Global trade has operated within a rules-based framework, with at its pinnacle the 164-membership World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) multilateral trading system, established in 1994. It creates space for developed and developing countries alike to participate in negotiating binding and enforceable rules, and remains in the interest of small, open economies. Many countries, including South Africa with its open economy, have accepted that a multilateral rules-based system is desirable.
South Africa’s trade negotiations are conducted alongside the country’s partners in the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), comprising Botswana, eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), Lesotho, and Namibia, following the renewed SACU Agreement in 2004 that requires SACU to negotiate all trade agreements as a bloc. Access to global markets has been enhanced through bilateral agreements with most of South Africa’s major trading partners. SACU, at present, enjoys free trade agreements (FTAs) with the 27-country European Union, the UK as well as the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) comprising Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. SACU is also part of the 15-country Southern African Development Community (SADC) free trade area, has a preferential trade agreement (PTA) with Mercosur, comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela, while South Africa also enjoys duty-free and quota free entry into the US market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a unilateral trade preference programme.
As an export-oriented industry, it remains essential for the domestic automotive industry to continue diversifying risk by pursuing wider geographical exposure to mitigate the impact of country or regional cyclical economic conditions. Following a strong rebound from the severely COVID-19 affected 2020, the export value of vehicles and automotive components rebounded strongly by R31,8 billion, or 18,1%, from the R175,7 billion in 2020 to a record R207,5 billion in 2021, comprising 12,5% of total South African exports. Vehicle exports increased by 26 733 units to 298 020 units in 2021, from the 271 287 vehicles exported in 2020, while the export value increased by R17,1 billion from the R121,2 billion in 2020 to R138,3 billion in 2021. Automotive component exports reflected an increase of R14,7 billion to a record R69,2 billion in 2021, from the R54,5 billion in 2020. The domestic automotive industry’s export destinations increased to 152 countries in 2021 from the 147 destinations in 2020, with the export value doubling from 2020 to 2021 in the case of 32 of these countries.