In 2007 for the first time in its 103-year history, FIFA conferred honorary membership to a football association. This was quite a unique event, given that the said association had existed for just a handful of years from 1966 to 1973 and had not organized any football matches for decades. And yet, the decision made sense, for Makana Football Association ran arguably the most unique league in the history of the beautiful game.

Named after a warrior prophet of Xhosa, a Southern African ethnic group, Makana FA at its brightest avatar ran three leagues with participation from nine teams. Extraordinarily, it was formed by political prisoners in Robben Island, South Africa’s notorious prison that housed hundreds of inmates during apartheid.

Makana FA included a number of faces who would become important figures in post Apartheid South Africa – Steve Tshwete, Dikgang Moseneke and Tokyo Sexwale. Future President Jacob Zuma played the role of both footballer and a referee. The prison’s most famous figure, Nelson Mandela, watched these matches from his solitary confinement before authorities built a wall to block his view.

Makana FA’s football league was not just a mode of entertainment – it was a device to earn respect while living in dehumanizing conditions. The league was organized following every rule in the book, literally – the FIFA rule book was one of Robben Island prison library’s most sought after books. Coaches wrote formal letters to fellow inmate coaches and invited them for fixtures. There was a disciplinary committee to enforce rules on players and league stats were maintained.

Released in 2007, “More than Just a Game” documented their incredible story through the perspective of five political prisoners. Anthony Suze, one of the five, summed it up profoundly, “It is amazing to think a game that people take for granted all around the world was the very same game that gave a group of prisoners sanity and in a way glorified us”.

Robben Island was thousands of miles away from Liverpool but perhaps in that corner of South Africa did the famous Bill Shankly adage of life, death and football find its greatest example.

It was fitting that football made such a difference in the lives of Robben Island inmates. After all, it was the beautiful game that managed to wriggle its way around racial discrimination of the apartheid regime and usher in some semblance of equality in a society torn apart on skin colour. “The game did its best to get around apartheid’s mad science”, writes Ian Hawkey in his seminal book on African football, “Feet of the Chameleon”.

From the mid-1960s to early-1970s, South Africa’s insistence of disallowing racially integrated teams saw them face one sporting ban after another. FIFA first suspended South Africa in 1963. New FIFA President, Stanley Rous, then made an attempt to renegotiate, leading to a ridiculous proposal from South African authorities to enter an all-white team for 1966 World Cup qualifiers and an all-black team for the edition that followed.

Robben Island

The domestic scenario was more complex. Hawkey refers in his book a 1961 incident where two white men, five “coloured” men, and two Indians were persecuted by the state for playing football together in the same team. There were different leagues for white and black clubs. Though the latter often suffered from state-backed non-cooperation, it was definitely more popular and drew bigger crowds.

With international pressure mounting, South African authorities tried to leverage football in their own twisted way to improve the regime’s image. This led to the bizarre South African Soccer Games tournament of 1973 where four teams competed – SA Whites, SA Blacks, SA Coloureds, and SA Indians.

In 1976, the Sports Ministry softened their stance bowing to football’s popular and therefore, financial appeal. Arcadia Shepherds, an all-white team fielded Vincent Julius, a non-white player. That same year saw black and white South African players play side by side for an “international” fixture against a touring Argentine squad. South Africa won 5-0 thanks to a hattrick from Jomo Sono, who would become the country’s best footballer in that era.

The wheel may have started to turn for football but the lives of ordinary South Africans were still in disarray. Few months after that football match came the bloody Soweto uprising, which would result in 176 deaths, 700 by unofficial estimates. This was followed by a formal FIFA expulsion.

Football’s mass appeal drew the regime’s opposition as well. With political meetings banned, African National Congress (ANC) leaders often used the crowd cover of football matches. Football was an effective medium to raise funds and football teams were a convenient mode for leaders to cross international borders.

A number of the white NFL clubs and black NPSL clubs united to form a league which bypassed colour restrictions in 1978. The late ‘70s saw another glass ceiling being shattered when Orlando Pirates signed white players Keith Broad and Phil Venter.

