And breathe. This is what the collective exhale of 23 years of expectation feels like.

It is not an unbridled rush of joy - the kind that sends Imran Tahir bolting whenever he takes a wicket - it is just a release. For a South African side that has been suffocated for so long, by themselves, their slew of support staff and the significant expectation shoved down their throats, it is a release and a relief that was a long time coming.

For six World Cups, the disappointments have collected like layers of silt and settled on the shoulders of each successive squad. This one could not escape that. There were questions about their strength from the time their squad was selected. Would they be balanced enough? Bat deep enough? Have enough options to make up a fifth bowler? And after the group stage, there was the other question, the one that had been answered in the negative against India and Pakistan - would they be able to chase? In their quarter-final, they answered the last two of those, by dominating in such a way that the first two became irrelevant.

Their attack won the game before their balance or their batting needing to be tested and in so doing, allowed South Africa to showcase the strength they have spent so long trademarking as their own. Fast bowling. Aggressive bowling. Short-ball bowling. Incisive, obliterating bowling. When you think of South Africa, that is what you think of but at this tournament that hid in the shadows until now. Sweet relief. It's back.

Dale Steyn was back. His vein popping was back. His scary eyes were back. And he was back with a partner and a follow-up bowler who both looked the part. Relief.

Kyle Abbott was picked ahead of Vernon Philander because South Africa could see the SCG track promised bounce and carry. Combined with his pace and passion, South Africa could create a pressure cooker at both ends of the pitch and then "follow up with a lot of heat," as AB de Villiers put it, with Morne Morkel. Relief.

South Africa were not the ones holding their breath. Sri Lanka were. Kumar Sangakkara was. The runs were. Relief, but then could have come release.

Sri Lanka's line-up are more than just capable against spin, they can be merciless against it. They bided their time against the pace pack, presumably to target the spin but JP Duminy did not let them. Not long ago he was just a part-time offspinner who would be used to get rid of some overs in the middle phases of a match, today he was a disciplinarian, holding the line so tightly that he gave almost nothing away. Relief.

Allan Donald, part of the heartache in 1992, 1996, 1999 and 2003, embraced Russell Domingo, not with a chest-bumping machismo but with genuine tenderness.

Then, he became the only South African with a World Cup hat-trick to his name. The tournament surprises in mysterious ways too.

None more mysterious than Imran Tahir, who has come into his own as a limited-overs bowler, particularly at World Cups. Tahir seems to thrive on big tournament pressure. For South Africa, who are filled with players who seem to shy way from that, having one person who is willing to take it head on is a relief.

Tahir's variations are becoming the literacy test for batsmen and most are failing to read it. Mahela Jayawardene may be the highest-profile example of that. Tahir has had Jayawardene baffled since the middle of last year when he dismissed him in three successive ODIs. Today, he added a fourth to that. That wicket had Sri Lanka 83 for 4 and separated the two men who could have done the most damage to South Africa. Relief. So much relief Tahir allowed himself t enjoy it with one his customary over-the-top celebrations. "It's because I just enjoy every wicket," he said. And why not?

As a whole, South Africa do not allow themselves to get as carried away as Tahir because of the burdens they have borne. Even when they dismissed Sri Lanka with more than 12 overs still left in their innings and a small target to chase, they did not seem to be pre-empting success. They couldn't. Doing that has been their undoing before. Instead they just enjoyed the relief of knowing that this time, surely, it would not be.

When Quinton de Kock hit the winning runs, his inner-child wanted to celebrate it with all the gusto it deserved. He wanted to fist-pump his way to the boundary. He hit the ball but he stopped, mid-salute, before his emotions could overtake him. Relief brings reason before it brings anything else. He took in the moment, and let others take it in too.

In the dugout, Allan Donald, who had been part of the heartache in 1992, 1996, 1999 and 2003 and had watched it unfold in 2011, embraced Russell Domingo. Not with a chest-bumping machismo but with genuine tenderness. The rest of the support staff, more than a dozen of them, just grinned. Relief all round. Relief, rather than raucous, rampant celebration because relief has to be the leveller for a South African side who have made history but still have more history to make.

For now, they have broken through the ceiling that has capped them at every World Cup they have ever participated in and won a knockout game but they have not yet won the World Cup. And they are not under the illusion that they have. All they know is they have cleared the path and given the country the breath of fresh air it has spent more than two decades gasping for.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent