Nigeria v South Africa: A football match with political undertones

 Nigeria's Victor Osimhen during a training session on February 6, 2024, at Stade Annex, Bouake, Cote d'Ivoire on the eve of their Africa Cup of Nations semi-final match against South Africa.

Photo credit: Siphiwe Sibeko | Reuters

What you need to know:

  • Yet, it is not usually easy to unite their people. Last month, US Rapper Meek Mill slightly did the job after suggesting the countries were technologically backward.

In Bouaké

Nigeria and South Africa are not often at war. But that doesn’t mean they are the greatest of friends.

But they don’t often afford to avoid each other. Somehow, and everywhere they go, they get compared, associated or pitied.

Yet, it is not usually easy to unite their people. Last month, US Rapper Meek Mill slightly did the job after suggesting the countries were technologically backward.

“Do a lot of people play my music in South Africa I remember having on big show their (sic) few years back … how do y’all listen to our music in South Africa???? On what platform or in Nigeria?” Meek Mill posed. The response went beyond bullying and became one of the few incidents where South Africa and Nigeria have united against a common enemy.

On Wednesday night, they meet again in the semi-final of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon2023). And given their respective history in this competition, it is a match you can’t afford to miss.

Except it means politics too, reflecting the complex relationship between the two African giants. The relationship between South Africa and Nigeria has become more complex in recent years, with various factors contributing to shifting dynamics.

Some South Africans have expressed concerns about the impact of certain criminal activities associated with some Nigerian individuals living in South Africa. It is not official South African policy to label Nigerians as criminals or some social misfits. But public perception fueled by rumours has in the past led to xenophobic attacks targeting mainly Nigerians and Zimbabweans.

Beyond that, competition for leadership positions within international organisations has also led to differing stances and diplomatic manoeuvring between the two nations. In 2011, the election for the powerful African Union Commission Chairperson position saw contrasting preferences from Nigeria and South Africa.

Nigeria supported the then-incumbent chair, Jean Ping of Gabon, while South Africa backed Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, its local politician. This differing support along with another disagreement regarding leadership in Côte d'Ivoire, temporarily strained relations between the two countries.

Fast forward to Afcon2023, and a new bone of contention emerged. Wary of the history of xenophobic attacks on foreigners in South Africa and comments made on social media, the Nigerian High Commission in Pretoria advised Nigerians living in the Rainbow Nation against engaging their Bafana Bafana counterparts in any confrontation before, during and after the much-awaited clash.

Nigerians were warned against loud celebrations should the Super Eagles win the high-stakes match. Of course, celebrating and silence aren’t often going together, so the High Commission was making a big ask of Nigerians already.

“The High Commission hereby advises the Nigerian community to be watchful of their utterances, be mindful of where they choose to watch the match, especially in public places and refrain from engaging in loud, riotous or provocative celebrations should the Super Eagles win the match,” read the statement on Tuesday. South Africa’s Head of Public Diplomacy, Clayson Monyela, posted on his personal X account, referring to the statement as “regrettable” and creating “unnecessary alarm”.

“This is a very unfortunate and regrettable statement issued by our Nigerian friends. It creates unnecessary alarm & tension. #BafanaBafana have played the Super Eagles many times & there's no history of soccer hooliganism associated with the outcome of such encounters. #SouthAfricans pose no threat to Nigerians. We'll engage our Nigerian counterparts further on this through diplomatic channels. Totally unnecessary!”

Super Eagles and Bafana Bafana have avoided each other before, owing to their political tensions at the time. In 1996, Nigeria skipped the Afcon held in South Africa, citing the safety of their players.

Super Eagles were defending champions at the time, and refusing to honour the tournament led to CAF suspending them. South Africa profited from the protest, winning the title on home soil. Their first and only Afcon title.

“He (military dictator Sanni Abacha) summoned us to Aso Rock (palace) and explained to us his problem with the rest of the world and also with South Africa,” Nigerian football legend Tijani Babangida told AOIFootball in an earlier interview.

“He said he could not guarantee our safety and believed they could reach us just to get to him. He, however, told us that we could go at our own risk, but we decided to honour the father of the nation.”

The Super Eagles were also subsequently banned from the 1998 edition in Morocco but made a return at the 2000 edition, which they co-hosted with Ghana. Former Bafana Bafana star Helman Mkhalele, who faced Babangida in the 2000 semi-final, remembers the match being punctuated by political undertones four years later and with Abacha long dead.

“People were raising their hands, saying 'You're going to get beaten by five!'" he remembers, highlighting the intimidating atmosphere the Nigerians created. Mkhalele, current assistant coach of the national team, admits the South Africans might have buckled under that "hatred," leading to costly mistakes against a talented Nigerian squad. This week, he argued that rivalry has come of age.

“Going forward from 2000," he said, "Nigerians were always mocking us," hinting at a shift in dominance. Now, he believes the South Africans are closing the gap, and the players will carry that confidence into the upcoming match.

This match promises to be a spicy encounter where past rivalries meet present ambitions.

The stakes are high for both teams. Winning the Afcon trophy would solidify their footballing prowess and carry symbolic significance. For Nigeria, it would be a chance to reclaim its past glory and assert dominance on the continental stage. For South Africa, it would represent a significant step forward in their footballing resurgence and potentially catalyse broader national pride.