As the country descended into violent chaos in the 1980s, football fields too were embroiled in it. Banned ANC flags could be seen in football grounds, perhaps similar to cases of Basque flags being hoisted during Franco regime.

On 23 March 1991, four separate organizations amalgamated to form the South African Football Association. At that time apartheid was still alive. Yet, the first meeting of SAFA spawned a defiant statement, “It was only natural that the game finally is united as the sport of football had long led the way into breaking the tight grip of racial oppression, written into South Africa’s laws by its successive apartheid governments”.

SAFA officials would receive a standing ovation in 1992 Congress of the Confederation of African Football. South Africa was readmitted to CAF and they were soon back into the folds of FIFA. On 7 July 1992, the first non-racial official South African team played an international match against Cameroon in Durban. They won 1-0 thanks to a penalty from Theophilus “Doctor” Khumalo. South African football’s international isolation was finally at an end.

The initial euphoria soon faded as South Africa gradually woke up to the harsh realities of a long hibernation. They failed to qualify for 1994 African Cup of Nations and suffered the same fate during the 1994 World Cup qualifiers after a damning 4-0 defeat at the hands of Nigeria. That loss, along with further foul goal reversals against Mexico and Zimbabwe even earned the Bafana Bafana a derisive nickname of “Four by Fours”.

In 1994, Clive Barker took over the reins of South Africa and began a remarkable turnaround. Barker had over two decades of coaching experience in South Africa and put that to good use, uniting a squad which was often torn apart by club rivalries. Tactically, he didn’t do anything revolutionary, persisting with a tried and tested 4-4-2 formation.

Clive Barker

During the 1994 Cup of African Nations, Barker claimed in an interview with African Soccer magazine that he expected South Africa to win the 1996 edition and qualify for 1998 World Cup. His statement was met with ridicule though Bafana Bafana’s improvement was undeniable. In 1995, they held both Argentina and Germany to draws despite respective teams containing a number of star players. There were also encouraging victories against Egypt and Zimbabwe.

Defence was one of Bafana Bafana’s strengths with youngster Mark Fish joining veteran captain Neil Tovey and Lucas Radebe, who was slowly becoming an important player for Leeds United. Fish could operate as a sweeper and his marauding runs would prove to be a trump card for South Africa. At right-back, Sizwe Motaung was not the most technically gifted defender but became irreplaceable for his overlaps and uncompromising defensive style.  

Doctor Khumalo was the brain in midfield – what he lacked in pace was more than made up by his vision and ability to unlock defences with accurate passes. John “Shoes” Moshoeu partnered Khumalo in midfield and was one of the more technically proficient players in the team. He also had a tendency to use his sudden burst of acceleration to ghost into the opponent penalty box in search of goals. South African creative midfielders were ably supported by hardworking runners like Eric Tinkler, Linda Buthelezi, and Helman Mkhalele.

Phil Masinga was unarguably Bafana Bafana’s star striker, having scored an astonishing 121 goals in the domestic circuit between 1990 and 1994. Often partnering him was one of South Africa’s best young strikers – Shaun Bartlett. Mark Williams was contracted to Wolverhampton Wanderers where coach Graham Taylor had offered him a new contract to prevent him from joining the national team at a crucial juncture of the club calendar. The striker turned the lucrative offer down, choosing his country over club career.  

Barker’s final selection for the 1996 Cup of African Nations contained a mixture of players from South Africa and playing abroad. Orlando Pirates, who in 1995 had become the first South African club to win CAF Champions League, dominated South African contingent while the valuable experience of English club football was injected by Leeds pair of Radebe, Masinga and Wolves’ Williams.

Fittingly, there was drama before the tournament. The 1996 edition was originally scheduled to be held in Kenya. When Kenya failed to meet deadlines it was handed to South Africa, one of the continent’s more prosperous nations. By the time the tournament started, there were diplomatic tensions between Nelson Mandela and Nigeria’s ruthless General Sani Abacha.

Abacha’s constant repression of human rights in Nigeria had led Mandela to bring about a number of international restrictions. Although the official reason cited was security concerns, there was little doubt behind Abacha’s actual motive in withdrawing Super Eagles from the 1996 AFCON.

