We take a look at the South African Import & Export market performance over the past decade.

Below you will find a summary table that includes annual export, import and net trade balance figures for the past 8 years. Over this period, exports grew at an average rate of 8.9% vs an annual import growth of 9.3%. More recently, growth in exports has exceeded imports and South Africa reported a trade surplus for the years 2016 & 2017, after four years of reporting an annual net trade deficit.

The balance of trade measures the difference between a country’s imports and exports. A positive balance is interpreted as a healthy signal since it indicates that a country exports more than it imports (earns more than it spends).

At times, the trade balance may be affected by factors outside of the control of the national Government. These include natural disasters, commodity cycles, global growth patterns & exchange rate fluctuations. Historically, South Africa has experienced cycles of positive (surplus) and negative (deficit) balances and more recently these figures have become less predictable and more volatile due to the above-mentioned factors.

The trade balance serves as a good indicator of ease of trade and economic strength, especially for resource-rich countries. In the years to come, South Africa needs to take advantage of its commodity resources and geographic location within Africa to ensure a consistent net trade surplus. This will bring increased job opportunities and allow the economy to grow at a sustainable pace.

We hope the below data provides you with the insight required to understand South Africa’s position in global trade a bit more clearly.

Trade performance

South African Trading Partners

Below we present South Africa’s major export & import partners, identified by region over the past 8 years. Asia is South Africa’s largest export & import partner and has seen its share of the trade increase steadily since 2010. The rest of Africa is ranked as our second most important export region, consuming 26% of South African exports during 2017 followed by the EU with 24%.

Of the total goods imported, Asia forms the largest contributor with a 45% share, followed by the EU with 32%. An interesting takeaway here is that South Africa currently holds a consistent trade surplus with the rest of Africa and in 2017 this was reported at just under R200 billion. Unfortunately, this is mostly offset by the consistent trade deficits that South Africa has with Asia and the Eurozone.

South Africa’s most important commodities for trade purposes

The below graphical data dives slightly deeper into regional trade & specific products involved with said trade. When it comes to countries, China, Germany & the USA are consistent trade partners that appear to contribute significantly to the success of our trade relationships with the rest of the world.


South African Exports by Country-Specific Region: 


South African Imports by Country-Specific Region:


We have also included bubble charts that describe important commodities and their respective contributions to South Africa’s trade market. The below data represents the 2017 trade year for South Africa.

Notable exports include gold, platinum, diamonds, crude, coal & petroleum. Notable imports include fuel, electronics & vehicle components.

South African Exports by Commodity:

South African Imports by Commodity:

2018 and Beyond

South Africa’s net trade balance for 2018 was recorded at R2.6 billion surplus. Generally, the final few months of the year result in a trade surplus. However, with a weakened Rand, we expect exports to increase faster than imports as the year comes to a close.

Should South Africa wish to take advantage of its trade position & unique geographical location, it should focus on increasing exports into the rest of Africa and limiting imports from Asia & the Eurozone where possible. Being a resource-rich nation with a high unemployment rate, South Africa is well poised to leverage this position in the trade market in its own favour.

The current year-to-date trade surplus with the rest of Africa sits at R117 billion, with a large uptick in trade required to surpass the record high of R197 billion set last year. We will continue to update the above data as the year goes on and will report on the status of South African trade on a monthly basis.

For more information on South Africa’s trade statistics, please feel free to visit the Merchandise Trade statistics page hosted by SARS.

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