About 11 kilometres out to sea from Cape Town's Table Bay Harbour lies Robben Island, approximately three kilometres long and two kilometres wide. Although it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a major tourist attraction, since the 17th Century it was largely used to isolate prisoners, including former South African Presidents Kgalema Motlanthe, and more famously, Nelson Mandela.
For seven of Mandela’s 18 years on the island, the Makana Football Association was in operation. 'Makana', a tribal leader, was one of the first political prisoners on Robben Island due to his stance against colonialism. Run by the prisoners for the prisoners, the Makana FA adhered strictly to FIFA's Laws of the Game - one of the only books in the prison library at the time.
Football was not just a release from the physical and psychological torments of imprisonment. It gave the men discipline and purpose. Inmates previously split along political lines, the rival African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress, came together to run the FA. But above all, it gave the inmates a vital space of their own; a means to demonstrate that they could govern themselves and, by implication, the country. And so they did. Many involved in organising Robben Island football went on to positions of power, including the current President of South Africa Jacob Zuma [who was one of the league’s referee] and Mosiuoa Lekota, the President of the Congress of the People Party and the country’s former Defence Minister.
The uniting force of football
Tokyo Sexwale, who helped to draft South Africa’s new constitution in 1994 and a member of the Organising Committee for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, was also a key figure in the Makana FA.
"Football kept us alive," he told FIFA.com. "Everything was prohibited on Robben Island, but we used to smuggle FIFA rulebooks underground. We even had 'professional' referees and proper disciplinary committees. The teams were divided according to their political affiliation. There were days when if the Pan Africanist Congress was angry, there would be no game. But the Makana Football Association was a vehicle that united all of us. It ran across all political barriers. We realised it was a very important tool for our own solidarity, unity and co-operation.”
"Prisoners used any material they could lay their hands on to make a football. We played with whatever was available and the football nets were made from real fishing nets which had washed up on the island. We asked for permission to pick them up from the shore.
"By the time I came onto Robben Island, the Makana FA had made a number of strides. After many protests, we were eventually allowed to have our first proper ball. It took years, but eventually we were allowed proper kit, with boots with studs, footballs, proper playing kit and even referees' whistles. Then you should have seen the games!”
Recognition and re-birth
At its peak, the FA was running three leagues, with teams from nine different clubs competing. However, those perceived to be Robben Island’s highest-profile prisoners, such as Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada were barred from participating in or even watching the matches organised. Indeed, once the prison authorities realised that Mandela could watch the games from his cell in the isolation block, they built a wall to block his view.
For adhering to the FIFA Statutes and, in the words of FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter, for being "a strong symbol of FIFA’s fight to eradicate racism and all forms of discrimination from football and sport," the status of being an Honorary Member Association was conferred on the Makana FA in July 2007.
Football will once again play a key role in the life of Robben Island as the Final Draw comes to Cape Town on 4 December. So, what was once an island of exile and imprisonment is today a symbol of integration and hope - two core values for the South African people, hosts of the first ever FIFA World Cup to be played in Africa.