This suddenly threw the competition wide open. Nigeria, defending champion, was easily the best team in Africa. They had lit up the USA at the 1994 World Cup and would go on to win Olympic gold in 1996. A last-minute scrap failed to register a replacement for Super Eagles and 1996 Africa Cup of Nations eventually began with 15 teams.

On 13 January 1996, South Africa made their debut in Africa Cup of Nations in front of 75,000 home fans. Among the spectators was the nation’s favourite “Madiba” while heroes of the rugby team which had won the World Cup the previous year also made an appearance during half time.

Bafana Bafana’s opponents in opening match of Group A were Cameroon. The Indomitable Lions were a far cry from the team that had made an entire continent dream at Italia 1990. Buoyed by home support, South Africa, playing in a bright gold, white and green jersey, took the lead after 15 minutes when Masinga found himself unmarked at the far post to fire past William Andem. Eight minutes before the break, Bafana Bafana doubled their lead when Williams scored after a melee inside the Cameroonian penalty box.

With a comfortable lead, South Africa played with greater freedom in the second-half, resulting in an absolutely gorgeous third goal in the 55th minute. Moshoue started the move after picking up a pass in midfield. He darted forward in a serpentine run, connecting with Masinga, who completed the one-two with a sublime backheel. Moshoeu suddenly found himself one-on-one with the ‘keeper and he kept his calm, smoothly finishing the move. South Africa couldn’t have asked for a more perfect start than a 3-0 victory.

South Africa x Cameroon

Bafana Bafana’s next opponents were Angola. The civil war-torn nation had lost their first match and there was some discord in the squad with bonus negotiations. South Africa didn’t dominate like their previous match but a second-half goal from Williams was enough to eke out a narrow win.

Egypt proved to be a more difficult proposition for Bafana Bafana in the last group match. The Pharaohs were under the tutelage of Total Football legend, Ruud Krol, and took just seven minutes to take a 1-0 lead when Ahmed El-Kass toe-poked past Andre Arendse after the South African defense had failed to clear a free-kick. The hosts couldn’t find a reply but still qualified as group winners with Angola holding Cameroon to a 3-3 draw.

South Africa were slated to play Algeria on 27 January in Johannesburg for a place in African Cup of Nations quarter-final.

Eighty thousand fans who braved rains to gather at the FNB Stadium were very likely left unimpressed by South Africa’s stuttering start in the quarter-final. They struggled to break down Algeria’s resolute defense and had to rely on hopeful long rangers. One such rasping effort by Masinga forced a sharp save from the Algerian ‘keeper.

The best chance of first half fell to Algerians after a set of defensive mistakes by South Africa. A poor clearance was intercepted in midfield before Algerian legend Bilal Dziri received the ball. With a smart turn, he peeled past his marker and took advantage of a poor offside trap to conjure a chance with only the ‘keeper to beat. However, the South African defense and crowd heaved a collective sigh of relief when Arendse used his size to his advantage to save Dziri’s shot.

Before half-time Bafana Bafana had a golden chance to draw first blood. As he attempted to trap a floated pass Khumalo was dragged down by Tahar Cherif El-Ouazzani. Referee Mohamed Ali Bujsaim waved away a flurry of protests from the Algerian players while pointing to the spot. Khumalo stepped up and aimed for the bottom left corner, only to be thwarted by Aomar Hamened, who had guessed correctly.

The match remained precariously balanced in second-half with both teams finding scoring opportunities. The alertness of South African goalkeeper Arendse kept his team in the game. Bafana Bafana finally had their goal in the 74th minute. A cross from Tinkler from the right wing evaded both South African strikers but was connected by Fish, whose sweeping run from the defence wasn’t tracked by Algerian defenders. The relief was palpable as Fish slid on a wet turf in celebration.

Sixteen minutes were left on the clock and Algeria wasn’t going down without a fight. With Sid Ahmed Zerrouki and Saib Moussa controlling the midfield, they stretched play on both wings, putting considerable pressure on South African full-backs. It paid off on 84th minute when defender Tarek “Baresi” Lazizi towered over South African defense and connected with a Dziri corner to level the scores.

