The league of nations

If South Africa’s Premier Soccer league matters, it is because it’s the country’s most successful pan-Africanist project.

Photo by Emilio Garcia on Unsplash.

Bafana Bafana might have missed out on a chance of ending their almost three-decade wait to return to the summit of African football, but South Africa’s Premier Soccer League (PSL) was the big winner in the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). The PSL, the country’s first division, is the only league in Africa with a representative from each of the three teams that finished on the podium in Côte d’Ivoire.

First, Sekhukhune United’s Badra Ali Sangare was part of the victorious Elephants who stomped Nigeria’s Super Eagles in the final—dramatically rising from the dead to claim their third AFCON title. Then, the Super Eagles squad featured two Africa-based players, including Chippa United’s Stanley Nwabali. The Nigerian goalkeeper was one of the stand-out players of the tournament with four clean sheets in seven matches. He was the hero in the Super Eagles’ penalty shoot-out win over Bafana in the semifinals.

And finally, South Africa—who supplied the bulk of the 36 PSL-based players at the AFCON, making it the African league with the most representatives—settled for a bronze medal. Bafana beat the Democratic Republic of Congo in the third-place playoff to record their best finish since claiming bronze in 2000. Bafana defied the odds, going from failing to qualify for the previous edition in Cameroon to being one of the top four teams on the continent. For their efforts, the team also bagged the Fair Play award while captain Ronwen Williams was named Goalkeeper of the Tournament. The 2023 Afcon highlighted not only why the PSL is the most important league in the continent, but also why it’s South Africa’s most successful pan-African project.

South Africa has a complicated relationship with the rest of the continent. At best, the country is insular, believing that there is no life beyond the Limpopo. South Africans speak about the continent as if Africa is indeed a country and South Africa is one of its neighbors. At worst, South Africa is xenophobic. Many African nationals have lost their lives violently in Mzansi during xenophobic attacks that flare up from time to time. 

As one of the strongest economies in Africa, South Africa attracts many people from the continent in search of a better life. They come to escape economic hardships, political instability, intolerance, and in some instances wars in their home countries. Yet South Africa—whose democracy was won in large part because of the support of the international community—isn’t welcoming to most Africans from beyond its borders. Migrants are regularly scapegoated by both the ruling African National Congress and opposition parties. The government’s stance betrays the African Renaissance ideals that the former president Thabo Mbeki, espoused. In his famous “African Renaissance” speech, Mbeki said that:

As South Africans, we owe our emancipation from apartheid in no small measure to the support and solidarity extended to us by all the peoples of Africa. In that sense, our victory over the system of white minority domination is an African victory. This, I believe, imposes an obligation on us to use this gift of freedom, which is itself an important contribution to Africa’s Renaissance, to advance the cause of the peoples of our continent. 

Years later, the PSL seems to have listened, with the league advancing the case of the people of our continent. This is more evident in the number of goalkeepers from other African nations who play in the league and who were among those at AFCON. In addition to Nwabali and Sangare, Ghana’s No. 1 Richard Ofori, Namibia’s first choice Lloyd Kazapua, and third choice Edward Maova, along with Equatorial Guinea’s Manuel Sapunga, all ply their trade in the PSL. Those who didn’t make the trip to Côte d’Ivoire include Nigeria and Moroka Swallows’ Daniel Akpeyi, Ugandan legend and Mamelodi Sundowns’ shot stopper Dennis Onyango, his countryman Samil Magoola of Richards Bay and Guinea-Bissau’s Jonas Mendes who is on the books of Black Leopards. A large Zimbabwean contingent also includes Elvis Chipezeze, Edmore Sibanda, and Washington Arubi. 

There has been criticism that the large influx of goalkeepers from other parts of the continent stifles the growth of South African talent. When Bafana was thrown into a mini-crisis with the injury of the country’s most-capped goalkeeper, Itumeleng Khune, with no ready-made replacement, the dominance of foreign goalkeepers was evident. 

