Surviving on Robben Island

On the 1st of December 1999, UNESCO listed Robben Island as a World Heritage site.

Under Apartheid Robben Island was the prison in which most black male political prisoners who opposed the apartheid regime were incarcerated from 1962 to 1991. However, as far back as the 1650s, African chiefs like Autshumato, Makhanda and Maqoma had been imprisoned on the Island for as long as 21 years and more.

Imprisonment warranted strategies that would ensure that prisoners survived the confinement, restriction and isolation. Chiefs such as Autshumato and Maqoma resorted to escape as the only way to free themselves from these conditions. During the Apartheid era, when security had been upgraded and escape had become more difficult, prisoners used several ways to make their lives in prison bearable.

Nelson Mandela at the Long March To Freedom in Pretoria. He was imprisoned on Robben Island for 27 years.

In the winter of 1964, Nelson Mandela arrived on Robben Island where he would spend 18 of his 27 prison years. Confined to a small cell, the floor his bed, a bucket for a toilet, he was forced to do hard labor in a quarry. He was allowed one visitor a year for 30 minutes. He could write and receive one letter every six months.  George Bizos, Mandelas’ lawyer and long-time friend recalled how Mandela used his boldness and charm to relate with the guards in such a way that he gained their respect and better treatment. He recalled how on his first visit to Mandela, he seemed to set the pace at which he and the warders moved, which was unusual for a prisoner to do. Mandela went on to say “George, I’m sorry, I have not introduced you to my guard of honour.” He then proceeded to introduce each one of the warders by name.  The warders were stunned but went on to respectfully shake Bizos’ hand.

Various former Robben Island prisoners speak of their experiences in this video;

Mandela later stated in his biography that the most important person to a prisoner was the prison warden who was the most immediate person to go to when one needed an extra blanket or any assistance. Having friendly wardens was also vital for the purposes of communication with fellow prisoners in different sections so as to continue with the work of the ANC. Unlike Mandela however, some prisoners felt that the survival of their ideals depended on them maintaining a distance from the wardens who represented the Apartheid regime.  Govan Mbeki for example distanced himself from members of the Prisons Service and spoke only when it was necessary. Mbeki also did not watch television as he viewed Western films as products of capitalism.

Sport was also an integral part of social life. At first the men played covertly in their cells using balls made of paper, cardboard and rags. One bold prisoner in the 1960s, is said to have stood up and requested that they be allowed to play soccer and was as a result punished for it. 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.

The National Heritage Monument honours these survivors. Many former Robben Island prisoners stand at the Long March To Freedom in Pretoria, a celebration of conquest over adversity.


Interview with George Bizos

Robben Island – The Dark Years” INTERVIEW EXCERPT. From Chapter 66 of Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

Fran Lisa Buntman. Robben Island and prisoner resistance to Apartheid. Cambridge University Press, 2003.


Robben Island: A world Heritage Site

On the 1st of December 1999, UNESCO listed Robben Island as a World Heritage site.

Robben Island (Dutch for ‘Seal Island’) was listed because it was recognised as an area of outstanding natural, historical and cultural value. It has come to symbolise, not only for South Africa and the African continent, but also for the entire world, the triumph of humanity over enormous hardship and adversity.

King Maqoma at the Long March to Freedom at Fountains Valley Pretoria. He was banished to Robben Island twice.

When the Dutch arrived to settle the Cape in the 17th century they soon began to put the island to use as a prison, a role it continued to play until 1991. Three generations of political prisoners occupied it in the second half of the 20th century. Among its early permanent inhabitants were political leaders from various Dutch colonies, including Indonesia. However in the 1840s, Robben Island was also chosen for a hospital because it was both secure (isolating dangerous cases) and healthy (providing a good environment for cure). The island was thus used as a leper colony and animal quarantine station.

