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SOCCER ON ROBBEN ISLAND

  • For years, political prisoners on Robben Island demanded the right to play soccer. Eventually prison authorities relented under pressure from the International Red Cross.

  • The Robben Island prison opened in the early 1960s. The Makana Football Association was established in 1966, and played off and (mostly) on until the prison closed in 1991.

  • The league was operated in three divisions — A, B and C, based on players' abilities — complete with trainers, managers, referees and coaches from the prison population of as many as 1,400 men.

  • The league had several standing committees to deal with a range of issues, including discipline and maintenance. Minutes of meetings were kept. The level of detail was meticulous.

  • Games were played for two hours on Saturdays for almost nine months a year.

  • Playing soccer was important on many levels for the prisoners:

    • as a diversion from the harsh realities of their lives, as physical exercise to keep their minds and bodies sharp

    • as a way for those from differing political factions to work and play together. For the first time, as football is established, prisoners from the ANC (African National Congress), PAC (Pan African Congress) and other smaller political formations begin to train together and play together in prison.

  • Soccer played a key role in shaping and sustaining a spirit of resistance on the Island. The prisoners believed they would be running their own country one day. That was partly why they organized the soccer league along strict FIFA rules. They saw it as a chance to prove they could run anything.

  • Nelson Mandela, Robben Island's most celebrated prisoner, along with his comrades such as Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and others, were among a small number of prisoners kept in isolation and who were barred from watching and participating in the soccer league

  • Some of South Africa’s politicians and leading figures in many aspects of the socio-economic, cultural milieu played soccer on Robben Island. This includes the Minister of Defence ‘Terror’ Lekota, the Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa Dikgang Moseneke, ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma, business leader Tokyo Sexwale and many others.

  • All week, prisoners worked in the slate quarry in their drab prison garb. On Saturdays, when they played soccer, they wore uniforms in club colours such as maroon and white or black and silver.

  • Initially when the prisoners were not allowed to play soccer, they would play secretly in their cells with balls made of pieces of string, paper, cardboard and rags.

  • When soccer was finally allowed, the prisoners built their own goals. The league's building and maintenance committee rolled and levelled a playing field.

  • Training sessions were held mainly in the communal cell bathrooms- so as not to disturb other prisoners who were either relaxing or sleeping.

  • In later years, teams that won the various leagues were given small trophies and certificates designed by the prisoners. The prison authorities would confiscate this immediately after the awards ceremony on the soccer field.

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