Sports & Fitness

Football in South Africa: top leagues and Bafana Bafana

There’s probably no better way to integrate into South African culture on the street than to demonstrate some knowledge of football in South Africa.

South Africa football

By Expatica

Updated 16-1-2024

Football in South Africa has a huge following. The quality of the local game keeps improving, as demonstrated by the increasing number of South African players in exile among the glamorous European clubs.

Local teams, organized in a national league plus a plethora of knock-out cups, are followed with passion by paint-daubed, costumed, whistling, and cheering fans. Mercifully, the specter of football hooliganism spared South Africa almost entirely.

There’s probably no quicker way to break the ice with someone in South Africa than to demonstrate some knowledge of local football. To help you improve your conversational skills, here’s a crash course on the country’s most important teams and competitions.

Bafana Bafana: the icon of South African football

In 1992, two years before the country’s first democratic election, the united South African team came into being. They played Cameroon in their first match in Durban on 9 July. It was a triumphant occasion for the side that came to be known as Bafana Bafana (“The Boys”); they edged the West African powerhouse by a goal to nil. However, the win concealed the negative effect that apartheid-enforced isolation had had on local soccer.

When South Africa hosted football’s 1996 African Nations Cup, however, South Africa proved they belonged in the finals by defeating Tunisia 2-0 in the final. The team’s nickname, Bafana Bafana, came about during the team’s run to the title.

Banyana Banyana

South Africa’s senior women’s team, Banyana Banyana – ‘The Girls’ – have traditionally been the strongest team in southern Africa. In fact, they’re one of Africa’s best.

Banyana Banyana were crowned Cosafa (Confederation of Southern African Football Associations) champions in 2002 and 2006. In continental competition, the team finished runner-up to Nigeria at the CAF African Women’s Championship in 2000. They also finished second at the All-Africa Games in 2003 and 2007.

Glamor clubs in South African football

Kaizer Chiefs

South Africa’s favorite football club never seems to play an away match. “The Amakhozi” often draw more supporters at away games than their opposition.

Orlando Pirates

Formed in 1937, Orlando Pirates has a support base extending across the country’s borders. Two-time winners of South Africa’s Premier Soccer League since its launch in 1997, The Buccaneers are the only South African team so far to have won Africa’s Champions League, a feat they achieved in 1995.

Mamelodi Sundowns, SuperSport United

While Chiefs and Pirates have long battled for the title of South Africa’s most popular club, other outfits have emerged to challenge for the position. Among them are two Tshwane/Pretoria-based clubs: Mamelodi Sundowns and SuperSport United.

Backed by billionaire mining magnate Patrice Motsepe, Mamelodi Sundowns have the finances to ensure a squad with depth and quality. The club is often compared to Chelsea, which rose to prominence partly through the backing of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.

Premier Soccer League

South Africa’s top football league, featuring the country’s best 16 clubs, came into being in 1997.

The Premier Soccer League (PSL) raised the standard of club football in South Africa. It provides the sport with better media coverage and much-improved revenue through strong sponsorship deals.
Sponsorship boom

In June 2007, the PSL pulled off an astounding coup when it signed a 1.6-billion ZAR broadcast deal with SuperSport International.

And in August 2008, cellular giant MTN committed the same amount (400-million ZAR over five years) to the local game. They also took over the title sponsorship of the Top 8 knockout tournament. These deals made South Africa’s Premier Soccer League the seventh-biggest earner of sponsorship revenue among football leagues worldwide.

Knockout competitions in South African football

A number of knockout competitions are played alongside the league fixtures in South African football.

Nedbank Cup

A knockout competition, giving lower league teams the chance to do battle with premier league clubs, has existed since 1978. The tournament has had various names over the years: the Mainstay Cup (1978-1987), Bobsave Superbowl (1988-2002), Absa Cup (2003-07) and, from 2008, the Nedbank Cup.


The MTN 8 occurs at the beginning of each Premier Soccer League season. The top eight teams from the previous season contest this trophy.

Now known as the MTN 8 Knockout, after cellular operator MTN took over the title sponsorship, the tournament boasts a R8-million winner-takes-all prize. It also guarantees each team 800,000ZAR simply for participating.

Telkom Knockout

The Telkom Knockout competition, which features all 16 Premier Soccer League teams on a knockout basis, is African football’s second-most lucrative domestic competition after the Nedbank Cup.

The competition was first held in 1992 and has existed under a number of different names, including the Coca-Cola Cup and the Rothmans Cup.

First division

Below the Premier Soccer League, football’s First Division in South Africa is divided into two – the Inland Stream and the Coastal Stream – with each stream made up of eight clubs.

At the end of each season, the winners of the two streams meet in a final, with a place in the Premier Soccer League at stake (replacing the team that finished last in the PSL). The second-placed team, however, still has a shot at making it into the PSL.

That club takes on the two second-placed finishers from the First Division, as well as the team that finished second-last in the PSL, in a mini-tournament. The winner earns a place in the top league.