The first prisoner on the island is believed to have been Autshumato in the mid-17th century. He was banished to the island in 1658 because he was taking back cattle the people believed to have been unfairly confiscated by European settlers. Autshumato was also one of the only prisoners to have escaped successfully. Makanda Nxele, a Regent of the amaRharhabe was also sentenced to life imprisonment at Robben Island after a failed uprising at Grahamstown in 1819 during the fifth of the Xhosa Wars. He drowned on the shores of Table Bay after escaping the prison. King of the Ngqika Xhosa, Maqoma was banished to the island twice together with his wife Katyi for 21 years. Maqoma’s grave is on Robben Island to this day. These chiefs and Kings are part of the Long March to Freedom procession at Fountains Valley in Pretoria.

During the Apartheid years Robben Island became internationally known for its institutional brutality. The duty of those who ran the Island and its prison was to isolate opponents of Apartheid and to crush their morale. However, those imprisoned on the Island succeeded on a psychological and political level in turning a prison ‘hell-hole’ into a symbol of freedom and personal liberation.



The Griffiths Mxenge Tragedy:

Today marks 36 years since Human Rights attorney, African National Congress (ANC) and African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) member and political activist, Griffiths Mxenge was brutally murdered.

Griffiths Mxenge was born on 27 February 1935 in King Williams Town, Eastern Cape. He was the eldest son of Johnson Pinti and Hannah Nowise Mxenge, who were farmers from Rayi in the Eastern Cape.

While attending high school Mxenge became increasingly interested in politics and decided to join the ANCYL.  Although Mxenge was involved in various protests throughout these years, he completed his LLB at the University of Natal in 1970 and married his childhood sweetheart, Victoria Nonyamezelo Ntebe. After obtaining his degree, Mxenge became a prominent human rights lawyer and a political activist in the Eastern Cape during the late 1970s and the early 1980s. He fought against the Apartheid regime and was recognised as one of the famous attorneys who defended numerous Africans who were arrested, charged and imprisoned, based on unjust laws.

Due to Mxenge’s campaign against the Apartheid regime and his impact in court, the threatened racist regime ‘ordered’ his assassination to remove him as a threat forever.

He was brutally murdered on the evening of 19 November 1981. He was abducted, stabbed and hammered to death. His mutilated body was found next to Durban’s Umlazi stadium. Victoria Mxenge had to identify her husband’s body and concluded from the onset that her husband’s death was politically motivated.

Although in exile at the time, ANC president Oliver Tambo sent condolences to the Mxenge family and also supported Victoria’s Mxenge’s view that her husband’s death was politically motivated. He stated that:

“On the night of 19 November in the South African city of Durban, agents of the Pretoria regime brutally assassinated Griffiths Mxenge. Using knives, the murderers were not content just to take away the life of this outstanding patriot. In unbridled savagery, they extensively mutilated his face and cut off his ears… The massacre of our people in Matola in January, the murder of Joe Gqabi in Salisbury in July and now the assassination of Griffiths Mxenge are a sign of the desperation of the enemy who increasingly finds himself unable to stop the forward march of the people, the ANC and the popular army, Umkhonto we Sizwe.”

Despite the anger surrounding Mxenge’s death, 15 000 mourners, which included United Democratic Front patron Albertina Sisulu and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, attended the funeral in King William’s Town to honour his memory.

The funeral was a peaceful affair where Mxenge’s body was laid to rest.  It was only when Mxenge’s coffin, which was covered in ANC colours, was lowered into the ground that things took a turn for the worse. A Transkei security policeman by the name of Detective-Constable Albert Gungqwana Tafile was found secretly tape-recording the funeral which led to the crowd attacking the policeman. Although Archbishop Desmond Tutu tried to protect the policeman, the crowd attacked him and left him dying behind a makeshift VIP platform at the funeral.

The violence at Mxenge’s funeral was a powerful historical event as it exposed the drastic split between the Apartheid regime and the majority of Africans. As history student Jacob Manenzhe argued in his Masters thesis:

“The policeman, never mind being Black, was a servant of the State, and was therefore regarded as a puppet and a spy for his master, while Griffith’s coffin was a symbol of the oppressed Blacks.”

