In December 2018, I honeymooned in Cape Town, South Africa. My new wife and I strolled slack-jawed around the Victoria & Albert Waterfront, where a myriad of modern bars, restaurants and shops catered the joyous thousands that strode across the boardwalk with anything their hearts desire. Yachts and cruise-liners packed the vibrant bay.
Families stared out at the sun-kissed turquoise sea, watching seals playfully jump and splash in the harbour. Table Mountain loomed over us, almost other-worldly. On the surface, a more majestic or cosmopolitan scene you could not hope to find.
After a couple of hours attempting to cure our choice paralysis over which restaurant to have lunch at, we walked on to what is possibly Cape Town’s singular most popular and famous attraction: the Robben Island museum. A 20-minute ferry ride north on the South Atlantic Ocean took us only seven miles in geographical distance, but it felt as though we had transported to another time, another world.
We took part in a harrowing but educational tour of the island, provided by men who were once incarcerated on it. The fascinating and humbling afternoon ended with a former prisoner showing us one of the few areas of respite he and his fellow inmates got during their years on the island – a dry, dusty, patchy sports field. It was surrounded by a 20-foot high razor-wire fence and had a stone-built watchtower overlooking it.
It had a set of football goals at either end, as well as rugby posts sat behind them. Little did I know, as I sweat in the infernal heat, that I was stood upon one of the most important sports arenas in social and political history.
Robben Island was used to imprison political opponents of the National Party’s dictatorship – an evil government that operated a strict apartheid policy following it’s rise to power after the Second World War. Apartheid introduced a system of total and mandatory racial segregation to the whole of South Africa in order to ensure white supremacy. Force was used to evict over three million people from their homes and banish them to small areas of squalor.
The National Party passed many new laws and criminal ‘offences’ that allowed the authorities to arrest, detain and imprison (with extremely lengthy sentences) anyone even suspected of the mildest form of political agitation. Trials were a mere formality – after all, by the purist logic of apartheid, these men were ‘guilty’ of the crime they were accused of: hoping for a better life for their family and their people.
A black child’s state education was funded only one-sixth of the amount of a white child’s. The government saw a higher level of education for black students as pointless and even dangerous – they didn’t want them gaining the knowledge that could see them have aspirations. Skills and employment were almost impossible for them to gain.
Black footballers and rugby players were not allowed to play in the professional ranks alongside their white counterparts. Many fit, intelligent and street-wise young men became angry and sought change; they educated themselves as best they could and joined then-illegal political groups such as the African National Congress (ANC), the Pan African Congress (PAC) or the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO). They would be arrested and incarcerated, and they would invariably be sent to Robben Island.
In its hellish recent past of the last three centuries, Robben Island – known as South Africa’s Alcatraz – has been used to segregate such demographics as criminals, deserters, lepers and the mentally ill from civilisation, with the turbulent, shark-infested Atlantic currents providing a natural barrier. From 1961, political opponents would become the latest tortured souls to be thrown on to the flat and barren rock which is just over half a mile wide.
The government built a series of small buildings to house the prisoners in tiny cells, as well as cabins for the violent regime of officers and armed guards who patrolled around the clock with hungry Alsatian dogs by their sides. The prisoners would be bound in chains, starved, beaten and forced to work all day in a lime quarry until their bare feet and hands bled. They would freeze in winter and roast in the summer.
The prison authorities would keep the leaders of the political groups in solitary confinement, their ideas and cleverness deemed too dangerous of a risk to be allowed to spread. Such leaders included the ANC’s Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisula. These men spent year upon year in the complete isolation of a damp seven-foot square cell. Mandela was arrested in 1962 and spent 27 years incarcerated – 18 of them on “Devil’s Island”.
Conversely, the rest of the political prisoners were forced to share cells with members of rival groups, as the officials in charge of the island hoped for further hatred and division to evolve.
Instead, many of these seemingly hopeless prisoners found common ground politically in their hatred of the government and of apartheid, and socially, many of them loved football, which had been by far the most popular sport in non-white South Africa for decades. These things began to unify the men of Robben Island.
As months and years rolled on, the prisoners discovered ways of communicating with their comrades in other blocks – and even with those in solitary confinement. Scraps of paper dropped next to a cell that appeared completely blank until exposed to the heat of the sun, when suddenly a message or instruction would appear that had been scribed in milk.
