Post-Invictus: South Africa’s Greatest Soccer Moment

JOHANNESBURG, Feb. 1 1996 (The New York Times)— In the first month of 1996 in South Africa, a four-year drought has been declared over, Luciano Pavarotti and Louis Farrakhan have come and gone, there was a massacre of job seekers outside a factory and the Truth Commission geared up to investigate years of crimes committed in the name of apartheid.

But who knew? All one has been hearing for weeks is: Bafana Bafana!

In early 1996, as the above quote emphasizes, it was South Africa’s Bafana Bafana soccer team—not its rugby ‘Springboks’—that captured South Africa’s imagination.  Yet, in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup, the American media has constructed a history implying that the most important sports moment in South African history was their victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  This construction is thanks largely to Clint Eastwood’s rendition of those events in Invictus (which was released in DVD last week, ensuring further pre-World Cup attention), though ESPN has also chimed in with a documentary entitled The 16th Man.  I prefer the ESPN documentary because it includes some genuine South African voices, but I also find it fascinating that in the hype around that Rugby World Cup the media seems to be missing a somewhat analogous soccer moment that came about seven months “post-Invictus:” South Africa’s victory in the 1996 African Cup of Nations.

Soccer City from

I took my first trip to Africa later that year, starting a two year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, and during my time there I heard much about the Cup of Nations victory but nothing about rugby.  In that part of the continent, where South Africa was a promised land for everyone from prospective soccer players to laborers looking for decent wage, everybody seemed to know players such as Lucas Radebe and Mark Fish from the racially diverse soccer team.  But as far as I can remember no one ever mentioned François Pienaar or his almost exclusively white Rugby teammates (the one mixed race player on the Rugby team was Chester Williams—who, contrary to the happy story in Invictus, claimed he was often the target of racial abuse in his rugby career).  The Bafana Bafana team that lifted the 1996 African Nations Cup was legend; the 1995 Springboks team that has become the Hollywood face of South African sports was anonymous.

So why has the Rugby team gotten all the attention?  Certainly some of it is the difference between a “World Cup” and an African Nations Cup—though one could argue that the number of countries passionate about Rugby is fewer than the number of African nations passionate about soccer.  And some of it is the fact that the Springbok rugby victory was indeed of massive symbolic importance—it was a crucial early test of whether Nelson Mandela’s South Africa would integrate or ostracize the minority white population.  But some of it may also be about the complicated dynamics of sport, race, and power that make it easy to write off African soccer as simple, meaningless beyond the cliché of barefoot boys joyously chasing a ball of rags.

Yet the story of the 1996 African Nations Cup is anything but simple.  In fact, it seems to me a story that, like the Rugby World Cup before it, deserves books and movies to be made.  But in the meantime I’ve followed up my long ago memories of Bafana Bafana’s glory days by tracking down as many accounts as I could find from a distance.  There is much detail to be filled in, but there is also the outline of a great soccer story.

The Hosting

Commemorative stamps from the 1996 African Cup of Nations

South Africa was not originally supposed to host the 1996 African Cup of Nations.  The tournament had first been awarded to Kenya, but in 1995 the the Kenyans withdrew for financial reasons and the Confederation of African Football (CAF) proclaimed that the tournament was being moved.  While it may have been true that Kenya was behind schedule to host the newly expanded tournament (the 1996 tournament was the first with 16, rather than 12, teams at the finals), that was not the only thing going on: in the mid-1990’s it was becoming clear that FIFA wanted to eventually host a World Cup in Africa and CAF wanted to put what it considered the best option on display.  As Italian journalist Filippo Maria Ricci explains in his book on African football:

“It was urgently necessary to show the world that Africa was capable of organising a World Cup and, as far as the organisation of major events is concerned, for the rest of the world Africa could only mean South Africa – a country of big hotels, golf courses, wine, safaris and clean, well-appointed beaches.  Seen from the north, it seemed to be the least African country in Africa, hence the most reassuring, the best organized, the best prepared, the closest to western standards.”

