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South Africa Posts Trade Surplus as Exports Climb

South Africa posted an unexpected trade surplus in September after iron-ore shipments resumed following a rail accident, boosting exports.

The surplus of 3.6 billion rand ($516 million) followed a deficit of 4.7 billion rand in August, the South African Revenue Service said in an e-mailed statement today. The median estimate of 10 economists surveyed by Bloomberg was for a shortfall of 2.3 billion rand.

South Africa may return to trade deficits as the rand’s 9 percent gain against the dollar since June 1 curbs export growth and an economic recovery fuels imports, said Kevin Lings, an economist at Stanlib Asset Management in Johannesburg.

“Exports are likely to struggle to accelerate significantly into 2011, given the still-strong rand,” Lings said in an e-mailed note to clients. “The trade balance could be under some pressure over the coming 12 to 24 months.”

The rand was at 6.9612 against the dollar as of 3:11 p.m. in Johannesburg from 6.9883 before the data was released.

Iron-ore exports increased last month after Transnet Ltd., the state-owned port and rail operator, reopened its Sishen-Saldanha railroad on July 28 following a derailment that forced a six-day shutdown. Exports of mineral products, which include coal and iron ore, surged 27 percent, or 2.6 billion rand, in September as companies caught up with the backlog, the revenue service said.

Derailment Losses

The 861-kilometer (535-mile) railway carries about 34 million metric tons of iron-ore exports a year from mines near Sishen in the Northern Cape to the port at Saldanha in the Western Cape, according to Transnet.

Total exports rose 9.6 percent to 53.2 billion rand in September from the previous month, boosted also by a 21 percent increase in precious-metal exports, the revenue service said. Imports declined 6.9 percent to 49.5 billion rand, mainly due to a 35 percent slump in vehicle and aircraft purchases.

Rising export demand helped limit South Africa’s trade deficit to 9.5 billion rand in the first nine months of the year, almost half the 18.5 billion rand shortfall posted in the same period last year, according to the revenue service.

That may help to narrow the deficit in the current account, the broadest measure of trade in goods and services, which reached 2.5 percent of gross domestic product in the second quarter, the lowest level in more than six years. The smaller current-account gap has helped to underpin the rand.

South African Trade figures are often volatile, reflecting the timing of shipments of commodities such as oil and diamonds.

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