The Year in Review, 2023: Our top 10 SA sports heroes

Siya Kolisi and the Springboks celebrate their victory in the 2023 Rugby World Cup final over the All Blacks.

Siya Kolisi and the Springboks celebrate their victory in the 2023 Rugby World Cup final over the All Blacks. Picture: Matthieu Mirville / DPPI via AFP

Published Dec 31, 2023


It has been an incredible sporting year for South Africans across the globe. We chose 10 of the best performers and teams for 2023 ...

Honourable mention: Tatjana Schoenmaker

The 26-year-old continued to be the darling of South Africa in the swimming pool, winning gold and silver earlier this year in the 200m and 100m breaststroke, respectively, at the World Aquatics Championship in Japan. She also finished the fastest swimmer in the 200m breaststroke this year.

10 Temba Bavuma and the Proteas

The Proteas finished the year having won 16 of their 25 ODIs, but it was their run at the Cricket World Cup in India where they created much hope and inspired South Africans to dream big, and then dashed those hopes – much to the anguish of a nation.

Largely written off ahead of the tournament, a brilliant come-from-behind 3-2 ODI series victory over Australia set the scene for an intriguing World Cup campaign. Nobody believed the Proteas would make the semi-finals of the showpiece event, where they eventually came unstuck against eventual champions and the old enemy, Australia.

They did so by smashing records at every opportunity. There were some magnificent individual performances, too. Gerald Coetzee and Marco Jansen enjoyed a break-out year, while Quinton de Kock, Rassie van der Dussen, Aiden Markram and David Miller compiled a mountain of runs.

Was it a disappointing end to their campaign? Yes. But it remained a memorable journey to get there.

9 Gerda Steyn

Gerda Steyn just keeps on defying the odds, doesn’t she?

As if her status as the country’s best road runner of her generation was not enough, she went and had a 2023 season for the ages. It is generally agreed that you can’t really race both the Two Oceans and the Comrades Marathon in one year. But Steyn did, and smashed both.

She first improved on the Two Oceans Marathon record that she set last year when she smashed Frith van der Merwe’s long-standing mark from 1989 with a superb 3:29.06.

Later on, she added the Comrades Marathon Down Run record to the Up Run she already held as she broke yet another one of Van Der Merwe’s ‘time for the ages’ with a display so dominant she beat the runner up by 11-and-a-half minutes, as she crossed the finish line in the record time of 5:44.54.

She completed a hat-trick of records by improving her standard marathon time, which is the South African record, by a minute and 25 seconds with a 2:24.03, at the Valencia Marathon. What an athlete!

Steyn’s next goal is next year’s Olympics in Paris, and there’s every reason to foresee her shining there too.

8 Dricus du Plessis

“Hulle weet nie wat ons weet nie.” With those immortal words, MMA star Dricus du Plessis wrote himself into South African sporting folklore after defeating Robert Whittaker in July.

Du Plessis became the No 1 contender in the middleweight division of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) with that incredible victory in Nevada, achieved via a second-round technical knockout.

Afterwards, Du Plessis shouted into the TV camera, “Hulle weet nie wat ons weet nie” (They don’t know what we know), and that rallying cry was quickly adopted by many other South African teams and sportspeople.

Some of the Springboks have mentioned it, and golf star Erik van Rooyen repeated it after winning the PGA Tour’s WWT Championship in Mexico in November.

Du Plessis was scheduled to take on UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya – a Nigerian-born New Zealander – a few months after his win over Whittaker, but had to withdraw due to a fractured foot.

Since then, Adesanya has lost his crown to American Sean Strikland, and now Du Plessis will face the latter at UFC 297 in Toronto on January 20.

Let’s hope that the fighter from Pretoria, who will celebrate his 30th birthday on January 14, will earn himself a perfect present, and that we will hear his famous phrase once more.

7 Orlando Pirates’ cup success

Spanish mentor Jose Riveiro’s impact was instant at Orlando Pirates as he guided the Buccaneers to second on the Premiership log last season, behind perennial champions Mamelodi Sundowns.

Despite being all of 16 points behind the Brazilians on the standings, Pirates proved that they could become title contenders once more, and they were rewarded with cup success this year.

First up was the Nedbank Cup, where they survived a penalty shoot-out against Dondol Stars in the quarter-finals to set up a mouth-watering semi-final against arch-rivals Kaizer Chiefs.