Ricci goes on to explain that the 1996 tournament was not, in fact, particularly well organized—he even notes that “the tournament was to be organized much better in Burkina Faso two years later.”  And the attendance figures from the 1996 Cup of Nations bear that out.  While the South Africa games were all well-attended (averaging around 80,000 for 6 games), the other 21 games in the tournament only averaged 3900 (including a reported attendance of 180 in Port Elizabeth for Algeria v Burkina Faso and 200 in Bloemfontein for Zambia v Sierra Leone).  The confusing relationship between South Africans and soccer tickets was showing its face.  As Rob Hughes wrote in the middle of the tournament:

“Alas, apart from the sights and sounds of criminal violence in Johannesburg, the football itself reminds us that racism dies hard. Apart from Soccer City, the vast stadium near Soweto, the games have been played to almost empty houses in rugby strongholds. The blacks cannot afford the prices or the time off work, the whites show little inclination to explore football, the township game, or to reciprocate the goodwill that the blacks afforded their sport at the rugby union World Cup last summer.  The loss is theirs.” (from The Times of January 30th, 1996)

In their defense, the organizers did also have to deal with the mess of a continental political spat that was well beyond their control.  Nigeria was the defending Africa Cup of Nations champion, coming off a year in 2004 that saw them reach what I believe to be the highest ever FIFA ranking for an African national team (at number 5 in the world).  Unfortunately, the nation of Nigeria at the time was being led by a shady military regime with Sani Abacha, among the most corrupt leaders in recent world history, at its head.   Dealing with the Nigerian regime was one of Mandela’s first serious international challenges after becoming the president of South Africa in 1994.  Immediately considered the elder statesman of African politics, and grateful for the long-time support Nigeria had provided his African National Congress in exile, Mandela initially tried to address Nigeria diplomatically.  But when the Nigerian government, in cahoots with Shell Oil, proceeded to execute Ken Saro Wiwa and eight Ogoni activists in November of 1995, Mandela had to confront one of his first public failures.  The political honeymoon was over.

Mandela acted quickly to sanction Nigeria, including having them kicked out of the Commonwealth, and Nigeria responded by pulling its national team out of the 1996 Cup of Nations shortly before the tournament was scheduled to begin.  Officially Nigeria would be punished by CAF with suspension from the 1998 Cup of Nations, but the ‘Super Eagles’ proceeded to win the gold medal in soccer at the 1996 Olympic Games and were allowed to co-host the 2000 tournament with Ghana.  The South African organizers, on the other hand, were left scrambling—tentatively considering a last-minute replacement, but instead proceeding with 15 teams.

From that point on, however, what Ricci calls “Madiba’s Magic” started to again rear its lovely head.  South Africa was on one of the all time great sports streaks—even after the 1995 Rugby World Cup victory and during the political machinations with Nigeria, the South African cricket team had achieved a historic victory over England that solidified Mandela’s claim to symbolic inclusion.  So now all that was left was the most popular sport in the country as a whole: soccer.

The Games

South Africa’s Bafana Bafana was in a tough group in the 1996 African Cup of Nations, opening with Cameroon to be followed by Angola and Egypt.  That first game against an always dangerous Cameroon side, which was complete with a halftime appearance by the recently crowned rugby team, would be critical.   And to the delight of 80,000 fans in Soccer City (which in its refurbished form will host both the opening match and the final of the 2010 World Cup) Bafana Bafana thumped Cameroon 3-0.  As Mark Gleeson wrote in the January 14th, 1996 Observer:

“It was a sporting event every bit as loaded with emotion and significance as was that unforgettable rugby World Cup final victory at Ellis Park last year, when Nelson Mandela cried with joy, and the world did too.  This was black Africa’s game of choice, though, and it was at Soccer City, the gloriously futuristic name given to a stadium built from a huge hole in the ground on the edge of Johannesburg.  The victory over Cameroon – twice winners of the tournament – also represented the biggest winning margin for South Africa in 34 internationals since their return from the wilderness three years ago, and it left the crowd of 70,000 every bit as satisfied as their rugby counterparts had been last June.”

South Africa’s other group games were less impressive.  They took a 1-0 squeaker over Angola and a 1-0 loss to Egypt, but had shown enough in that first game to generate enthusiasm amongst the locals and to advance from the group for a quarterfinal match-up with Algeria.  In that quarterfinal game, in the midst of rain storms and ominous signs against an Algeria team with eight players fasting for Ramadan, South Africa got a scrappy goal from center back Mark Fish in the 71st minute, allowed an equalizer in the 84th, but responded with a John ‘Shoes’ Moshoeu goal one minute later to advance.  The whole thing prompted Ian Hawkey writing for The Sunday Times (January 28th, 1996) to state:

“Another cup and a real-life fairy tale. South Africa, hosts and debutants at the African Cup of Nations, made stirring progress into the semi-finals yesterday.  There they are likely to meet their match in the shape of Ghana. For a team so fresh to international football after three decades of isolation, they have surpassed the expectations even of a country that demands so much of its sport.”