Most clubs in the PSL’s two divisions—the DStv Premiership and the Motsepe Foundation Championship—have a foreign goalkeeper on their books. When Khune was injured, a handful of DStv Premiership clubs were fielding South African goalkeepers, which intensified the calls for a ban of foreign goalkeepers (following in the footsteps of Egypt) to safeguard the interests of the national team. 

But the PSL didn’t listen to those calls, largely because of the political spat between the league’s chairman Irvin Khoza and Danny Jordaan, the president of the South African Football Association (SAFA), Khoza and Jordaan are two of the most powerful figures in SA football. 

They were the dynamic duo that brought the first FIFA World Cup on African soil, with Khoza serving as chairman of the local organizing committee and Jordaan its CEO. The two, however, don’t see eye-to-eye and have allegedly used their positions to undermine each other. 

Jordaan is said to have driven SAFA’s decision to amend its rules so that no club owner can run for the association’s presidency, effectively ruling out Khoza who also owns Orlando Pirates, one of the biggest teams in South Africa. 

Khoza’s PSL ignored Bafana Bafana coach, Hugo Broos’ pleas for the first half of the 2023-24 season to finish a week early ahead of the AFCON break to give Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns some rest following a grueling season due to their CAF Champions League commitments. 

Broos asked this of the PSL at the end of the 2022-23 season, so that when the 2023-24 fixtures are drawn up it would be with his request in mind. The Belgian claimed to have been ignored by the league, only receiving an answer on the eve of the tournament with the PSL saying they had already drawn out their fixtures so they couldn’t help Bafana. 

The PSL played its last game of 2023 on December 30, 2023, forcing Broos to take time out of his camp to give players a rest. The toll of the hectic schedule was evident on the players, with Williams coming into camp with a knock and Mothobi Mvala almost missing the tournament entirely because of the strain his body was under. Luckily, these two were fit for the tournament and formed a vital cog in Bafana’s defense. 

Bafana’s success at the AFCON was despite the PSL’s actions, though their performance raised the profile of South Africa’s domestic league. Bafana bucked the trend of most nations relying on Europe-based players, with countries like Tanzania ignoring their strong domestic clubs to pluck players from the obscurity of Europe’s lower leagues because there’s a belief that gives them an edge over African-based players. 

So, when SAFA, which controls amateur football and national teams, banned international goalkeepers for the upcoming women’s national league, it did so not for the good of the game, but to score political points against the PSL who at the moment are viewed as unpatriotic. 

But SAFA’s approach is not the silver bullet that many think it will be, with the danger of creating complacency. 

“The quality of foreign goalkeeping that we have is of a high enough standard [among those] who are playing in the PSL,” legendary South African goalkeeper and 1996 AFCON winner, Andre Arendse, told ESPN. “What that says to me is that aspiring young local goalkeepers will have to work their socks off to get those opportunities in the PSL.” 

South Africa’s open-door policy regarding African goalkeepers is a lifesaver for the continent’s top talent with Europe still looking down on Black and African goalkeepers. Edouard Mendy (during his time at Chelsea), and Manchester United’s Andre Onana are among a small contingent of African keepers who have been trusted at the highest level in Europe. 

“Clubs don’t trust Black goalkeepers,” Onana was quoted by Spain’s Marca. “It’s a reality, you just have to look at it, it’s not me who says it. There are not many black goalkeepers in the elite and people have it in their heads that black goalkeepers don’t provide security or [that they] make too many mistakes.”

In the PSL talented keepers from the continent can earn good money and are exposed to a higher level of competition. This makes the PSL’s accommodation and openness to African goalkeepers revolutionary. But it’s not because of the league’s benevolence. The PSL attracts more foreign players than any league in the continent because of the country’s openness. Unlike Egypt and Morocco, whose leagues are as lucrative, the PSL is more welcoming to outsiders. Some Christian players have complained about not feeling welcomed in these largely Muslim countries. 

