Bafana Bafana captain Ronwen Williams was the key man again, as the quarter-final hero saved two spot-kicks.
First, DR Congo captain Chancel Mbemba had the chance to win it, only for Williams to block, before Meshack Elia’s penalty was also saved.
The game, which ended goalless, went straight to penalties after 90 minutes.
After losing their semi-final on spot-kicks, South Africa became the first team to play three straight Afcon shootouts after Williams had saved four penalties in the quarter-final win against Cape Verde.
In Abidjan’s Felix Houphouet-Boigny stadium, the goalkeeper again proved the central figure after midfielder Teboho Mokoena, a primary factor in South Africa’s superb run in Ivory Coast, hit the post with the first penalty.
Shortly after the skipper secured South Africa’s success, Belgian coach Hugo Broos, 71, was given the bumps after adding a third-place ‘bronze’ to the ‘gold’ he secured with Cameroon’s 2017 triumph.
Bafana Bafana last stood on the podium in 2000, when beating Tunisia on penalties, while DR Congo were trying to equal their best tournament since 1998, which was when South Africa last contested a Nations Cup final, two years after their sole title.
The Leopards will wonder how they came away fourth after missing several chances, with Mbemba and Fiston Mayele wasting inviting opportunities late on.
Having now won all three of their Nations Cup encounters with DR Congo, South Africa, meanwhile, will feel their dramatic victory rewards a campaign when they have both surprised and impressed many observers.
Williams shines again
Having fielded a starting XI largely composed of players from Pretoria-based Mamelodi Sundowns, who won the inaugural African Football League last year, the settled side have conceded just one goal in their last six games – in the semi-final defeat to Nigeria.
Nonetheless, they rode their luck against the Congolese – who had made nine changes to the team beaten in the semi-finals – at times.
Fielding two players who had not played at all in Ivory Coast, the Leopards got in behind South Africa’s defence on many occasions, but Silas was foiled by some expert goalkeeping from Williams while striker Simon Banza then failed to generate power when well-placed.
A hard-fought first period ended with just one shot on goal apiece, with DR Congo – who won the title in 1968 and 1974, forcing nearly all the best moments throughout the 90 minutes, only to rarely test Williams.
After the break, Banza rifled over a difficult volley before Silas failed to hit the target after Williams made a rare error, dropping the ball inexplicably to Elia whose cross caused havoc in the South African defence.
After top-scorer Yoane Wissa was introduced 20 minutes from time, the Congolese pressure intensified but Mbemba, who has led his nation superbly in Ivory Coast, got a volley horribly wrong when free in front of goal.
While South Africa threatened briefly through Mihlali Miyambela, Fiston Mayele then failed to hit the target with the goal at his mercy in the 90th minute, following which Williams produced his latest heroics.
“We needed to be more clinical and we lost the game because of that,” said DR Congo defender Dylan Batubinsika.
However, the Leopards can look back on an impressive campaign in which they have only been beaten once, by the Ivorians on Wednesday, as coach Sebastian Desabre expertly marshalled the team into a compact unit with defensive solidity and attacking flair.
Inside the Abidjan arena, two members of Bafana Bafana’s victorious 1996 side – captain Neil Tovey and Lucas Radebe – beamed in delight while Confederation of African Football (Caf) president Patrice Motsepe, who is also South African, also allowed himself a smile or two.
Tovey was in town as one of several Nations Cup-winning captains invited by Caf ahead of Sunday’s decisive clash between host nation Ivory Coast and three-time winners Nigeria.
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