People say that every picture tells a story. Yet no picture could accurately convey the amazing story that lay behind Robben Island and the Makana FA. Indeed, the story was in danger of not being told until Professor Chuck Korr happened to make a surprise discovery at Western Cape University. That story has now been turned into a book, entitled ‘More Than Just a Game'. It was released in the United Kingdom on Monday 6 October and is now scheduled for worldwide release.
"Back in 1993, a colleague of mine took me into the archive and pointed out a series of cardboard boxes, about 70 or 75 in total,"explained Professor Korr. "What I'd stumbled upon were letters from prisoners, writing as if they were footballing officials as well as match reports and referees' reports. It was then I realised that these men didn't just kick a football around for recreational activities; they had created a structured, formalised league."
After four years of pressurising the authorities, the Makana FA's first games took place in December 1969, and adhered strictly to FIFA's statutes. At its peak, the organisation presided over nine clubs, which fielded teams in three different divisions. Indeed, more than half of the political prisoners on the island played until apartheid was brought to an end in 1990.
One of those men was Tony Suze, who was sentenced to 15 years on Robben Island for being an active youth member of the banned Pan African Congress, and ended as the league's leading scorer. "Football was an escape for us," he said. "We escaped from the warder's attention, we escaped from their grip and control and we escaped from the reality of the prison. .'"
Football offered much more than respite from the punishing daily routine of nine hours' hard labour. It gave the men discipline and purpose. Inmates previously split along political lines, for instance the rival African National Congress and the PAC, came together to run the FA. Divisions dissipated as members of opposing parties became team-mates.
Some kind of freedom
As sporting boycotts helped isolate South Africa, football also became a political tool. "The government was trying to convince Britain and the US it was a freedom-loving, liberal society - ‘look, we let the prisoners play football'," continued Korr. In fact, the only photograph that exists of the league is a blurred black and white image which was used for propaganda purposes.
The men knew this too. "With football, we manipulated the system," said Suze, who is now 66. "As long as it had to do with football, we were able to tell the authorities how we wanted it, why we wanted it and so on and they would listen. That was an expression of some kind of freedom for us.'"
Arguably Robben Island's most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela, was also a fan of the games organised by the Makana FA. But once the prison authorities realised he could watch games from his cell in the isolation block, they built a wall to block his view. "Every Saturday, he could hear us having fun but he couldn't see or be involved," said Suze.
Many of those involved with the running of football on Robben Island went into politics following the fall of apartheid, including Steve Tshwete, the country's first minister for sport; Mark Shinners, who helped draft the new constitution; Jacob Zuma and Tokyo Sexwale. As well as being the current ANC president, Zuma was instrumental in bringing the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ to South Africa while Sexwale is a member of the organising committee.
"This is no accident," said Korr. "There's no question that football was a training ground for taking control. All of the prisoners involved knew that South Africa would become a free, democratic, multi-racial society and they were consciously teaching themselves the bureaucratic skills which would be necessary when they became the government."
And now, with a preface from FIFA President, Joseph S. Blatter, the book ‘More than Just A Game' tells the story of the players involved. Written by Korr with Marvin Close, and is available from all good bookshops and online outlets. A film version of the story enjoyed its premiere in South Africa as preparations for the Preliminary Draw unfolded in Durban, but the book is a tangible history of football on the island.
"This story isn't so much about football," explained Korr. "It's about dignity - and people using football as a way of maintaining a sense of self and dignity in a place whose purpose was to rob them of both of those."