In 1963, many cellmates would fill their otherwise dull evenings by playing cell-football with a couple of rolled-up garments. The better players stood out and soon teams began to be chosen fairly and democratically to make for closer and increasingly competitive contests. But this appetiser only made them hungrier for something closer to the real thing.
When the inmates began talking about wanting to play outdoor, 11-a-side football, many of their peers laughed aloud in their faces, so ludicrously removed was the vision from the reality they all faced.
But the dictatorship regime’s insistence on following their own rules provided some hope: all prisoners had a right to outdoor exercise twice per week, and on Saturdays, every prisoner was invited to register complaints or make requests with the warden.
The freedom fighters’ calls for essentials such as more food, fewer beatings and footwear had always fallen on deaf ears. So all of the wannabe-footballers agreed to take it in turns to ask for the right to play football once every week as their exercise quota. Insulted by the preposterous request, the warder would dish out punishments to the time-waster in front of him. Undeterred, one prisoner in-turn made the request every single Saturday throughout 1965.
The National Party had come under much international scrutiny for the visible tyranny that the outside world were allowed to see – the hidden depths being so much worse. In sport, FIFA had banned South Africa from playing in any officially sanctioned match or tournament due to their whites-only policy. The IOC also disqualified them from the 1964 Olympic Games and other sports followed suit.
When an International Red Cross visit to Robben Island was planned, so that the global body could inspect the state of the prison and the treatment of the inmates, the warden suddenly had the motivation to sign off on requests that had previously been derided, in a bid to make the regime appear less cruel and more hospitable. Suddenly, Mandela and other political leaders in solitary confinement had sewing kits, and the footballers had a football.
A dusty rectangle of rock was assigned as the place for their new weekly activity. The first matches saw unfit skeletal-like men, randomly picked into teams by the guards, falling over and barely able to complete the 30-minute allocation. They had no kits and played barefoot. After three years of persistence, the reality appeared to be more nightmare than dream. The warder and the guards joked that the endeavour wouldn’t last into a third week.
But soon there were goalposts constructed from planks of wood and fishing net that had washed ashore. An inmate that had previously been a cobbler moulded boots for the players out of the cast-off rubber sandals found about the island. Prisoners experienced in gardening or farming volunteered to help the ground prosper from dry, lumpy rock to something that resembled a grassy pitch.
The men became fitter, stronger and mentally sharper. As the level of competition increased, the men pushed for more – full 90-minute game time and the ability to pick their own teams were soon granted.
Committees were formed and a full league structure began to emerge. By chance, the Red Cross also sanctioned and ordered a prison library to be installed on the island, and a copy of FIFA’s official rulebook was amongst the few original stock of books. It was studied by the committee and followed to the letter. Men who firmly believed that they would one day rejoin the fight for their own freedom were sharpening the mental tools they would need for that battle by forming and organising a football league.
The teams evolved into seven formal clubs – Rangers, Bucks, Hotspurs, Dynamos, Ditshitshidi, Black Eagles and Gunners – with each representing a political group and having a president and a secretary. But an eighth club, Manong FC, registered later, and part of it’s written constitution was that membership was open to all, regardless of political allegiance.
The other clubs followed suit and removed the discriminatory text from their doctrines, all agreeing that it was not in keeping with their overall, unified philosophy.
Policies on such things as transfers and player-of-the-year awards were drawn up, a Referee’s Union was established, as was a Protest and Misconduct Committee, and the Makana Football Association was born. The name, like everything else, was agreed democratically by committee.
Makana was the name of a legendary warrior-prophet who was banished to Robben Island in 1819 by the British as he battled against colonialism. He died alongside 30 other men when the boat they were attempting to escape aboard capsized. His determination was deemed a fitting tribute to the football association which represented so much more than the sum of it’s parts to the latest collective to be on the island for defending their right to freedom.
Armed with the FIFA rulebook, a formal MFA constitution was drawn up, with members of the ANC and PAC working together towards a common goal. It was finally ratified and unveiled in June 1969.