Mxenge’s murder remains one of the most notorious political assassinations in South Africa. Amnesty was granted to Mxenges killers, identified as a death squad operating from Vlakplaas, west of Pretoria, by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997 despite severe objections by his family


Obituary for Griffiths Mlungisi Mxenge (1935 – 1981).

Jacob Manenzhe, THE POLITICISATION OF FUNERALS IN SOUTH AFRICA  DURING THE 20th CENTURY (1900 – 1994). Masters Thesis. University of Pretoria. January 2007.

Statement by Oliver Tambo on the murder of Griffiths Mxenge.

Commemorating the life of musical activist Mama Africa:

Yesterday marked nine years since Miriam Makeba passed away.

More fondly known as Mama Africa, Makeba was a legendary singer who became an iconic voice in 1950s Sophiatown and a staunch opponent to Apartheid South Africa, internationally recognised as a cultural ambassador against the racist regime.

Born in Prospect Township, east of Johannesburg, South Africa on 4 March 1932, Zenzile Miriam Makeba was the daughter of a Swazi woman, Christina, and a Xhosa man, Caswell. She was the youngest of five children, including three sisters and one brother.

To generate extra income, Makeba’s mother Christina brewed and sold her own beer, an illegal activity that led to police raids and a six-month jail sentence. Makeba was only a few weeks old when her mother was sent to prison. She later moved and lived with her grandparents, in an environment where church was highly valued. It was at church where Makeba was exposed to and found her love of singing.

Makeba started singing professionally in 1954. In her first show as a professional singer, Makeba joined her cousin and his friends in their group, the Cuban Brothers, a South African all-male close harmony group, with whom she sang covers of popular American songs.

After performing at church, community and fundraising events with them, Makeba soon gained recognition as a talented singer. Due to Makeba’s popularity, the Manhattan Brothers, a famous local singing group, asked her to join their jazz band. Although they were able to tour the neighbouring countries of Southern and Northern Rhodesia in 1954, the group faced constant harassment by police at numerous checkpoints due to their race.

Round about the following year Makeba joined a women’s quartet called Skylarks, a women’s quartet that combined jazz and traditional African melodies.

Makeba started recording her own songs during these years, unfortunately at a time when the government began censoring music that was thought to be against the government. It was also around this time Makeba started performing African jazz in front of a white audience, an opportunity that led to her being offered an overseas performance in 1959. Before she left South Africa, Makeba recorded a song called Goodbye Mother, Goodbye Father, and to my little baby goodbye, until we meet again, a song that effectively marked the beginning of her years in exile.

Makeba became a popular singer in England. While recoding some of her music, she met American singer and songwriter Harry Belafonte, who played a pivotal role in the development of her career. He helped Makeba obtain a United States (U.S.) visa which led her to move to New York. While there, Makeba released two albums, in 1960 and 1963. Both albums made the billboard 200 in the U.S.

Despite having a successful career in the U.S., Makeba used her fame to start sharing her concerns about Apartheid. In 1963 Makeba took a stand at the United Nations (U.N.) to testify against Apartheid and asked the U.N. to try and free South Africa’s wrongfully jailed leaders. The South African government responded by revoking Makeba’s citizenship and passport. Unaware of her invalid citizenship and passport, Makeba tried to re-enter the country for her mother’s funeral, only to find she could not enter her home country South Africa. Makeba lived in exile for the next 30 years.

It was in the 1965 album titled An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba, that Makeba first expressed her views on the Apartheid regime. This album spoke about the oppression of black South Africans and also informed listeners of Apartheid atrocities. One of the songs included in this album was Beware, Verwoerd!, a popular song amongst black South Africans talking about the founder of Apartheid, Hendrik Frensch (H.F.) Verwoerd. Although the song was not popular amongst white South Africans, it did inspire black South Africans to defy unjust Apartheid laws. Following the popularity of the subversive song, the South African government arrested anyone they caught singing it. Two years after Beware Verwoerd!, Makeba released another popular hit, the internationally renowned Pata Pata.