Egyptian Christians have criticized the team, saying they feel unwanted. This religious tension was confirmed by Mido, an AFCON winner with Egypt in 2006: Regrettably, there’s a lot of people in Egypt who are bigoted over color, religion, and ethnicity,” said Mido. “We must confront them and not bury our heads in the sand. Can you believe it that in the history of football in Egypt, only five Christians played at the top level?”

The PSL appears open to everyone, which is why players from North Africa have signed for South African clubs—with most going to Sundowns who are more visible as a force in those countries, and also financially stronger to match or better what players would have received back home or in Europe. 

The football infrastructure in the country is also a major draw card, with the players able to get the best medical and technical support, allowing them to grow tactically and be well-taken care of medically. 

This is how Burundian international, the late Papy Faty’s heart problem was spotted. He refused to believe it and went to play in a league in eSwatini, where medical requirements for participation aren’t as rigorous as in South Africa. 

The other reason why South African clubs opt for foreign talent is that they are a quick fix. Instead of spending millions in development, some clubs would rather opt for an almost ready player who can be polished quickly and won’t be as expensive as a homegrown player.

The PSL’s Board of Governors—made up of the 32 clubs in the first and second divisions—is the league’s highest decision-making body. It’s made up of club owners, which means decisions prioritize their well-being. It’s a shrewd, cut-throat arrangement where profit is the only language spoken. 

Yet, the PSL does give back to the continent. The success of most countries in West Africa is largely dependent on players who were refined in Europe. Most of those players are in-field, leaving a massive void for goalkeepers. This explains the longstanding problem of goalkeeping at the AFCON. Keepers have been left behind in terms of overall development and investment. The PSL is filling the void in developing and refining African goalkeepers. 

Onyango was a promising goalkeeper when he came to SuperSport United in 2006. He improved when he worked with the best goalkeeper coaches available, including Arendse and current Barcelona goalkeeper coach Jon Pascua. It’s because of the coaching he received in SA that Onyango was able to lead Uganda in 2017 to their first AFCON tournament in almost 40.

The same can be said for Kennedy Mweeene who led Zambia to their AFCON success in 2012 and Nwabali who was a non-entity in the Super Eagles before his development in SA. That’s why the PSL’s influence at the 2023 AFCON felt like South African football was returning the favor to the African athletes who sacrificed their Olympic dreams in 1976 when they boycotted the games. 

African countries, including Nigeria, dominated the 29 nations that refused to participate in the Olympics in Montreal because the International Olympic Committee refused to ban New Zealand for breaking the sports boycott against South Africa to take on the Springboks in rugby’s richest rivalry. 

Most of the athletes who had to go back home when they had already arrived in Montreal, like Segun Odegbami of Team Nigeria, did so without complaints, understanding that this was for a course bigger than them or their athletic ambitions. 

“We came back from Montreal without any fanfare and we all went our separate ways without our role in the struggle for the emancipation of South Africans properly recognized,” Odegbami told Nigeria’s The Guardian during a ceremony to honor the sacrifices of the class of 1976. 

“Some of us had trained for four years and made sacrifices and were on the verge of achieving our Olympic dreams when it was all taken away,” he added. “Of course, it was ultimately for a good cause, but some of the athletes made huge sacrifices to get to the Olympics, only to be stopped at the gate.” 

The PSL stepped up when it was its turn to make sacrifices for the good of the continent, making Bafana’s success even more special. The league looks set to continue being the destination of choice for many players in Africa. The peak of the PSL’s importance in Africa was in 2019, when the league was the outright No. 1 in supplying the most players in the tournament, beating the French and European leagues which are the ideal destination for many. 

South Africa might not have gotten its hands on the AFCON trophy they last lifted in 1996, but the country’s league had a hand in the Elephants’ success and the Super Eagles’ good run. 

That victory is bigger than any piece of silverware.

Further Reading