Nigeria vs South Africa: A football match with political undertones

Wednesday February 07 2024

Nigeria's forward Samuel Chukwueze (R) attempts a shot during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinal football match between Nigeria and South Africa at Cairo international stadium, Egypt on July 9, 2019. PHOTO | AFP


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

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 peoples. 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?”  Mill posted on X, formerly Twitter.

The response Meek Mill got went beyond bullying, becoming one of the few incidents where South Africa and Nigeria have united at a common enemy.


Read: Donald Trump uses profanity to belittle Africans

On Wednesday night, they meet again in the semifinal match at the African Cup of Nations (Afcon2023). And given their respective football caliber (they have won Afcon titles before), 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.

Read: Nigeria warns citizens ahead of SA Afcon clash

In 2011, 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 has 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”.

Super Eagles and Bafana Bafana have avoided each other before, owing to their political tensions at the time.

Read: Afcon: Why fans are unhappy with Nigeria in last 16

In 1996, Nigeria skipped Afcon held in South Africa citing safety of their players. Super Eagles were defending champions at the time and refusing to honour the tournament led to Confederation of African Football (Caf) suspending them. South Africa profited from the protest, winning the title on home soil. Their first and only such title. To date.

“He (former Nigerian military dictator Sanni Abacha) summoned us to Aso Rock Presidential Villa 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.”


Former Nigerian president Sani Abacha. PHOTO | POOL

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.

Read: Nigerians celebrate Super Eagles Afcon semis feat

“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 though.

“Going forward from 2000," he said, "Nigerians were always mocking us," hinting at a shift in dominance. Now he believes 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 serve as a catalyst for broader national pride.