South Africa has reversed a slide in international competitiveness and inched up from last year's 53rd place to 48th, behind Turkey, Mexico and Hungary.
The Swiss-based International Institute for Management Development's (IMD) annual competitiveness year book ranks 57 countries on the basis of hard numbers and investor perceptions.
The United States retained its top ranking ahead of free-market bastions Hong Kong, Singapore and Switzerland, but SA overtook countries including Russia, Italy, Greece and Argentina to edge back into the top 50.
The ranking is based on 329 criteria, of which two thirds are hard data and the rest surveyed perceptions. It lists South Africa's top challenges as:
l Protecting the poor;
l Building capacity for long-term growth by accelerating investment spending;
l Sustaining employment growth and expanding training opportunities;
l Addressing sectorial barriers to growth and investment; and
l Maintaining a sustainable debt level.
SA ranks among the top five countries on issues including electricity price and supply, systemic financial risk and tax compliancy and at or near the bottom on unemployment, labour market rigidity, personal security and exchange rate stability.
In the IMD's parallel stress test, which measures vulnerability and was also released this week, Denmark comes out tops and the US crashes to 28th place.
This is way below European and Asian giants as well as China, Israel and even Kazakhstan. SA is ranked at position 45th.
The stress test measures 20 criteria ranging from economic forecasts to existing corporate values and perceptions of political stability to predict a country's ability to capitalise on improving conditions.
"The stress test shows that smaller nations, which are export-oriented, resilient and with stable socio-political environments, are better equipped to benefit immediately from the recovery," the IMD said in an analysis of the results.
IMD executive director Stephane Garelli said the US would lead the global recovery, but cautioned that inflation would pose a renewed threat as soon as markets begin to work again.