A few seconds later, South Africa reclaimed their precious lead. John Moshoeu unleashed a diagonal shot from just outside the box. The Algerian ‘keeper, perhaps unsighted, was late to react. Moshoeu wheeled away with an entire stadium celebrating with him. Bafana Bafana were pushed to the brink by Algeria and now they were in the AFCON semi-final in their debut.

On paper, South Africa were no match for their semi-final opponents, Ghana. The Black Stars had sailed through a tough group with a perfect record before eking out a single-goal victory over Zaire in the quarter-final. Star strikers Abedi Pele and Tony Yeboah were both in form and had already combined to score five times.

Bafana Bafana, on the other hand, were brimming with confidence after the Algeria scalp. Fortune was also smiling for the home team as Pele was set to miss the last-four clash. Masinga was suspended so Shaun Bartlett started alongside Williams.

South Africa began brightly in front of a buzzing home crowd and pegged back Ghana after early exchanges. However, the first chance fell to Yeboah after an uncharacteristic error from Radebe. Left one-on-one with the ‘keeper to beat, the two-time Bundesliga top-scorer’s shot went narrowly wide.

For a player of his caliber, it was an astounding miss. In the 22nd minute, Khumalo swung in a corner which bounced off Fish. Moshoeu, with his back to the goal, had a split-second to decide his course of action. His response was a beautifully executed overhead kick that bulged the net. To their credit, South Africa didn’t sit back and Williams came within inches of making it 2-0. Radebe was doing a stellar job in shutting out Yeboah, Ghana’s main source of goals.

Just a minute into second-half, Bafana Bafana doubled their lead. A hopeful long punt from defence released Bartlett, who used his pace and strength to hold off his marker before taking a powerful shot. Both teams struck the post once in the rest of the half.

Three minutes before the final whistle, the final nail was driven into Ghana’s coffin. Khumalo and Moshoeu’s telepathic understanding was key as the latter escaped Black Stars’ offside trap to latch on to a defence-splitting pass from the former. Moshoeu’s finish was similar to his goal against Cameroon in the opening match and yet again, he sent the home fans to seventh heaven. For many experts, that 3-0 win over Ghana was South Africa’s best performance of the 1996 AFCON and one of the greatest games ever played by Bafana Bafana.

South Africa 1996

Tunisia, coached by former Polish international Henryk Kasperczak, stood between South Africa and a barely believable AFCON title on debut. In the semi-final, the Carthage Eagles had played perhaps their best match of the tournament, ending Zambia’s fairy tale run with an efficient 4-2 victory.

A 1996 article in The Mail & Guardian previewing the final describes them vividly: “Tunisia are not a great side, but they have an extremely shrewd coach and a group of eager young players who understand the team pattern – tight defence, high work rate in midfield and quick thrusting counter attacks using the full width of the pitch, and the element of surprise provided by midfielders ghosting into the penalty area with well-timed late runs. When all of this works together, as it did against Zambia, it is very effective”.

Zoubeir Baya was the reigning Tunisian footballer of the year as well as their conductor-in-chief, playing an important role behind strikers Adel Sellimi and Mehdi Ben Slimane.

3 February 1996 – a date forever etched into folklore of South African football. The FNB stadium was packed to rafters. South Africans were comforted by the sight of Mandela wearing the same jersey as Bafana Bafana’s captain – a ploy that had worked wonders for the rugby team in 1995.

Under a dazzling sunlit sky, Tunisia and South Africa made a cautious start, like two heavyweight boxers measuring each other up. The first twenty minutes yielded few open chances with both teams heading well wide of the goal. In the 21st minute,  Tunisia conjured the first opening – Ben Slimane picked up a loose ball in his own half and suddenly saw a free corridor in front of him. He powered through like a hurtling freight train, going past two South African defenders and then pulling back a dangerous ball past onrushing Mark Fish. It required a timely intervention from Tinkler to prevent Tunisia from going a goal up.

Spurred by that chance, the Carthage Eagles took control of the match for next few minutes. Baya wasn’t effectively marked and he kept popping up all over the field, linking Tunisian midfield and forward line with quick passes. The South African defence also had considerable problems dealing with the bustle and speed of Ben Slimane.

