The Congolese cast aside unhappiness over bonuses and poor treatment by team officials to wipe out a two-goal deficit and finish stronger than Ghana in a 2-2 thriller.
Ghana were seeded first and DR Congo last in Group B and the Port Elizabeth match followed a predictable course when Italy-based duo Emmanuel Agyeman Badu and Kwadwo Asamoah scored for the Black Stars.
But the Leopards are nothing if not unpredictable and instead of throwing in the towel, they hit back with impressive captain Tresor Mputu scoring before Dieumerci Mbokani levelled off a penalty kick.
Mali top the table having finally broken the resistance of hyper-cautious Niger with six minutes left when the aerial shakiness of goalkeeper Daouda Kassaly gifted Seydou Keita a chance he readily accepted.
Ethiopia — back in the African football big time after 31 years –missed a penalty, had goalkeeper Jemal Tassew sent off, and conceded a goal to title-holders Zambia on the stroke of half-time in Nelspruit.
But the Walias Antelopes took a leaf from the Congolese book and deservedly equalised midway through the second half when skipper Adane Girma completed a slick move by firing the ball past Kennedy Mweene at his near post.
Burkina Faso and Nigeria also have one point each in Group C with pre-Cup doubt Alain Traore grabbing a last-second equaliser after Emmanuel Emenike had edged the Super Eagles ahead midway through the opening half.
Nigeria, one of several big-name absentees from the 2012 tournament in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, did not impress and left too much unguarded space after defender Efe Ambrose was red carded 15 minutes from time.
Togo, dismissed by pundits as the rank outsiders among the 16 qualifiers, came within two minutes of holding Ivory Coast in Group D after Jonathan Ayite cancelled an early Yaya Toure goal.
But reigning African Footballer of the Year Toure turned goal creator in Rustenburg with his free-kick to the far post expertly finished off by fellow English Premier League star Gervinho.
The brave Togolese proved their strengths extend beyond temperamental striker and skipper Emmanuel Adebayor, and a disallowed goal led French coach Didier Six to storm out of a post-match media conference.
Ivory Coast must improve to finally justify the favourites tag that has accompanied them into five consecutive Africa Cup tournaments, with two final losses in shootouts the closest they have come to a first title in 21 years.
No one craves lifting the Cup of Nations trophy more than Drogba, 34, playing in his last African championship, who was carefully policed by Togo and came off with 15 minutes remaining.
Tunisia left it even later than the Ivorians to win with 'Little Mozart' — $15 million-rated midfielder Youssef Msakni — snatching the lone goal in the final minute of an overly cagey affair against Maghreb neighbours Algeria.
It was cruel on the young, lively Desert Foxes, who had looked the more likely winners, and must now defeat Togo and Ivory Coast to stand a realistic chance of surviving the first-round cull.
The 22-day tournament opened with a couple of sleep-inducing, goalless Group A draws between out-of-sorts hosts South Africa and plucky debutants Cape Verde and Angola and Morocco at a wet, cold Soccer City stadium in Soweto.
Cape Verde missed the best chance of an error-saturated match when Platini shot wide with only goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune to beat while Morocco faded after a lively start and Angola captain Manucho came close to heading a late winner.
The second series of group fixtures kicks off today in Durban with an expected sell-out 60 000 crowd hoping for a goal glut when South Africa face Angola at 5pm and Cape Verde meet Morocco at 8pm. Both matches will be broadcast live on SABC1.