It turned out to be a thrilling Soweto Derby, with Kermit Erasmus scoring early on to put Pirates in front, and just when it looked like they had the victory in the bag, Chiefs grabbed an equaliser through Yusuf Maart late in the second half.

The game went into extra time, but Pirates defender Sandile Mthethwa was the hero with a header to clinch a 2-1 triumph.

It was the same score-line in the May final against Sekhukhune United, but this time Pirates had to come from behind after Sibusiso Vilakazi’s first-half goal.

Thapelo Xoki converted a penalty before halftime to make it 1-1, and just when the title decider seemed to be heading for extra time, Terrence Dzvukamanja scored the winner for Pirates.

In the MTN8 final in October against Mamelodi Sundowns, the match ended 0-0 and went into a penalty shoot-out.

Pirates goalkeeper Sipho Chaine was the hero, saving three penalties, and Karim Kimvuidi converted the final spot-kick to secure the trophy.

6 Brad Binder and KTM

The 28-year-old Binder continues to fly the South African flag high in MotoGP. This past year was one of development and advancement for Binder and Red Bull KTM as they continue to catch up to the dominant force in the sport – Ducati.

Binder sat behind the rear wheel of a Ducati an awful lot in 2023.

It was not for a lack of pace, as the RB16 has plenty of that, but rather the nitty and the gritty of aerodynamics and tyre grip. Nevertheless, Binder had an excellent season as his consistency saw him rake in the points to score in 15 of the 20 races.

He also stepped onto five podiums, with his best two second-place finishes in Spain and Austria, respectively. Moreover, he collected two Sprint victories, with his performance in Argentina early in the season especially impressive.

It was then that he started 17th on the grid to bob and weave his way through the field to claim a memorable win.

Binder finished fourth in the world riders’ championship – his best finish in the elite class yet – and helped guide KTM to second in the constructors’ championship. Next year will be about consolidating his momentum and making a real push for higher honours.

5 Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies

The Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies team not only underlined their dominance of South African football in 2023, but went even a step further than the club’s men’s team by clinching their second Caf Women’s Champions League crown.

They first had to qualify for the Champions League by winning the Cosafa title, beating Double Actions Ladies from Botswana 2-0.

In Group A of the Champions League in the Ivory Coast in November, they emerged victorious in all three encounters, getting past Tanzanian club JKT Queens 2-0, Moroccan outfit Sporting Club Casablanca 1-0 and Athletico D’Abidjan of the Ivory Coast 3-0.

Sundowns then had a chance to gain revenge for losing the 2022 final to AS FAR of Morocco, and they managed to do just that, securing a 1-0 victory to reach the championship decider for a second year in a row.

They were up against Sporting Club Casablanca once again, and dominated the final to win 3-0 at the Amadou Gon Coulibaly Stadium in Korhogo, with a brace from Botswana star Refilwe Tholakele and another goal from Lesotho’s Boitumelo Rabale to clinch their second Champions League trophy.

Sundowns weren’t done yet as they won a record sixth SA league title in December, before ending off the year in style by being chosen as the Caf Women’s Club of the Year at the annual continental awards.

4 Rulani Mokwena and Mamelodi Sundowns

While there hasn’t been a second Caf Champions League title just yet, it was still a memorable 2023 for coach Rulani Mokwena and his Mamelodi Sundowns outfit.

They were utterly dominant in the Premiership, claiming a sixth consecutive title with 21 wins, seven draws and just two defeats for their 16th overall league crown.

Sundowns finished on 70 points, a whopping 16 ahead of second-placed Orlando Pirates on the final log.

They also reached the MTN8 final, where they lost 3-1 in a penalty shoot-out to Pirates after the match ended goalless.

But the big one for Masandawana is always the Champions League, and they were desperately close to competing in the title decider in the continent’s premier competition as well.

Having negotiated a tough group stage unbeaten – including thrashing Al Ahly 5-2 in Pretoria and drawing 2-2 in Cairo – Sundowns finished on top of Group B and drew Algerian club CR Belouizdad in the quarter-finals.

The Brazilians won both the home and away legs to advance to the semi-finals with a 6-2 aggregate victory, and then it was Moroccan giants Wydad Casablanca up next.

Sundowns earned an excellent 0-0 draw away from home, and just needed a 1-0 victory at Loftus Versfeld to reach the final.

