Will South Africa ever learn to love Bafana Bafana?

South Africa's head coach Hugo Broos (R) and South Africa's staff react during the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) 2024 quarter-final football match between Cape Verde and South Africa at the Stade Charles Konan Banny in Yamoussoukro

South Africa is a nation of sports fans. The exploits of the Springboks have warmed millions of hearts across its racial divides, but Bafana Bafana is still searching for fans. Seen here: The South Africa bench watch on during the penalty shootout. Picture: Franck Fife/AFP

Published Feb 4, 2024


Will South African goalkeeper Ronwen Williams' penalty-defending heroics reignite South Africa's passion for its men's international team? It might take more than that.

Williams saved four Cape Verde penalties in a shootout after an uninspiring 0-0 draw after extra time, setting up an Africa Cup of Nations semi-final with mighty Nigeria.

But how many supporters back home in South Africa will have even seen his game-saving triumph in Yamoussoukro?

South Africa is a nation of sports fans. The exploits of its world champion rugby side the Springboks have warmed millions of hearts across its racial divides.

Banyana the focus of praise

Cricket is also popular, and several soccer fans who spoke to AFP praised the inspirational women's football team -- Banyana Banyana.

But Bafana Bafana have failed to capture the nation's hearts.

Attendance at home internationals has fallen into the hundreds, even though fans flock to cheer club sides like the Mamelodi Sundowns and Orlando Pirates.

In a good luck message for the team before Saturday's Afcon quarter-final clash, President Cyril Ramaphosa admitted he was surprised they'd got so far.

"To reach where they are -- when we didn't expect them to get there -- is a really wonderful achievement," he said, during a voter registration drive.

A glance at the team's record might explain his earlier pessimism.

South Africa was banned from African football during the apartheid era, but made a promising debut after democracy was established.

In 1996, two years after Nelson Mandela was elected, South Africa hosted the Africa Cup of Nations and won the cup on home soil.

This proved to be a high point, however.

South Africa became the only country on the continent to host a football World Cup in 2010, and its team crashed out in the group stage.

Worth the time?

The squad didn't even qualify for the next three World Cups, nor for the previous Afcon, failing to make it to Cameroon in 2022.

The South African performance in this year's African tournament in Ivory Coast could be framed as an inspiring comeback story.

But the competition has failed to set the long-suffering South African fans alight with passion: few hope for much from the team.

By Saturday, Bafana Bafana had reached the quarter-final, facing off with island nation Cape Verde.

When AFP reporters hit the bars and restaurants of Soweto, a huge former black township just outside Johannesburg, they nevertheless found little enthusiasm.

"They haven't convinced a lot of people that they're worth their time," said 27-year-old engineer Collins Ishabalala.

Collins and his mates had taken a table under the screen, bought in some lagers and brandy and were following the action, but much of the restaurant was empty.

Locals couldn't have been watching much at home, either, since the township was blacked out during one of South Africa's notorious rolling power cuts.

Victor Khoza, a 58-year-old carpenter and interior designer, shrugged.

"These guys have brought disappointment," he said. "It's that bad, people are without hope. I might go home to sleep at half-time.”

But if he had he would have missed Williams' saves, maybe now the fans will take note?