But Hawkey was underestimating the hosts.  Ghana was indeed a fearsome opponent—led by players such as Tony Yeboah and Abedi Pele, the Black Stars were the top ranked team in the tournament.  But Pele was suspended for the semi due to card accumulation, and South Africa seemed to be on the wings of destiny: ‘Shoes’ scored early, Shaun Bartlett  scored to open the second half, and ‘Shoes’ scored again in the late going to seal a 3-0 thumping.

In the other semi-final Tunisia had snuck past Zambia (playing an inspired tournament in tribute to the infamous plane crash that had decimated their team in 1993), but by this point South Africa’s triumph seemed pre-ordained.  It was one of the rare occasions in South African soccer where game tickets were being gobbled up in advance at suburban shopping malls—the usual crowd was more improvisational.  But by this point the whole country was on board: according to a February 1996 New York Times report, even “the leading Afrikaans-language newspaper, Beeld, had a huge picture of a soccer game on its front page. More amazingly, the headline was in Zulu: “Yebo Bafana Bafana!” (“Yebo,” pronounced “YAY-boh,” means “yeah.”)”  Likewise, on the day of the final the Irish Times describes a situation where,

“Having paid little attention to the team’s progress through the early rounds of the competition, cricket and rugby loving white South Africans suddenly decided that soccer was no longer ‘a black game.’

Tickets for today’s final against Tunisia sold out in a few hours on Thursday morning as white suburbanites joined the long queues at computer booking offices: none of the previous games attracted a full house.

Contributing to all the interest is the belated realisation that the soccer team is much more representative of South Africa than its World Cup winning rugby squad or the cricket team which recently thrashed England.

While the rugby and cricket teams could only muster one coloured mixed race player – apiece, South Africa’s first XI includes three whites and three coloureds. Its manager, Clive Barker, is a white South African, while the darlings of the black fans who flock to Soccer City on the edge of Soweto are ‘Shooooes’ and ‘Feeesh’ black midfielder John Moshoeu and white defender Mark Fish.

‘It’s good for solidarity and for national pride,’ said Brenda Goldblatt, a white bar owner and television producer. ‘It’s great that they’re winning because then there would have been a terrible imbalance. Whites would say that the blacks couldn’t deliver.’”

As that final quote suggests, despite the 1996 Bafana Bafana team representing a wide cross-section of South Africa, it was still framed as a “black” team—albeit one with some optimistic support from the white population.  But in the final against Tunisia it was a mixed race player named Mark Williams—identified under apartheid as ‘coloured’—who came through with two late goals after a tense contest.  South Africa became the first, and to this day only, continental champion from southern Africa.

Tovey and Mandela celebrating the African Cup of Nations

Then, after the final whistle had blown, it was the team’s white captain, Neil Tovey, who famously accepted the trophy from Nelson Mandela and set off a huge, peaceful, and proud celebration across the nation.  If the Rugby championship was South Africa’s most iconic sports victory, the 1996 Cup of Nations may have been its most accurate in truly representing the country—and it was arguably the most important.  As The Economist noted in a February 10th, 1996 brief titled “Bafana Bafana and the birth of a nation”:

“Forget rugby. South Africa’s triumph over the world in that game last year may have rescued the pride of 5m whites, but for 31m blacks nothing matched the jubilation on February 3rd when “Bafana Bafana”–the boys, the national soccer team–won the African Nations’ Cup. Yet not only blacks: a nation in the making rejoiced with them.

Nelson Mandela has used sport to define South Africans’ sense of themselves, as he struggles to pull umpteen tongues, groups and faiths into one. Rugby almost did it: blacks, surprised at themselves, swung behind that Afrikaner secular religion. Victory over England at cricket, with a lone non-white player, helped. But it is the soccer victory that has truly spanned the ethnic divide–and President Mandela, Deputy-President F.W. de Klerk and King Goodwill Zwelithini, Xhosa, Afrikaner and Zulu, were all in the stadium to prove it.”