Seven minutes before half-time, Bafana Bafana had their chance to go ahead. A long pass from Motaung released Moshoeu, who used his speed to escape the Tunisian left-back before floating a cross into the box. Bartlett connected but his header was pushed away by Chokri El Ouaer. The ball then bounced perfectly for Khumalo, who only needed to keep it on target from close range. As the crowd held its breath Khumalo went for power than precision, skying his shot into the heavens.

South Africa came back into the match after that chance, finishing the half strongly with both Masinga and Bartlett coming close to breaking the deadlock.

South Africa continued their domination in second-half, controlling the midfield, while under Baya, was kept under a tight leash to hamper Tunisian attacks. Khumalo strayed more towards the wings and began to find more space. Six minutes into second-half, Masinga threatened the Tunisian goal – his diving header flashing wide.

By this time, South Africa had begun to pump in more crosses into their opponent’s box, trying to take advantage of the aerial weakness of the Tunisian defence. Despite this spell of ascendancy, Bafana Bafana failed to find the net – Bartlett was fairly anonymous while Masinga got into good positions but wasn’t having his best when it came to finishing. In the 64th minute, Clive Barker shuffled his forward line, taking off Masinga for Mark Williams – it was arguably the most important substitution in history of South African football.

In the 73rd minute, Doctor Khumalo stepped up to take a free-kick from just outside the box. He swung in a dangerous ball which was headed on by Mark Fish towards the far post where Eric Tinkler waited like an alert hunter.

In an almost perfect execution of a training ground routine, he headed in, only to see his shot bounce off the post. Motaung followed the loose ball and swung in a short cross which was headed in by Williams. South Africa one, Tunisia nil. The crescendo of celebrations could bring down roof of the stadium – even Mandela sprung from his seat, waving his cap in ecstasy.

The crowd had not even calmed down when 98 seconds later, Khumalo dispossessed Mounir Boukadida and then rolled on a precise pass towards Williams. The Wolves striker followed Khumalo’s pass then connected with his left foot, his grounder kissing the grass twice before nestling into the net. It seemed as if football gods were destined to smile on Mark Williams, a man who had made a great personal sacrifice to represent his country in its first major tournament.

With that second goal, the fight went out of Carthage Eagles. All South Africa had to do was keep calm for the next 15 minutes. The referee blew the long whistle after 93 minutes as Barker and his staff ran on the ground with South African flag fluttering on every corner of the stadium. Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation had finally seed a memorable victory in its most popular sport.

1996 AFCON winners

A beaming Mandela handed over the AFCON trophy to Neil Tovey and in a repeat of the Rugby World Cup victory of 1995, he became one with the squad as it celebrated its triumph.

Crucially for South African football, this victory was not the apex but start of a golden era. On 16 August 1997, a goal from Masinga ensured qualification to the 1998 World Cup, where they would draw two of the three group matches before bowing out. They came agonizingly close to defending the AFCON title in 1998, losing to Egypt in final of a tournament that saw Benni McCarthy explode on the international scene.

The run continued in the 2000 Cup of Nations, when they finished third, before sealing a second World Cup qualification. In 2002, Bafana Bafana won their first World Cup match and came agonizingly close to reaching knock-out stages. Sadly, it was also the end of their golden era. Since 2002, South Africa has qualified for five editions of African Cup of Nations, bowing out in group stages four times.

In 2017, the class of 1996 was inducted into South African Hall of Fame. The triumph of 1996 both on and off the field opened the doors to future World Cup hosting for South Africa.

The magnitude of this achievement was perhaps best captured by Mandela in his post-final banquet speech, “As the tournament unfolded, we experienced something beyond our wildest expectations. The final was breathtaking in its excitement, and it unleashed an outpouring of national pride and joyful unity. And so we are gathered here tonight to celebrate one of South Africa’s most resounding sporting successes. Our National Football Team have made South Africa’s dreams come true against all odds. We pay tribute to you for the determination with which you rose to the challenge and drew on hidden strengths to beat much higher-rated teams. You did our country proud! And you consolidated the place of soccer as South Africa’s most popular sport.”