By Tswelopele Makoe
THIS past Wednesday, February 7, South Africans from all over the globe stood in awe and admiration for Bafana Bafana as they concluded their rally for first place in the 2024 edition of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) tournament.
The semi-final and knock-out match against Nigeria’s Super Eagles, saw the 10-man Bafana Bafana team attempt everything within their power to pull out all the stops in order to reach the finals, and attain their first cup win since the 1996 Afcon tournament on domestic soil.
Despite the courageous endeavour, our Bafana Bafana team was bested by Nigeria, with a final score of 4-2 in a penalty shoot-out.
Throughout the 2024 Afcon edition, it was evident that our national soccer team had poured their blood, sweat and tears into every match.
Social media was cascading with support for the team, and recognition for the immense talent that was being exuded by Bafana Bafana. The tournament itself has been engulfed in astounding twists and turns, particularly by smaller understated teams across our beautiful continent.
The team members have also proliferated in popularity, with names such as Teboho Mokoena, Evidence Makgopa, Khuliso Mudau and team captain Ronwen Williams at the tip of everyone’s lips.
Bafana Bafana’s ability to reach such a critical stage – the semi-finals – in the competition is splendid, not only for the team but for the whole nation.
In the past, African soccer teams have been hauled over the coals for their substandard performances on the soccer pitch. The current Afcon games have also entertained us with some comeback kings.
For our boys, their show of skill, resilience and tactical maturity was a refreshing revelation. It has set a new bar for the national team’s capabilities.
The team’s coach since May 2021, the quiet Hugo Broos, also beamed with pride at the agility with which Bafana has played, not only in their recent match against Nigeria, but throughout the entire Afcon tournament.
Broos said: “I know that everyone knows South Africa now as a good (football) playing team, and that is the most important thing.”
The current Afcon is not only momentous as the first time Bafana Bafana has played to the semi-finals in 24 years, but also glorified as the national team’s cessation of the naysayers who have undermined African soccer players for decades, constantly comparing them to their counterparts in the major European leagues.
For me and many more, what is particularly notable about the Afcon games has been the ability of Bafana Bafana to beat Africa’s top team, Morocco.
Bafana also defeated our neighbours, Namibia, and the tricky Cape Verde. Our boys have certainly rekindled national interest in the game by performing beyond expectations.
They also solidified their name in the international football arena. Typically, international soccer teams recruit African players from northern or western African nations.
However, the performance of Bafana Bafana have ensured that recruiters from all over the world can also keep a watchful eye on South African talent.
Amid the excitement on social media that was buzzing with details and highlights from the Afcon games, I was disappointed by some sections of our national media that did an appalling job with the coverage of the tournament.
From exceedingly late updates on the games, to repetitive blackouts during broadcasts, to a lack of communication on mainstream news networks, our mainstream media has once again disregarded the immense importance of the games in the national and social context of the nation.
Back in 1996, during Bafana Bafana’s first win at the Afcon, soccer was recognised as one of the key points of consolidation and social cohesion in the South African context.
It was not only the nation rallying behind the team that bolstered it to great heights, but it was also the strong connection that was being fostered between the team and the citizens of the nation.
Since then, the differences in our government, our media and the overall cohesion being fostered by sports, is starkly evident. Our national team was not bestowed the utmost respect, recognition and support that they deserved.
This is a testament to the course that we are taking as a nation. From poor health-care systems to dilapidated infrastructure that is intentionally sold to foreign nationals, our inaccessible education system and our exuberant cost of living, our nation is taking a nose-dive in terms of liveability.
All the issues compound our challenges, worsening illnesses, homelessness, crime, illiteracy and so much more.
The cracks in our social cohesion are strikingly evident, as sexism, racism, culturalism, and institutional oppressions, to name a few, thrive.
Nelson Mandela was an avid supporter of the need for social cohesion, in a country that is ridden by differences. Sport as a tool for consolidation, camaraderie and fostering a strong national identity is a vital need in our contemporary South African context.
All over the globe, sport has been proved a tool to connect diverse groups of people, to foster social interactions, and most importantly, to promote inclusivity.
It is vital that we recognise and use the effectiveness of sport in our multicultural, multilingual, multi-ethnic context.
It is vital that we uphold strategies that break down social barriers, dismantle stereotypes, and foster common morals and traditions.
What is prominent about soccer is that it is played by the average citizen, with the capabilities of any other South African.
It is inspirational and reassuring to know that the average person can proliferate to new heights, have unimpeded access and support and most importantly, develop themselves in a meaningful way.
It is vital that we have symbols in our society that are aspirational, persistent and disciplined in their work. It is pertinent that our society is promoting and protecting the talent within our boarders.
It is vital that we, as citizens, are adamant about the support for our fellow citizens, while recognising how much our team depends on the overwhelming support of the nation.
It is exceedingly clear that we cannot solely depend on our government, our institutions or our media to support, consolidate and elevate our society.
The onus is on us, as citizens, to ensure that all our national teams are supported to the greatest possible extent. This is applicable to our athletes, our musicians, our arts and cultural institutions, our academic institutions, our creatives, innovators and future minds.
It is pertinent that we, as a society, are engaging and encouraging of our fellow citizens. It is vital that we build supportive society today, in order to ensure a strengthened tomorrow.
Bafana Bafana has shown that they are worthy competitors and fierce contenders in the world of football.
They have set the bar high for the future of South African football, and they have turned the tide on the rhetoric that seeks to belittle local soccer in particular and African soccer in general.
I guarantee that the social response from the Afcon games is going to be any impactful one.
There will be hordes of people eager to join the game, and even more that see the potential of the game as an avenue for their betterment and development.
They may not have achieved the top spot, but they have etched their name into history books with their stellar performance, which will not be forgotten any time soon.
The notable athlete and coach Vince Lombardi once eloquently said: “People who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defences, or the problems of modern society.”
* Tswelopele Makoe is a gender activist, published weekly in the Sunday Independent and IOL. She is also an Andrew W Mellon scholar, pursuing an MA Ethics at UWC, and affiliated with the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice. The views expressed are her own.