global 2000 rankings, The World’s Biggest Public Companies. Accessed on March 23, 2022
International Monetary Fund, Exchange Rates selected indicators (Domestic Currency per U.S. dollar, period average). Accessed on March 23, 2022
International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on March 23, 2022
International Trade Centre, Trade Map. Accessed on March 23, 2022
Investopedia, Net Exports Definition. Accessed on March 23, 2022
Richest Country Reports, Key Statistics Powering Global Wealth. Accessed on March 23, 2022
Wikipedia, Gross domestic product. Accessed on March 23, 2022
Wikipedia, Purchasing power parity. Accessed on March 23, 2022
Wikipedia, South Africa. Accessed on March 23, 2022