“Sport has the power to inspire and unite people.” Nelson Mandela.
In the shadow of the majestic Table Mountain, the roar of people celebrating and living can be heard miles off the coast. The sound of waves crashing down on nearby beaches can be heard and felt as the salt hits the air. As the strong African sun beats down on South Africa, the smell of the sea, fish and braai (a native BBQ) can hit the nose for miles when you are in the city of Cape Town.
During Apartheid, a group of men felt, smelled and heard all of this as they were imprisoned on Robben Island.
Just six kilometers off the coast of one of the most beautiful cities in the world, a former leper colony was transformed into a jail for political prisoners. Their most famous inmate, one of the world’s greatest leaders – Nelson Mandela served 27 years on the island as inmate 46664.
As his country was overtaken by the fascist, racist and oppressive Apartheid regime, Mandela and other members of the African National Congress (ANC) including Jacob Zuma, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and hundreds of others who spoke out against the government were sent there for exile.
Think Alcatraz but based on hate.
While the inmates were forced into slave labor (digging in the lime quarries and working some of the operations within the prison island like laundry, cleaning and grounds keeping), many found an outlet to express themselves – soccer.
Soccer As The Savior
Away from their family, friends, and personal lives the inmates of Robben Island faced a mundane life behind bars; almost all were sentenced to life imprisonment.
In 1964, somehow, someway, the inmates got their hands on a FIFA rulebook and began crafting a prison league within their cells. The Makana Football Association was born. Named after the 19th Century Xhosa warrior, Makana, who was sentenced to prison on the island after he tried to unite his people to overthrow the British Empire.
The 20th century Apartheid-era inmates had learned the rules and even had a three-tier system within the league much like Italy’s Serie A, Serie B and Lega Pro. Equipped with a series of teams, players, managers and refs, the men behind bars soon found themselves organizing something to occupy their minds as their time was locked away.
Sipho Tshabalala, a member and founder of the Makana F.A. told FIFA in 2007: “When you are in prison, especially in a situation of degradation, you learn to get what you want. And fortunately, we got a referees charter. God alone knows where from, but we had one. The referees charter became our bible.”
By 1966, the league was officially born as the guards and officials who looked after the island allowed the once banned game to be played within the confines of the prison. Every Saturday, the prisoners were able to strip off their grey prison suits for handmade kits and play.
Most prisoners were allowed to watch but those under heavy guard like Mandela, were not granted permission to view the matches. Current South African president Jacob Zumba was appointed a referee. We’d be curious to know if he was as scandalous as an official as he is as a leader.
In that same 2007 FIFA interview, Mark Skinners, member and co-founder of the Makana F.A., spoke about the importance of football in their lives. “Football was very important because, while we were on Robben Island, one of the things that kept us sane was this constant link of wanting to know what was going on in the outside world, the normal things that people do like going to soccer matches. It affirmed that.”
The league helped bridge political lines between the prisoners. Some were from the African National Congress (ANC) and others from the rival, Pan African Congress (PAC), which during the struggle of Apartheid had conflicting views on how to deal with the government.
On the effects of soccer at Robben Island, Tshabalala further stated, “we became part of something. Partly it was the feeling that by assisting or playing and forcing the authorities (the prison guards) to play, you actually get them to back down on something they were trying to deny you. It said that as a person, I want my dignity and I am not as isolated from the world as you people think. There was that sentiment in all of us.”
The league ran until 1973 when it was shut down by the government and the prison. For a brief moment in time, the prisoners could play outside and forget about the life they were forced into as they were punished for trying to liberate their own people. The political prisoners were primarily black men who fought to show the white South African regime that all people were created equal and all citizens should be united.
For a brief moment in time, through soccer, Mandela and company claimed a small victory over their oppressors. The Makana F.A. allowed the prisoners to maintain their humanity before their biggest win of them all: Apartheid’s collapse in 1991.
The Legacy That Lives On
Former inmate, player and co-founder Lizo Sitoto told FIFA in 2007: “Some of the players were our heroes, like Ruud Gullit, who won the European player of the year in 1987 and dedicated it to Mandela. We all identified with him and as a result a lot of people had dreadlocks.”
Though they could not watch the matches of the outside world on television while in prison, they were able to get the news in censored newspapers the guards would pass on. It was no surprise that they knew the players of Europe’s best.
During the final years of Apartheid, the world was pressuring the South African government to end the regime and oppression, as well as to let Mandela free. In 1991, Apartheid ended and Mandela took his long walk to freedom. Three years after his release, he became his country’s first black president.
After his release, Mandela once said: “While we were on Robben Island, the only access to the World Cup was on radio. Football was the only joy to prisoners.”
In 2007, FIFA officially called the Makana Football Association an honorary member into soccer’s governing body. That same year, the film More Than Just a Game, which chronicled the story of the prison league was released in South Africa.
In 2010, South Africa hosted their first World Cup. While there have been plenty of allegations that South Africa bribed officials to win the bid to host the World Cup, when the country was awarded the Cup in 2004, Mandela famously said: “Sport has the power to inspire and unite people. In Africa, soccer enjoys great popularity and has a particular place in the hearts of people. That is why it is so important that the FIFA World Cup will, for the first time ever, be hosted on the African continent in 2010. We feel privileged and humbled that South Africa has been given this singular honor of being the African host country.”