Johannesburg - South Africa's sports minister on Wednesday said the country's national team had matured after qualifying to compete in the continent's most prestigious football tournament following seven years in the wilderness.
Bafana Bafana last qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations in 2008.
"You have come of age," said Minister Fikile Mbalula shortly before the team left for the tournament, which will be hosted by Equatorial Guinea. "This is a special moment for South Africa."
"You have restored the glory, the pride... of the nation," he added.
A year ago, out of frustration at the team's poor performances, Mbalula described Bafana Bafana as a "disaster" and a "useless bunch of losers".
That was after South Africa crashed out of the group stage of the 2014 African Nations Championship with a 3-1 loss to Nigeria.
However, 11 months later, South Africa beat defending continental champions Nigeria away to qualify for this year's Cup of Nations.
That victory came despite the harrowing loss of captain and goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa, who was shot dead at a house south of Johannesburg on October 26 in what police billed as a robbery gone wrong.
"You dismissed the idea that Nigeria cannot be defeated, you have debunked that," said South African Football Association (SAFA) president Danny Jordaan.
South Africa are in a tough-looking Group C at the tournament along with Algeria - the top African side in the FIFA rankings - Senegal and Ghana's Black Stars.
On Saturday, they will step up their preparations with a friendly against Cameroon in the Gabonese capital Libreville, nine days before their opening game.
Coach Ephraim "Shakes" Mashaba has refused to name a team captain following the death of Meyiwa, saying the players would "captain each other".