By convening its Executive Committee on Robben Island on 3 December 2009, FIFA have come full circle in a very special relationship with the Makana Football Association.
"When we set out in the boat, and the wind began to blow, I thought back to 1963 when I first arrived here. It was cold, and our food was waiting for us on the ground. Being here is truly an emotional rollercoaster." These are the words of Antony Suze, a former inmate at Robben Island who was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for political activism within a prohibited organisation.
On 3 December 2009, he and some of his colleagues returned to this island off the coast of Cape Town where numerous "political" prisoners were incarcerated during the apartheid era, including Nelson Mandela for 18 years. They came back here because FIFA was holding its Executive Meeting on this hugely symbolic island, and because of the special relationship between FIFA and the prisoners of Robben Island.
Tokyo Sexwale, who was held here for 13 years and is now South Africa's Minister of Human Settlements and a member of FIFA's Committee for Fair Play and Social Responsibility summed up the general feeling: "FIFA kept their word on several counts: first of all, by boycotting South Africa during apartheid. Then, by allowing South Africa back once Nelson Mandela was freed. Next, by declaring the Makana FA an Honorary Member Association. And finally, by awarding the World Cup to South Africa. We can only express our warmest thanks."
Football as an escape mechanism
The inmates on Robben Island "escaped" from their arduous daily lives by playing football. They created an association in 1969 known as the Makana FA which had its own league and scrupulously applied the FIFA Statutes and Laws of the Game. It was an extraordinary initiative, which FIFA recognised in July 2007 by making the Makana FA one of its honorary members.
"For me, FIFA was above all an institution which set out the rules of football, which we would follow to the letter. But I could never have imagined that they would recognise us as a member association. Even today, I still find it hard to believe," says Sedick Isaacs, another former prisoner. Lizo Sitoto explains what football and FIFA brought to the detainees: "FIFA provided us with an escape mechanism, as there were so many topics to discuss: the offside rule, what constitutes handball, is the ball fully over the line, etc."
As you step onto this island, it is hard to imagine young people sampling the joys of football. Even today, the huge prison walls, barbed wire and foreboding cells, located on a piece of rock measuring just a few kilometres squared, sends shivers through the spine. "FIFA recognised ordinary people. The Makana FA was made up of normal people who came from the mines and townships. And thanks to FIFA, our story became big over the world. That's why recognising us as an Honorary Member Association was such a great gesture", says Mark Skinners.
But FIFA's action was far more than symbolic, as they awarded the first ever World Cup on the African continent to South Africa. "It's a huge event, and awarding it to us shows that they are recognising us on several fronts. It means that we are one of the few countries with the capabilities and the competence to host a World Cup, and we take great pride in that," says Suze. "It's a great sign of respect. Some of our old colleagues from the island have died recently, but we will remember them during this World Cup. We'll think of the sacrifices they made for a world in which they always believed," says Skinners.
The dream after the nightmare
The former detainees believe that this FIFA World Cup is in essence an extension of Makana. "The prisoners developed remarkable management and administrative qualities. At the Makana FA, some of them had to be heads of committees, lawyers, and directors, which are also important jobs in the real world. This is why these people now hold some of the top jobs in South Africa," says Lizo.
"At the time, our human rights were flatly denied. On this island, we had to return to dust. Our experience with the Makana FA allowed us to overcome that, and now we're representing Africa in front of the whole world by organising this major event. It's almost like a dream. We're wondering when we'll wake up," adds Skinners.
All these men have deep respect for FIFA, because it helped them survive their ordeal. But it was above all by sticking together that they managed to make it. "We shared something at Robben Island," says Skinners. "We were all different, but we had at least one thing in common: we believed that we had the right to express ourselves and fight for our freedom.
The FIFA President emphasised that it was, "more than a historic day for the Executive Committee and myself, because Robben Island has written a crucial part of the history of humanity. And what helped these young prisoners to endure their ordeal? Football, through the creation of the Makana FA, which FIFA has recognised as an honorary member. I am extremely proud and touched to be on this island."
Suze, the league's former top scorer and perhaps the most jovial member of the group, managed to sum up this truly unique day: "It's a strange feeling to be here, it's like coming home, because it is the place where we suffered and the place where we stuck together."