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Black History Month: From apartheid to AFCON champion

South Africa rebooted its national team after being suspended from competition and thrown out of FIFA due to apartheid. They came back to unite and win their continental championship.

African Cup of Nations Final Photo by Gallo Images/Getty Images

The 1996 Africa Cup of Nations was the first continental title to be hosted by the nation of South Africa. It served as a chance for Bafana Bafana, South Africa’s national team, to show the continent and the world that they were back. What they were coming back from was a crippling system that saw them removed from the football world for several decades. That system was apartheid.

Apartheid was the system that institutionalized segregation between whites and blacks in South Africa from the late 1940s until the early 1990s. The minority white citizens of the country were placed in the highest class of status, while blacks were placed at the bottom of the status system. Blacks were economically, politically, and socially excluded from most aspects of South African society, and that included sports. While soccer was considered the sport for black South Africans, the country prohibited mixed teams from representing their country as a national team. They opted instead to promote their all-white soccer federation and teams.

In 1953, South Africa won representation on the FIFA executive committee and, along with Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan, formed the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in 1956. However, when the confederation planned its first Cup of Nations in 1957, South Africa realized that due to apartheid, they could only send an all-black or all-white team to the tournament. The rest of CAF rejected that decision and expelled South Africa from the first African Cup of Nations.

In 1958, South Africa was expelled from CAF, but that same year the white federation of South Africa was admitted to FIFA. However, in 1960 they were given an ultimatum: end discrimination with their national teams or risk suspension. It was not done, with then-FA president Sir Stanley Rous saying they would not end the apartheid policies that governed their federation. FIFA officially suspended South Africa in 1961. That suspension was lifted temporarily in 1963, but was then reinstated by the FIFA congress in 1964. At that point, the federation was essentially discontinued, but technically remained open for business. FIFA expelled South Africa from its organization in 1976 after the brutal deaths in the Soweto uprising.

For the next 15 years, South Africa didn’t have a national team and didn’t have a federation. The demonizing policies of apartheid ruled the country until the system began to be torn down in 1990. In 1991, a new federation was created, where all races were represented and allowed to play on their national teams. After essentially 30 years of suspension and 15 years of expulsion, South Africa was welcomed back into FIFA’s membership.

After that, South Africa was eligible to qualify for World Cups and play in African Cups of Nations. While they didn’t qualify for the 1994 World Cup or Africa Cup of Nations, they had a big opportunity to show off their new team to the continent when they were selected to replace Kenya as the hosts of the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations. They would announce their return in a big way. The tournament was first to be expanded to 16 teams, though Nigeria’s withdrawal from the tournament reduced that number to 15. Still, South Africa wanted to show that they were back on the world stage. Drawn into a group with Egypt, powerhouse Cameroon, and Angola, things weren’t looking up for Bafana Bafana.

They came out the gates in a big way, smashing Cameroon 3-0 in the opening match. They followed that up with a 1-0 win over Angola. Even with a 1-0 loss to Egypt in the final match of the group stage, a 3-3 draw between Angola and Cameroon meant that South Africa would advance as the group winners to the knockout stage.

Playing in front of their home fans at their home stadium of FNB Stadium (also known as Soccer City during the 2010 World Cup) the whole tournament, Bafana Bafana used that to their advantage. In the quarterfinals, they took out Algeria 2-1 with a late goal by John “Shoes” Moshoeu. That set up a semifinal date with another African powerhouse in Ghana. South Africa dominated the match from start to finish. Two goals from Shoes Moshoeu and another goal by Shaun Bartlett gave Bafana Bafana a 3-0 victory and the chance to host the final against Tunisia.

The final was set at FNB Stadium in front of a capacity crowd of 80,000, including president Nelson Mandela, who was a former political prisoner of apartheid that famously spent 27 years in jail before being released in 1990 and was adored the world over. Bafana Bafana wasn’t going to lose, not after the Springboks (South Africa’s rugby team) had just won the Rugby World Cup at home a year earlier.

The match between South Africa and Tunisia was tight for the entire first half and well into the second half, until Mark Williams would break the deadlock in the 75th minute. 2 minutes later, Williams added the dagger, and Tunisia had no response. The final whistle blew and South Africa were 2-0 victors and champions of Africa. They had done it. After over 40 years of apartheid and 30 years of having soccer go dark in the country, South Africa was on top. it was their first championship, and it earned them a spot in the 1997 Confederations Cup, where they would finish in 4th.

The 1996 Africa Cup of Nations triumph was a major accomplishment for Bafana Bafana, and it was their way of signaling to the world that they were back and ready to compete. While the residual effects of apartheid still linger in South Africa, the system has long since been dismantled. It was a huge black eye on the nation, but for one day, Bafana Bafana gave their country something they could be proud of when they hoisted the Cup of Nations trophy as continental champions.

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For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.