A first half goal from midfielder Teboho Mokoena and second half strikes by his central midfield partner Mothobi Mvala and substitute striker Evidence Makgopa put Bafana in pole position to finish as group winners.
Getaneh Kebede cancelled out Mokoena’s goal in the 67th minute but Mvala regained the lead for Bafana four minutes later and while Ethiopia threatened SA’s goal in the second half they could not claw their way back and Makgapa punished them on the stroke of full time to deflate the home side.
Hugo Broos’s team will look to race away from their rivals in the return match at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg at 6pm on Tuesday, where they will be cheered on by an expected more than 2,000 vaccinated supporters.
Bafana had a bright start but were disorientated as soon as Ethiopia found their groove and wrestled possession of the ball with their signature short passing game.
The home side posed a threat from the first minute and were allowed to spray their short passes throughout the match.
Ethiopia could have scored more than the one goal but they were denied by the brilliance of Bafana captain Ronwen Williams, who made several saves to keep the visitors ahead in the match.
Belgian coach and his team will look to complete the double over the east Africans on Tuesday and move to 10 points ahead of the final two qualifiers against Ghana away and Zimbabwe at home in November.
Bafana flew back to Johannesburg immediately after the match and will start preparing in Soweto for the return match as they bid to win their group and advance to the final round of qualifiers.
Africa has 10 groups in the qualifying campaign and the 10 group winners will be drawn into five head-to-head, two-legged ties to earn one of the five places at the first World Cup to be held in the Middle East.
Ethiopia has never qualified for the World Cup finals while Bafana are looking for their fourth participation after appearances in 1998, 2002 and 2010 as hosts.
Bafana have missed out on qualification for the Brazili and Russia tournaments in 2014 and 2018 respectively.