In 1983 Makeba released another successful album titled Mama Africa, as she was publicly recognised as ‘Mama Africa’ during this time. This album contained the song Sophiatown is Gone, which focused on the 1950s forced removals in Sophiatown, a suburb just outside Melville in Johannesburg. Many black South Africans who were forcibly removed from Sophiatown found solace in Makeba’s song, which drew the world’s attention to the inhumane treatment of ordinary South Africans by the Apartheid government.

Although Makeba fought for the rights of black South Africans during her exile, she also became involved in fighting for Civil Rights in America as black pop culture and arts became increasingly popular in the U.S. during the 1950s and 1960s. Singers such as Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson and Miriam Makeba performed in New York and various neighbouring cities to fight for civil rights.

Makeba also married Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael in 1968. Although they shared the same views on civil rights, Makeba’s records and tours were cancelled in the U.S. due to her marriage to the prominent member of the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary black nationalist and socialist organisation in the U.S.

In 1968 Makeba and Stokely moved to Guinea, Africa, to fight for civil rights from there. Although both continued to fight for civil rights, Makeba and Stokely divorced in Guinea after separating in 1978. After the divorce, Makeba was still an active figure in the struggle movement, both in South Africa and America. In recognition of her efforts, she was awarded the Dag Hammerkjold Peace Prize by the Diplomatic Academy for Peace in 1968.

It was only in 1990 that Makeba was allowed to return to South Africa. Although hesitant at first, she returned to South Africa after 31 years of exile, following Mandela urging her to do so. In 1991 she worked with other South African artists to produce and release the album Eyes on Tomorrow. This album focused on the future of South Africa and gave hope to South Africans for a new tomorrow.

Makeba played a vital role in the struggle for freedom in both the anti-Apartheid movement and the Civil Rights movement. Her career as a singer helped her reach audiences and inform them of the atrocities of the Apartheid regime. Her cultural activism is being honoured in our #LongMarchtoFreedom, where she is celebrated as a struggle icon and local artist turned international celebrity during the darkest periods of South Africa’s racist regime.


Imvo Zabantsundu: A brief history

Today marks 133 years since the first black owned newspaper Imvo Zabantsundu (‘The Native Opinion of South Africa’) published their first report.

Prior to the establishment of Imvo Zabantsundu, the only other African language newspapers printed were missionary journals that encouraged the advancement of literacy and Christianity. Some of these newspapers, such as Ikhwezi (The Morning Star) and Indaba reported in both English and Xhosa, but only provided spiritual enlightenment and evaded any political news.

Another newspaper which was also bilingual then was Isigidimi samaXhosa (The Kaffir Express). The racial slur evident in the title of this newspaper was used to refer to the Xhosa language during this time, which was also present in various Xhosa language manuals and dictionaries of the 19th century period. Although similar to Ikhwezi and Indaba, Isigidimi samaXhosa played a vital role in the establishment of Imvo Zabantsundu. The editor of the former newspaper soon grew tired of the news reported and wanted to report what was really happening in South Africa during that time.

As no politics was discussed in the missionary newspapers, a man by the name of John Tengo Jabavu decided to start his own newspaper. This newspaper would later be known as Imvo Zabantsundu.

Born in 1859 in Healdtown, John Tengo Jabavu was a talented writer and teacher who became increasingly interested in African politics. He wanted to provide a forum where like-minded individuals would share their opinions on the policies made by the government. Although Jabavu was known for writing remarkable articles in the Cape Mercury and the Cape Argus newspaper, he was soon asked by Dr James Stewart to become the editor of Isigidimi samaXhosa. Despite taking on the role of editor at Isigidimi samaXhosa, Jabavu became increasingly interested in politics during the general elections of 1882-1883. Jabavu first tried sharing his opinions in Isigidimi samaXhosa, but was later discouraged to do so by Dr Stewart simply because the missionary journals of that time were dedicated to spreading the Christian gospel. Since the newspaper did not have a clear political position, Jabavu started his own newspaper.

Although Jabavu lacked the funds to start the newspaper, he was fortunate to find two investors, Mr Richard Rose-Innes and Mr James Weir, both from King Williamstown.

