South Africa posted its biggest trade surplus in four years in December as factories cut back on imports of machinery and equipment during the year-end holiday period.

The trade surplus widened to 8.2 billion rand ($0.5 billion) from revised 0.7 billion rand in November, the Pretoria-based South African Revenue Service said in an e-mailed statement on Friday. The median of 13 economist estimates compiled by Bloomberg was for a surplus of 4.9 billion rand.

“December usually delivers a surplus largely driven by the seasonal slump in imports, ” Carmen Nel, an economist at FirstRand Ltd.’s Rand Merchant Bank unit, said by phone from Cape Town before the data was released. “Some of it relates to the slowdown in domestic demand, which should curtail imports, and also the lag impact of the lower oil price.”

Imports plunged by 13 percent to 80.6 billion rand in the month, led by a 16 percent drop in machinery purchases and 35 percent decline in equipment components. Exports fell by 5.1 percent to 88.8 billion rand, mainly due to a 28 percent plunge in vehicle shipments.

The improvement in the trade figures may be short-lived. Reserve Bank Governor Lesetja Kganyago said on Thursday the deficit on the current account, the broadest measure of trade in goods and services, may widen as commodity prices fall and food imports climb because of drought. The deficit widened to 4.1 percent of gross domestic product in the three months through September.

“The financing of the deficit will also be more challenging in an environment of persistent capital outflows from emerging markets,” Kganyago said.

The rand rose 0.6 percent to 16.1018 per dollar as of 2:09 p.m. in Johannesburg, taking its decline this year to 3.9 percent.

The monthly trade figures are often volatile, reflecting the timing of shipments of commodities such as oil and diamonds.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE