Their rivalry in the political arena attracted more attention than their sporting confrontation. Morocco and South Africa meet on Tuesday January 30 at 9 p.m. in the round of 16 of the African Cup of Nations (CAN) in San Pedro. For now, Bafana Bafana are leading the score with three wins, three draws and two defeats, but the Atlas Lions, crowned by their success at the World Cup in Qatar, intend to bring the scores back to equality. A revenge which would be all the better received in the kingdom as diplomatic relations between Pretoria and Rabat are in flux.

Since it recognized the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in 2004, South Africa has been one of the supporters of the Polisario Front in the dispute between the independence movement and Rabat over Western Sahara. The decision had the effect of freezing diplomatic relations with Morocco, which immediately brought back its ambassador for consultation, before his final recall two years later. It took until 2018 for the kingdom to appoint a new representative in Pretoria, which only accredited him the following year.

In the meantime, the disagreement between the two countries has been marked by several disputes. The choice of South Africa as the host country for the 2010 Football World Cup was very poorly received in Morocco – also a candidate – where the press denounced a “corruption scandal”. But frictions peaked in 2017 when South Africa expressed reservations about Morocco’s return to the African Union, which was ultimately approved without a vote. The same year, a cargo ship carrying 55,000 tonnes of phosphates from Western Sahara was boarded in Port Elizabeth following a complaint from the Polisario Front – Morocco only recovered its load after a year.

A sign that support for the Sahrawi cause is not an old, forgotten struggle in South Africa, the leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, was received with great fanfare by President Cyril Ramaphosa in Pretoria during a visit to State in October 2022. A meeting to which the Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nasser Bourita, reacted by denouncing the “gesticulations and agitations of Pretoria”.

South Africa, a major trading partner of Morocco

More generally, Rabat has always taken a dim view of the proximity between South Africa and Algeria, based on the historical links maintained by the African National Congress (ANC) and the National Liberation Front (FLN) since the 1960s, when the Algerian state financially and materially helped Nelson Mandela and the ANC executives in their fight against apartheid.

“That South Africa is not our best friend, that is certain, but this rivalry does not present any of the dimensions that the one between Morocco and Algeria takes, nuance however, under the cover of anonymity, a specialist in Moroccan-African relations. Rabat and Pretoria have never gone to war, they do not have a military rivalry and South Africa does not directly threaten Morocco. This is linked to their geographical distance, but also to a mutual understanding of their common interests. »

Although there are no direct flights between the two countries, South Africa appears to be a major trading partner of Morocco, the second on the continent in 2022 according to the Foreign Exchange Office. Symbol of these economic ties, the sale in 2018 of the flagship of Saham insurance, then owned by businessman and former Minister of the Economy Moulay Hafid El Alamy, to the South African group Sanlam, already present in the round of the company, was interpreted at the time as a sign of a rapprochement. “An operation worth more than a billion dollars which could only be carried out with the green light from the palace,” slips a Moroccan boss.

Relations between supporters are in good shape

Sanlam’s main shareholder, Patrice Motsepe, president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and ninth-richest African in 2023, according to Forbes magazine – one of whose sisters is married to current South African President Cyril Ramaphosa – , is undoubtedly the most publicized figure of the new turn that relations between Morocco and South Africa have taken. According to sports policy researcher Moncef Lyazghi, the billionaire’s election as head of CAF in 2021 is the result of an agreement with Gianni Infantino, FIFA president, and Fouzi Lekjaa, who heads the Moroccan federation .

“All the candidates withdrew, Motsepe was appointed president and Lekjaa was granted a seat on the FIFA executive committee in return,” says the academic, who sees it more broadly as a success for Morocco and its diplomacy through football. . Patrice Motsepe and Fouzi Lekjaa maintain “a close relationship”, notes a Moroccan journalist.

But the federation led by the South African was seized of an embarrassing matter in January 2023. On the 13th, Mandla Mandela, one of the grandsons of former president Nelson Mandela, was invited to speak for the opening ceremony of the African Nations Championship (CHAN), in the stadium which bears the name of his grandfather in Algiers. “In his honor, let us not forget Africa’s last colony, Western Sahara. Let us fight to free Western Sahara from oppression,” the South African MP harangued.

The Moroccan Football Federation (FRMF) quickly contacted CAF to ask it to “assume full responsibility for these blatant transgressions which have no link with the principles and values ​​of football”. After investigation, CAF did not judge the Algerian federation responsible for the comments made by Mandla Mandela. In a vitriolic article, a journalist from media 360, known to be close to the Moroccan palace, attacked the CAF, an institution “which is slowly dying” and which protects “idiots”. It was ultimately the supporters of Raja Casablanca who responded to “Little Mandela” on one of their banners by pointing out that “the last colony in Africa is Orania”, in reference to the community built and reserved to whites in South Africa.

Since then, relationships between supporters have clearly improved. Like the links established between the supporters of Wydad Casablanca and those of Mamelodi Sundowns, two teams which faced each other in 2023 during the first African League in history. Former member of the Raja Casablanca management committee, Fadel Abdellaoui describes “a real friendship between Moroccan and South African supporters” and adds that there are “no negative comments on social networks, as we are used to to see with Algeria”.

Pretoria’s recent referral to the International Court of Justice in the context of the war in Gaza has, in the opinion of many, even made South Africa popular with Moroccan citizens. “Palestine is a sacred cause for the overwhelming majority of Moroccans and especially football supporters,” assures the host of the @ibnkafka account, on X, which delivers its analyzes on football in Morocco to 20,000 subscribers.