By 3 November 1884, the first issue of Imvo Zabantsundu was published. Although this newspaper was known as the first black-owned newspaper during this era, it also became popular because it helped Africans to express themselves without any fear of prejudice and discrimination. It was through this newspaper that Africans were able to share their political views ranging from pass laws, laws governing urban locations and the sale of liquor. Imvo Zabantsundu also became a source of literature for Africans as it addressed the literary aspirations of its readers and also reflected their lives and the country in which they lived.

This is evident when the newspaper published poems in the original dialect and did not translate them into English. By retaining the traditional style in the poems published in Imvo Zabantsundu, the newspaper became more appealing to the African reader as it did not force them to conform to the Western style of reading, which was in English. By providing a safe space to enjoy the Xhosa language the newspaper inspired many writers to write books in their vernacular as there was a limited amount of original books written at the time.

Imvo Zabantsundu was a popular newspaper that extended as far as Natal and Lesotho. This newspaper was unique as it did not aim to promote a religious agenda but instead wanted to encourage Africans to share their political views without feeling restricted. This newspaper also became a conduit for many writers interested in poetry or fiction. It was a powerful newspaper that inspired many Africans to take pride in their culture and informed many of the political and social issues of that time.



Koliswa Moropa (2010) African voices in Imvo Zabantsundu: Literary pieces from the past, South African Journal of African Languages, 30:2, 135-144


Haile Selassie: A Glamorous and Decorated Emperor

Haile Selassie was crowned the Emperor of Ethiopia on this day, 2 November 1930.

He was born Tafari Makonnen Woldemikael, the son of the noted general Ras Mokonnen and the grandnephew of Emperor Menelik II. Selassie became Ethiopia’s 225th and last emperor in 1974 after he was deposed by a military coup. A brilliant student, he became a favourite of Menelik, who made him a provincial governor at 14. As a Coptic Christian, Tafari opposed Menelik’s grandson and successor, Lij Yasu, who became a Muslim convert, and in 1916 compelled his deposition and established Menelik’s daughter Zauditu as empress. Tafari was regent from 1916 to 1930 and after the empress’ mysterious death, he became emperor (1930-1974) and took the name of Haile Selassie (‘Might of the Trinity’), claiming to be a direct descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. As a result of this, many believed he was the promised messiah hence the emergence of the Rastafarian movement.

Emperor Haile Selassie at the Long March To Freedom, Fountains Valley Resort in Pretoria.

Selassie was a highly decorated emperor as is seen in his flamboyant style of dress and the many badges that he wore. It comes as no surprise that his coronation on 2 November 1930 was a very glamorous affair. It was attended by royals and dignitaries from all over the world. One newspaper report suggested that the celebration may have incurred a cost in excess of $3,000,000 in today’s terms. Many of those in attendance received lavish gifts and in one instance, the Christian emperor even sent a gold-encased bible to an American bishop who had not attended the coronation, but who had dedicated a prayer to the emperor on the day of the coronation.

As the Commander of the armed forces he held the highest military order in Ethiopia which was that of the Sealed Marshall. After the end of World War II he ceased to wear any sort of Ethiopian ceremonial attire and although he would deviate without any particular reason he wore military attire in the main as he believed in militant resistance to colonisation and oppression. He would dress glamorously during official occasions with his many military badges, military swords, ribbons and a plummeted hat in accordance with his many Ethiopian orders. These included the Order of Solomon, Order of the Holy Trinity, Order of Menelik II, Order of the Star of Ethiopia. Grand Cordon, The Most Exalted Order of the Queen of Sheba Knight Grand Cross, The Imperial Order of the Holy Trinity Knight Grand Cross, The Imperial Order of Emperor Menelik II Negus (Knight Grand Cross), The Imperial Order of the Star of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie Medal of War, Eritrean Medal of Haile Selassie I among scores of others.

His sculpture at the Long March to Freedom procession at Fountains Valley is just as decorated as he was, courtesy of artist Izidro Duarte who worked hard to ensure that the statue represented the emperor as accurately as possible.

