Celebrating Sports Heritage at the Long March To Freedom

Last month we were fortunate to have the Mamelodi Sundowns Academy visit the Long March To Freedom on 24 September, our national Heritage Day.

The young players were excited to be there and wanted to learn more about our struggle heroes. During their visit, one of the Long March site guides, Alfred Mahapa grew particularly interested in the history of soccer during the struggle period, and in particular, the role it played for political prisoners at Robben Island.

The prison on Robben Island was home to many of South African political prisoners during the Apartheid era. Nelson Mandela and other members of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) including Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Robert Sobukwe, Stanley Magoba, Jacob Zuma, Steve Tshwete and hundreds of others who fought against the government were exiled to the island, many serving out long sentences that would see them leave as old men.

As with any prison, space if confined, and tasks repetitive and boring. Robben Island prisoners are known for their hard labour on the island’s lime quarries, and the daily menial tasks of every political prisoner worldwide, that included laundry duty and cleaning of the amenities. It was in this context, that soccer would prove to be, almost literally, a lifesaver.

In 1964 the inmates discovered a FIFA rulebook from the shelves of the prison library, which led to the formation of the Makana Football Association. This was the prison’s first football league. The association drew its name from the 19th Century Xhosa warrior, Makana, who was sentenced to prison on Robben Island after he tried to unite his people to overthrow the British Empire.

At first the men played secretly in their cells using balls made of paper, cardboard and rags. Then in 1965, after sustained lobbying, the authorities allowed prisoners to play outside on Saturdays. The teams built their own goals and threw off their prison uniforms to put on team colours.

Through the organising of teams, managers and referees, the league became official by 1967. The prison league played every Saturday for two hours, discussed the results of the game every Sunday evening, discussed the rules of the game from Monday to Wednesday and strategized and chose squads on a Thursday and Friday.

ANC member Steve Tshwete, sentenced to 15 years on Robben Island, played a vital role in the soccer league and other sports leagues. He ran the rugby club and the Athletics Association and was the vice-chairman of the Dynaspurs United, which was one of 27 football teams on the island. Interestingly, current South African President Jacob Zuma played central defender and was appointed as a referee for most of the matches.

Mandela, Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada were banned outright from watching and participating in the soccer league that began in 1966 and ended in 1973, when it was shut down by the government and prison. They, as well as Govan Mbeki, were forced to watch the games secretly from an isolation wing of the island’s prison.

Prisoners in the wing were able to follow the progress of teams through a secret communication system and they found a way to actually watch many of the games, until the authorities built a wall that blocked their view.

Although the league was banned by the Apartheid government and prison in 1973, the league was a positive outlet for all of the prisoners. Soccer helped unite prisoners from various anti-apartheid organisations. Some prisoners were from the African National Congress (ANC) and others from the rival, Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), who were renowned for their conflicting views on how to deal with the Apartheid government.

Two of the most godforsaken soccer pitches in the world are on Robben Island. This did not matter to the players of the game. After his release from Robben Island, Mandela shared his view on the prison soccer league and the World Cup: “While we were on Robben Island, the only access to the World Cup was on radio. Football was the only joy to prisoners.”

Did You Know: In 2007 the film ‘More than Just a Game’ was released in South Africa and chronicled the story of the prison league. It featured Tsotsi star Presley Chweneyagae and tells the soccer drama through the eyes of five men who spent their youth on the island: Anthony Suze, Liso Sitoto, Marcus Solomons, Sedick Isaacs and Mark Shinners. Harry Gwala also features in the movie, a leading political prisoner who is expected soon to join The Long March to Freedom.