A ninth club, Mphatlalatsane, was registered and the teams went about signing and transferring inmates to their squads. The initiative had gathered so much momentum that there was more interest than the organisers had anticipated, with each club registering up to 40 players – almost half of the political prisoners on the island would be involved in the MFA either as a player or administrator.
Each club had to split their squad into A, B and C teams based on footballing ability – no one would not be allowed to play because of a lack of skill. The three levels would then compete in a subsequent three-tiered league system. The C Division would be made up of those who weren’t inherently athletic or hadn’t played very much before their incarceration. The glamorous A Division would be made up of those young studs who could, and should, have been playing high-level football on the mainland if not for their openly anti-apartheid views.
For the vision to become reality, the men had one more ambitious target: a unique kit for each club. Every prisoner wore the same uniform, all day, every day. It was back to the request process for the representatives of the MFA, whilst each club worked on the design it felt best reflected the club and its philosophies.
With the requests once again repeatedly laughed off by the warders, it was yet another appeal to the International Red Cross, who not only sanctioned the initiative but provided funding for orders to be placed for the kits to be mass-produced using sports shops in Cape Town. The men were winning the battle against their captors.
In the sizzling heat of a Southern Hemisphere summer, the first competitive match of the Makana FA was played in December 1969. Almost every prisoner picked the club they would support and soon the whole island was abuzz with excitement. The beginning of each week would pass quickly as the tortured men analysed and debated the previous Saturday’s result, and the end of the week would brim with eager punditry and predictions of the match that lie ahead. It was the talk down the quarry; it was the talk in the cells.
The freedom fighters had won hope that change could happen. Even the guards and government staff began to root for teams and individuals and men that had previously viewed the shackled cadaverous people they bullied as less than animals now began to see fellow men with whom they shared a common passion. The beatings lessened and food portions increased as they wanted players fitter and stronger to train and perform well. The stones in the quarry were no longer the only walls broken down on Robben Island.
Organised, structured league football continued to be played by the political prisoners until the horrors of the apartheid policy were finally overthrown and they were released. The majority of the previously splintered anti-apartheid movement gathered behind Nelson Mandela’s ANC as they became a legitimate political opposition party – and forced an election in which the black people of a free South Africa could finally vote.
In 1994, Mandela became the president of the country that had imprisoned him for 27 years, with many of the men who had created and played in the Makana Football Association acting as senior politicians and administrators.
Freedom had come following global pressure to end the demonic dictatorship, as politics followed sport and cut allegiances. Sports stars and celebrities pleaded for the end of the cruelty so that they could integrate with the world at the top of their professions. The sporting world welcomed them back with open arms in the early-90s and the iconic images of Mandela lifting the Rugby World Cup trophy aloft alongside white South Africa captain François Pienaar in 1995 will live forever.
FIFA awarded them the right to host the 2010 football World Cup, and not even the dreaded vuvuzela could ruin the vibrant, groundbreaking tournament. The majestic Cape Town Stadium was built into the glitzy waterfront for the event, just that same seven-mile boat ride from the dry, dusty turf on which the heroes of the Makana FA played.
As part of the awareness programme created as part of awarding of them the tournament, a FIFA delegation which included current star players visited Robben Island to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 89th birthday in July 2007. Collectively they scored 89 goals on that dry, dusty pitch. At a ceremony that followed, FIFA inducted the Makana FA as honorary members.
When our return ferry moored up back at the Victoria & Albert Waterfront, the sun was setting over the horizon behind us. Dark, heavy clouds gathered eerily around the top of Table Mountain. We shared a bottle of red wine over a steak supper, and I was deep in thought as the clouds climbed down the mountain and began to spread low over a city that looked and felt very different than it had at lunchtime.
The excursion had educated and enlightened me. I realised that all of the customers in this upmarket restaurant were white, yet all of the staff popping the corks off the expensive bottles of champagne and collecting the dirty dishes were black. Each and every homeless person on the streets around our downtown Cape Town hotel were black. The gulf in equality caused by systemic racism of the kind enacted during apartheid may never be levelled out, but little-by-little, they are getting there.
South Africa is over a century behind the likes of the UK in its attempts to create racial equilibrium, and yet we ourselves have such a long way to go still. Only 30 short years ago they didn’t, but at least now in South Africa, Black Lives Matter.
By Steven Bell @steven_bell1985