But after goals from Themba Zwane and Peter Shalulile had put them 2-1 up with 10 minutes to go, it was total heartbreak for Mokwena and his team as Mothobi Mvala conceded an own goal to make it 2-2 in the 83rd minute – and Wydad held on to advance on the away-goals rule.

There was some consolation for Sundowns as they won the inaugural African Football League title, beating Wydad 3-2 on aggregate after losing 2-1 away and winning 2-0 at home.

3 Desiree Ellis and Banyana Banyana

There was some controversy before the tournament, but Banyana Banyana pulled together and made history at the Fifa Women’s World Cup this year.

A warm-up game in early July against Botswana at the Tsakane Stadium in Brakpan was ‘boycotted’ by the squad due to the poor pitch and venue, which saw local youngsters fielded in a 5-0 defeat.

But just two weeks later, Banyana beat Costa Rica 2-0 in Christchurch, and that set the tone for the World Cup campaign.

Despite going down 2-1 in their tournament opener against Sweden in Wellington, where Hildah Magaia grabbed the opener early in the second half, before Amanda Ilestedt scored the winner in the final minute.

There was disappointment in the second match against Argentina, where goals by Linda Motlhalo and Thembi Kgatlana put SA 2-0 up, but the South Americans fought back for a 2-2 draw in Dunedin.

It was all or nothing in the final group match against Italy, and in a thrilling encounter in Wellington, Kgatlana came up with the decider in stoppage time – after an Italy own goal and a Magaia strike – to clinch a 3-2 triumph and send Banyana to the round of 16: the first South African senior side to reach the knockout stage of a World Cup.

Banyana had to face the might of the Netherlands in the playoffs, but even though they went down 2-0 in Sydney, Desiree Ellis’ team will remember 2023 forever.

In addition, Ellis was chosen as the Caf Women’s Coach of the Year, while Janine van Wyk became the most-capped African player in international football to end her career on 185 matches.

2 Suné Luus and the Proteas

Led by Luus, the Proteas had South Africa in raptures as they became the first national team to make the final of a major ICC event when they contested for the championship of the Women’s T20 World Cup in Cape Town.

They might have come up short, ultimately losing the final at Newlands by 19 runs to SA’s nemesis Australia, but their efforts only heightened the profile of the sport.

There were many achievements to celebrate – Laura Wolvaardt was all class as she became the tournament’s highest run-scorer, with Tazmin Brits not far behind.

Marizanne Kapp put in some brilliant all-round performances, while Shabnim Ismail worked tirelessly with ball in hand.

For many of the veterans in the team, it was their final swansong, with South African cricket welcoming a batch of new faces and would-be heroes into the fold by the end of the year.

They will carry the torch forward with the knowledge that the fire to succeed already burns white hot.

1 Siya Kolisi and the Springboks

When the Springboks arrived in France for the Rugby World Cup, they weren’t considered genuine title contenders by most pundits up north – despite beating the All Blacks 35-7 at Twickenham in a warm-up game.

The French and Ireland were the hot favourites, and there were even some doubts about whether the South Africans could get past Scotland in their pool.

As it was, the Boks lost a titanic battle 13-8 to the Irish, but they had so many chances to win that game that it looked they were holding some of their aces up their sleeve for the knockouts.

But captain Siya Kolisi and his team made it to the quarter-finals, and that is where Bok fans’ blood pressure would have taken a pounding.

They produced a fine display as tries by Kurt-Lee Arendse, Damian de Allende, Cheslin Kolbe and Eben Etzebeth put them in front, along with conversions by Manie Libbok and Handré Pollard, who also slotted a key late penalty that proved to be the difference as desperate defence saw the Boks hold on.

It was an even tighter semi-final against England, where Owen Farrell’s four penalties and a drop goal put England 15-6 ahead with 25 minutes to go.

But the Boks never gave up, and RG Snyman’s try was converted by Pollard, who then stepped up and booted over a 78th-minute penalty to secure a 16-15 win.

Bok bosses Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber made the big call to start with Pollard ahead of Libbok in the final, and the No 10 repaid the faith with four penalties in a 12-11 triumph over the All Blacks.

Kolisi and the rest of the squad enjoyed a hero’s welcome at OR Tambo International Airport, and the festivities lasted for a few more days as the Trophy Tour went around Mzansi.

IOL Sport