Follow these links to learn more about Selassie’s many medals and honours-


Veteran radio broadcaster, former Metro FM DJ and musician Glen Lewis recently graced us with his presence at Fountains Valley Resort in Pretoria to shoot his soon to be released music video for his upcoming single, Healing.

Glen Lewis poses with Walter and Albertina Sisulu during a break

Lewis said that he chose to shoot his video at the Long March To Freedom procession because he felt that the icons represented the road to healing and were a symbol of the need and possibility of healing in our nation. He thought the site would also provide unique visuals which are relevant to the theme of his song. The video is also of significance as it helps to inform the public of the existence of the Long March To Freedom as it educates the youth and the world as a whole.

Lewis also expressed his love for the statues of Steve Biko and Solomon Mahlangu. He however, spent most of the shooting at the back with the Kings and chiefs who were the pioneers of the struggle for freedom. He promised to spread the word about the National Heritage Monument and we hope that you spread the word too!

We will definitely share the link to the video as soon as it is released.

The roots of ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’

Ever wonder where our national anthem Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika comes from? Journalist Daluxolo Moloantoa reached back to the late 19th century to find out…

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika Composer Enoch Sontonga, copyright City of Johannesburg Library, via The Heritage Portal

DID YOU KNOW: The song became a pan-African liberation anthem and was later adopted as the national anthem of five countries in Africa including Zambia, Tanzania, Namibia and Zimbabwe after independence. Zimbabwe and Namibia have since adopted new national anthems.

The Tshwane Tour: From Tour Guides to Tourists

On the 5th and 6th October 2017 our Long March To Freedom site guides were invited to a Tshwane Familiarization Tour hosted by the Gauteng Tourism Authority. During this two-day tour our site guides learnt about what the city of Tshwane had to offer and had new insights into their own work as site guides.

The first day of the tour was jam-packed with outings to various historical sites. The tour started at the Kgosi Mampuru Correctional Services prison. Here the site guides were able to get a deeper understanding of prison life. They were guided by one of the inmates who shared their prison experiences and their knowledge of the daily routines of the prisoners.

The next destination was a tour of the well-known heritage site Freedom Park. Freedom Park which is situated on Salvokop in Pretoria, includes a memorial with a list of the names of those killed in the South African Wars, World War I, World War II as well as during the apartheid era. It was after this tour that the site guides were taken to the Gautrain Station where they experienced the day-to-day running of the Gautrain. The day ended off with an exciting township tour, where the site guides explored both Solomon Mahlangu Square and the popular Jack Buddha tavern.

The next day was a highlight for many of the site guides as they were given a tour of the Cullinan Diamond Mine and the Kwalata Camp site where they did a game drive and ended off their two-day tour. For the site guides it was here that they thought about ways to improve their tours at the Long March To Freedom.

Site guide Mario had this to say:

The second day for me was very interesting as we learned that first impressions are very important. On our arrival to the Kwalata Camp the cultural dancer made me feel more than welcome. (Mario. NHM Siteguide)

Site guide Tumo shared this experience:

 I learned that it is always critical to maintain a professional attitude at all times. I now feel like being a tour guide is almost similar to being a waiter. This is because when we were at Kwalata Bush Camp we were pampered with luxurious African dining and I took time to observe the people serving us. You see for me now, guiding is a service. I am now in a stage of practising everything that I have learnt from my experience at Kwalata. (Tumo. NHM Site guide)

Another site guide, Alfred Mahapa who was familiar with the tourist attractions did learn that: “What interested me the most as a guide was learning how other guides conduct their tour in their respective sites.” (Alfred. NHM Site guide)

Momo also shared what she learnt from her two-day tour experience:

As a tour operator and guide, it cemented the value of my work and taught me how to present myself as a guide. I learnt that I must always be informed with every aspect concerning our country all the time. (Momo. NHM Site guide)

This two-day tour hosted by the Gauteng Tourism Authority was a blessing for the Long March To Freedom site guides as it allowed them to enjoy and learn about what other South African tourist attractions have to offer. It was fun for them to be the tourist for a change!

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.