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South Africa dropped six places to 35th in the "ease of doing business" ranking compiled annually by the World Bank.
South Africa still makes it into the top fifth of the 178 economies surveyed, but the country has been overtaken by Mauritius as the highest ranked African country.
World Bank private sector specialist Bernard Drum said: "This does not mean that South Africa is any worse off. It just means that other countries are implementing reforms at a faster pace."
Countries are measured against 10 criteria which are purely regulatory and do not include infrastructure, proximity to markets or crime and security.
The criteria in which South Africa scores worst is cross border trade, where the red tape and delays faced by importers and exporters push the country near the bottom to 134th spot.
For investor protection, South Africa is rated ninth best in the world.
The National Credit Act helped the country improve its ranking by six places in the "getting credit" category and it also improved its "starting a business" rating.
But regulations for registering property and paying taxes got more onerous during the year, said the World Bank
"Thanks to reforms of business regulations, more businesses are starting up," said the report. "Countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union reformed the most in the period, along with a large group of emerging markets."
There have been 413 regulatory reforms worldwide since the beginning of the report in 2003 - making it easier to start businesses.
However, changes in labour legislation were the slowest to implement, according to the report.
The full report can be found at www.doingbusiness.org.