Three global petroleum companies dumping South Africa 

Three global petroleum giants, BP, Shell, and TotalEnergies, are scaling down their South African operations or have withdrawn from the country.

These exits include parting ways with South African refineries. Total sold its stake in the Natref Refinery last year, while BP and Shell sold the Sapref Refinery for R1 last month. 

This is largely due to South Africa’s economy’s poor performance in the past decade, with growth averaging only 1.1% from 2000 to 2023. 

After Jacob Zuma came to power in 2008, South Africa’s economy lost all the momentum it had gained under Thabo Mbeki. 

Mbeki’s administration managed to post an average annual growth rate of 4.1%, while Zuma’s tenure saw this slip to 1.5%. 

This trend has accelerated under President Ramaphosa despite promises of reform and a substantial economic recovery. 

Standard Bank chief economist Goolam Ballim said that criticism of Ramaphosa may be unfair. Although the president has had a repair job on his hands, he has not acted with the urgency necessary to turn the economy around. 

Many of his policies are the correct remedy for the country’s problems and will resolve its crises, but they are being implemented way too slowly. 

This ‘execution stasis’ can be seen in private companies that lose confidence in the South African economy and refuse to invest in the country. 

Nedbank’s Capital Expenditure Project Listing showed a sharp decline in the value of new investments from private companies in South Africa. 

The value of new projects announced in 2023 was R148.8 billion, down from R259.9 billion in 2022 and R392.7 billion in 2021.

Global oil giants have not been immune to these economic challenges. They have also resorted to cutting back on their operations in the country because it no longer makes economic sense. 

Most of these companies have reviewed their global operations following investor pressure to cut costs amid slowing demand for fossil fuels. 

Unfortunately for South Africa, these reviews showed that their operations are no longer economically viable, necessitating their exit. 

Below is a detailed breakdown of why some oil giants have left, or are planning to leave, South Africa. 


TotalEnergies, Europe’s largest oil company, recently announced plans to give up its licence to drill for oil and gas off the shore of South Africa. 

The French company spent at least R7.4 billion to find significant oil reserves off the cost of South Africa in 2019, with estimates putting the reserves at around 1 billion barrels of hydrocarbons. 

It experienced further successes in 2020, finding even more reserves of lucrative fossil fuels. However, none of its discoveries have progressed to commercial operation. 

TotalEnergies said it doubts whether the discoveries can be economically viable, given the relatively small demand for fossil fuels in South Africa, where the economy is failing to grow. 

One of the project partners – Canadian giant CNR International – has already announced its withdrawal.

TotalEnergies said it would instead focus on reserves found on Namibia’s coast, which would be cheaper to operate and export to global markets. 

The discoveries had the potential to reduce South Africa’s reliance on imported fuels and provide feedstock for PetroSA’s gas-to-liquids plant. 

TotalEnergies’ local unit is also currently reviewing its operations in the country in lieu of global cost-saving measures. 

However, energy expert and professor at UCT, Anton Eberhard, said the reason why the French oil giant wants to leave South Africa is due to problems with local authorities and policymakers.

Eberhard, the company’s statement is ‘polite speak’ because it has not obtained any support from South African authorities to develop these offshore gas resources.

The announcement that it will abandon its plans to develop its discoveries off South Africa’s cost follows its decision to sell its stake in the Natref Refinery. 

The company held an interest of 36.36% in the refinery located in Sasolburg, which has a capacity of 108,500 barrels of oil per day. It is the main supplier of petroleum products to Johannesburg. 

It said this aligns with the company’s strategy to divest non-core assets that are no longer economically viable. 


Shell’s announcement to sell its downstream South African retail, transport, and refining operations was big news, but it had been a long time coming.

As with TotalEnergies, Shell had already declared its intention to review its operations to cut non-core assets from its portfolio. 

While it was initially assumed that Shell wanted out of South Africa due to a disagreement with its BEE partner, the company clarified that it was purely a business decision. 

It had undergone a cost-cutting exercise, which determined that the South African operations were non-core and should be disposed of. 

Shell currently has around 600 forecourts in South Africa, which employ thousands of people. 

The Anglo-Dutch oil giant had also begun selling the process its stake in the South African Petroleum Refinery (Sapref) as it was no longer commercially viable for the company. 

Sapref was jointly owned by Shell and British Petroleum (BP), with both wanting to get rid of the problematic refinery that contributes around 35% of South Africa’s total refinery capacity. 

It was eventually sold to the Central Energy Fund for R1 at the beginning of last month, following floods in 2022, after which it never reopened. 


BPSA has disposed of its jet fuel business in South Africa and sold its stake in the Sapref Refinery.

BP gave similar reasons to Shell for selling its stake in the refinery, saying it was part of global cost-cutting efforts.

“We view this agreement as a positive outcome for BPSA, South Africa’s fuel industry, and the country as a whole, said BP South Africa CEO Taelo Mojapelo.

“Sapref is an important refinery, the largest in Southern Africa, but continued ownership does not fit with BP’s global strategy.”

This sale followed BP’s complete cessation of jet fuel operations in South Africa at the beginning of 2023.

In April 2023, the company warned, “For customers flying in South Africa, please note that over the coming months, we will cease all our operations in the region.”

“Air BP reviews its portfolio continuously as part of good business practice. In light of our latest review, BP decided to exit all of its aviation activities, including operating airports and being a direct supplier to airlines in South Africa.”

From 1 May 2023, BP ceased aviation activities at OR Tambo and King Shaka International Airports, and Sterling cards will no longer be accepted at either of these hubs, along with East London.


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