The Legacies

Sadly, some of the unity and goodwill from 1996 seems to have faded—along with the fortunes of Bafana Bafana.  The recent book Africa United (which is well worth reading), for example, offers a contemporary perspective from a (white) South African academic: “Local soccer is not something racial minorities get terribly excited about.  Black sports fans have a point when they say the whites should care more about Bafana Bafana.  They joyously rallied around teams with two or three black guys.  When we won the African Nations [in 1996], I was one of maybe ten white people in the stadium.”

But from every news account I read, this memory of being one of “maybe ten white people” at that 1996 final is almost certainly not true: most newspaper accounts from the time identify thousands of whites who made for an enthusiastic minority in Soccer City for the South Africa v Tunisia game.  The (at least partially) erroneous suggestion that white South Africa did not support Bafana Bafana in 1996 is, I suspect, a product of the vagaries of memory and the short-cut we often take in defining South African soccer as only a “black” sport.

The reality is that soccer has a rich and interesting history across ethnic groups in South Africa—at points during apartheid there were top-level leagues for both white and black teams, and soccer became an integrated sport well before Mandela became president in 1994 (albeit with a complicated politics of its own).  Where else did the players on that 1996 team come from?  Neil Tovey, according to Ian Hawkey in Feet of the Chameleon, had even earned the nickname ‘Codesa’ as “shorthand for diplomacy, it was the acronym for the Council for a Democratic South Africa, for the talks going on between the National Party, the ANC and others about the future of the nation.”

Likewise, (white) hard-man midfielder Eric Tinkler was briefly known as “Mandela.”  As the New York Times described after the final game:

“Every time Eric Tinkler, a blond with a crew cut, got the ball, the crowd screamed out the new nickname he’s earned: ‘Mandela!’

Mandela? You’ve got to be kidding. How did that happen?

‘Because he’s our hero,’ said Reggie Madlabane, who was cheering Tinkler on from high up in the bleachers. ‘He can really drive the ball home.’

And when Tinkler lined up to boot a penalty kick, the crowd sang a war song. The words, in Zulu, used to be a taunt at whites: ‘The spear of the Nation is coming. Better watch out.’ This time, it was ‘Tinkler’s coming. Better watch out.’”

A few years after 1996 Bafana Bafana stayed multi-racial

Though you wouldn’t know it by the over-simplified reporting around the coming World Cup defining soccer in South Africa as a “black” sport, South Africa’s Premier Soccer League still has a small but reasonable representation of white and mixed race players (who are, after all, a minority in the country as a whole)—but overall it is true that Bafana Bafana’s glory days are in the past.  After that 1996 Nations Cup, the team made a respectable showing at the 1998 World Cup and qualified again in 2002, but it’s more recent struggles have been well-documented: there is great national angst about whether the team can avoid the embarrassment of being the first host country to not advance from its World Cup group.  Some have even suggested that Bafana Bafana’s early success so soon after their re-admittance to FIFA competitions may have made them complacent—there was little sense of urgency towards creating an effective player development system for the future.

Whatever the current status of Bafana Bafana, however, that 1996 version offers an important South African story that may better represent their distinctive mix of sports, race, culture, and politics than Invictus.  In fact, in researching for this article I stumbled across the fact that the Hollywood version of the 1995 Rugby triumph—while reasonably accurate despite whatever cinematic failings—did take liberties with its source of poetic inspiration.  It is true, apparently, that Mandela kept a copy of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus with him during his long isolation, and took solace in the famous words: “It matters not how strait the gate, / How charged with punishments the scroll, / I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul.”  But it is apparently not true that he gave that particular poem to South African rugby captain François Pienaar.

Instead, Mandela is reputed to have sent Pineear words that may in fact be more appropriate to this first ever African World Cup—the words of Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘Man in the Arena’ speech:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Those words seem more true to my memory of southern Africa in 1996: there was a widespread sense that what South Africa represented was a noble, risky, inevitable experiment led by people of immense talent, deep scars, human flaws, and much hopefulness.  And a sense that Bafana Bafana and their 1996 African Nations Cup triumph, rather than the Springboks Rugby victory, were the most important (if not the most iconic) emblem of that reality.

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