No football kit has ever encapsulated the mood of a nation at a particular time as much as the one worn by South Africa at the 1996 African Cup of Nations.

A kaleidoscope of gold, black and white competing for space in a dazzling array of diagonal lines. It seemed as if the design team at Kappa had assembled three cannons, loaded them with different coloured fabric, fired them at each other and hoped for the best.

In a way, that is what Nelson Mandela was doing in his second year as the country’s first democratically elected president. With a combination of immense natural wealth – most notably in vast gold reserves – and his unquantifiable aura, the ‘Madiba Magic’, Mandela had circumvented civil war. Black and white citizens had largely united under his patriarchal hand and had sought to build a better world together.

That magic also fuelled sporting triumphs. The 1995 Rugby World Cup victory would not have been possible without Mandela rallying the impoverished black majority behind the divisive Springbok emblem. On the football pitch, Lucas Radebe, Doctor Khumalo, Phil Masinga, Mark Fish and the rest of those swashbucklers underlined Mandela’s vision of a post-racial Rainbow Nation by conquering the continent at the first time of asking.

Decades of entrenched inequality, unchecked government corruption and a weakening economy have doused that nascent optimism with heavy realism. The slow decay of Mandela’s African National Congress party was mirrored by Bafana Bafana who lost the following Cup of Nations final in 1998, lost in the semi-final in 2000, lost in the quarter-final in 2002, failed to clear their group in 2004, 2006 and 2008 and then failed to qualify for the tournament at all in 2010 and 2012.

Both the stumbling of the country at large and the football team in particular fuelled the mythology of what came before. Every time another minister was entangled in controversy or another head coach was sacked, the reputations of history’s giants soared. I grew up in the shadows of these giants, grappling with what once was and what could have been.

I am part of a generation of South Africans known as ‘born-frees’. I was two years old when Mandela took his first steps as a free man, six when he came to power and eight when he handed captain Neil Tovey the now discontinued Trophy of African Unity at Soccer City Stadium in Soweto. 

That shirt he wore became a metaphor of a fledgling democracy and the tangible form of my nostalgia. I had to have it but had never seen one in the flesh. Retail stores hadn’t sold one in over a decade. All potential leads culminated in dead ends.

I had long given up my search by the time my partner and I moved from Johannesburg in 2018 and settled in a shoe-box flat in south London. A meander online took me to Classic Football Shirts and there it was: 

Rare home shirt worn when the Bafana Bafana won the Africa Cup of Nations in ’96. 

Condition of shirt: Excellent. 

Price: £129.99.

I’d been working as a journalist for four years by now but had moved to the UK to study. The rand-pound exchange meant I was once again a skint student with a tight budget. Such a purchase while living on legumes in one of the most expensive cities in the world was an indulgent act of lunacy I couldn’t afford. But it was all I could think of. I woke up one night and frantically grabbed my laptop, terrified that I’d missed my chance. At 02:37 on a Tuesday, I typed in my bank details.

It came through the post with a flood of emotions. I ripped off the plastic and immediately put it on. Instantly, I was sucked through a vortex of my own memories. I hadn’t just been searching for a piece of memorabilia. I was searching for an innocence I had lost. An innocence that I believe my country has lost.

Like other white South Africans unblinkered by the sins of our forebears, I know that my existence is one of privilege. Through my writing – and ill-conceived rants on social media – I have used my limited platform to espouse a message of understanding and reconciliation. Perhaps, as some trolls have pointed out, it’s all been an attempt to assuage my historical guilt. 

Moving to the UK has allowed me to go down introspective rabbit holes with the benefit of distance. As the old proverb says, the fish is the last to discover the water and I now appreciate that I needed to leave South Africa to appreciate fully what it represents and how I contribute to its evolving narrative. 

I now ask myself questions that leave me uncertain about my place in the world. Can I call myself African? Does the colour of my skin set parameters on my identity? How much responsibility must I shoulder for the crimes of my race?

I am convinced that it is no coincidence I found the immortalised Bafana Bafana shirt away from South Africa. Since purchasing it I have watched just about every minute of on-field action involving this kit that is available on YouTube, a task I was either too busy or too distracted to do before.

Two memorable games stand out. The first is a 3-2 defeat to Brazil at Soccer City just months after beating Tunisia. Masinga and Khumalo gave the hosts a half-time lead before an acrobatic volley from Bebeto in the 86th minute capped a stunning comeback from the reigning world champions. 

A year later at the same venue, Masinga struck a ball so hard from 30 yards that it still echoes today, as he sent South Africa to the World Cup for the first time with a 1-0 win over Congo-Brazzaville (now the Republic of the Congo). They’d change their colours for a more modest, stripped down version for France ’98. They’ve never been the same since. 

At the time of writing Bafana Bafana are ranked 71st in the world and 13th in Africa. Modern football’s reliance on innovation and sound investment strategies doesn’t fill me with much optimism for revival. Qualification for Qatar 2020 hangs in the balance and only the winner of a group involving Ghana will progress. 

Not that football matters amidst a pandemic and the economic ruin that will follow. Besides, there are other pressing concerns in a country where almost half the population lives below the bread line.

But if football matters the most out of all the things that don’t matter, as philosopher-forward Jorge Valdano more or less said, then perhaps the thing that matters most of all is what the protagonists were wearing. Some might argue it’s the goals or saves or trophies. But none of that matters as much to me as a shirt that is now mine, and my quest to find it.