The semifinal between the two continental giants presents a chance to extend bragging rights on and off the pitch.
Abidjan, Ivory Coast – As Nigeria and South Africa head into their semifinal at the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) on Wednesday, there is much more at stake for both countries than a chance to play for the continent’s biggest football prize.
The final will undoubtedly be on the minds of players and fans alike, but the relationship between these two nations has long transcended football into a full-blown, multifaceted rivalry spanning economics, music and migration.
That rivalry was on full display on Monday after South African popstar Tyla was announced inaugural winner of the best African music performance at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles over four Nigerian acts.
There were taunts from South Africans on social media and clapbacks from Nigerians, setting the stage for yet another chapter in the rivalry.
An intense rivalry
These two nations have long been intertwined on and off the pitch.
During South Africa’s struggles with apartheid, Nigeria’s pan-African stance was an important source of support for the African National Congress in its fight against minority white rule. Military aid, financial support and high-level diplomacy were employed by the Nigerian government to help the liberation efforts that culminated in Nelson Mandela’s election as the first Black president of South Africa in 1994.
Ironically, it was Mandela’s opposition to the Nigerian government – over the killing of nine human rights activists, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, under then-military head of state Sani Abacha – that sparked their football rivalry. Fresh from winning the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations, Nigeria were favourites to defend their crown in the 1996 edition, hosted in South Africa. However, Abacha announced a boycott of the tournament, citing concerns over the welfare of Nigeria’s players after Mandela’s criticism.
In the absence of the Super Eagles, the host nation won their first – and to date only – AFCON title on their debut. While it was a triumphal moment for South Africa, many were and still are of the view that had Nigeria competed, they would have retained their title, a view buttressed by Nigeria going on to win Olympic gold in football later that year.
When the two sides finally met in an AFCON setting in 2000, the 1994 champions made good on their pedigree. With a place in the final on the line, the Super Eagles coolly dispatched a Bafana Bafana side that had impressed to that point in the tournament. That was South Africa’s last appearance in the semifinals of the competition, until now.
Beyond football, the competition is intense.
Since 2014, Nigeria has mostly been Africa’s largest economy, displacing South Africa, which remains the continent’s most industrialised one. With both economies currently faltering, one commentator has called the match the “underperforming economies derby”.
South African broadcaster Robert Marawa told Al Jazeera: “The SA vs Nigeria love-hate affair crosses many issues from being the number one economic hub in Africa to Nigeria claiming that South Africa would never have won AFCON in ’96 if they had been there to the late Stephen Keshi – whilst lining up in the tunnel to come on alongside Bafana Bafana [in a 1992 World Cup qualifier in Lagos] – asking if [former internationals] Bennett Masinga and Daniel Mudau were ball boys.”
“Then there was the Grammy Awards this week awarding South Africa’s Tyla best African music performance ahead of Burna Boy and Davido, South Africans complaining about Nigerians taking their girlfriends and so on,” he said. “It’s a lot, but there clearly is no love lost between the two nations.”
The rise of social media has amplified the debate over the origins and superiority of the countries’ respective music scenes with Amapiano, a genre of South African house music, providing fodder.
“We both have some of the best entertainers on the continent, which naturally leads to a battle for who is the entertainment king,” Nigerian TV personality Ebuka Obi-Uchendu said. “Both countries almost completely dictate trends on the continent whether it’s with film, fashion, TV or music. It’s no surprise that the two biggest music genres on the continent today are Nigeria’s Afrobeats and South Africa’s Amapiano.”
A popular refrain among some Nigerians is that while South Africa may have invented Amapiano, Nigerian artists such as Asake, Zinoleesky and Kcee have fine-tuned it and elevated it to global appeal. This has led several entertainment personalities in South Africa, including celebrity DJ Bandz, to decry Nigeria’s growing influence in the genre.
‘Deep … and very personal’
The mostly playful rivalry, however, does occasionally veer into more sinister territory.
South Africa’s liberal post-apartheid immigration policy led to an influx of Nigerian nationals to the Rainbow Nation at the start of the millennium. However, as unemployment, crime and inflation rose, a wave of xenophobic attacks swept through the country, and foreign businesses and individuals were targeted with violence.
In 2019, Nigerian officials had to repatriate more than 600 citizens as riots in Pretoria and Johannesburg targeted foreign businesses.
“At times,” Marawa admitted, “it cuts deep, and it’s very personal.”
In the build-up to Wednesday’s semifinal, the Nigerian High Commission in Pretoria felt the need to put out an advisory to Nigerian citizens living in South Africa. The release called for “good conduct” and said “should any provocations arise, they should not be reciprocated.”
In response, Pretoria chided the Nigerians on Tuesday, saying it was “a very unfortunate and regrettable statement” that “creates unnecessary alarm and tension”.
Further fuelling the drama was a statement released on Wednesday by Eastern Cape-based club Chippa United supporting its Nigerian goalkeeper, Stanley Nwabali – one of the breakout stars of this AFCON – against Bafana Bafana.
“As a proud South African, I find myself in a unique position. … I and Chippa United stand behind our player Stanley Nwabali and the Nigerian Super Eagles,” club chairperson Siviwe Chippa Mpengesi said.
A chance to gloat
It is easy to see why this fixture means so much to both nations. For Nigeria, it is a chance to affirm the fact that, as Obi-Uchendu puts it: “On the field of play, there’s no contest over who the leader is.” For South Africa, as Marawa explains: “It is an opportunity to humble Nigeria.”
In a tournament dominated by upsets, Nigeria and host nation Ivory Coast are the clear favourites going into Wednesday’s semifinals. The Super Eagles are in pursuit of a fourth AFCON title, and with many of the fancied nations exiting earlier than expected, the path to glory seems clear. To trip up against South Africa in the final four would be viewed by millions of Nigerians as something of a disaster.
This is a state of affairs that suits South Africa, who have gotten this far with a spine from successful PSL side Mamelodi Sundowns, as they can play without the burden of expectations.
Little was expected of Bafana Bafana in this tournament, even with 2017 winner Hugo Broos leading the team. His squad selections courted controversy, but the former Cameroon boss has won over doubters by leading South Africa further than they have gotten in more than two decades. Eliminating 2022 World Cup semifinalists Morocco certainly made everyone sit up and take notice.
“Broos has stuck with his core players through major criticism,” Marawa said. “They know that no one expected them to go this far, so [there is] zero pressure on them, and all the pressure goes to the tournament favourites Nigeria.”
Whatever the outcome, the reaction on social media will be fierce.
“Everyone wants an opportunity to ‘cook’ another country post-match, and Nigerians have that art down to a T,” Obi-Uchendu said. “Gloating is in the Nigerian DNA, so what better way to do that than over your biggest continental rival? For every Nigerian, that bragging right is needed to feed the fire.”
But the South Africans seem certain that they will be the ones to gloat.
“Oh, when South Africa manages to get that victory, you will never hear the end of it,” Marawa said. “Amapiano will resonate from Cape to Cairo to Abidjan!”