The reasons were twofold: We were in the middle of a fascinating tour of Robben Island, the place where, from 1961-1991, Nelson Mandela and thousands of others were imprisoned for standing up to apartheid and the South African government. Also, as we were being shown around by an ex-prisoner, a man who had spent 15 years of his life there, complaining of a little sunburn seemed, a little, well, trivial.
You get a lot of that on Robben Island, a desolate strip of land just seven kilometers off the shore from the bustling city of Cape Town. It has a habit of putting things into perspective.
Arriving At Robben Island With Cape Town In The Background
So does the charismatic figure of Tokyo Sexwale who spent 13 years behind bars (“a discount compared to the old man,” he said) and told reporters that, "This place represents the triumph of the human spirit. What kept us together here? Loneliness from home, from our children, from our wives, fathers and mothers.
"We came here young, with our feet and eager to play sport. We were not allowed to play any indoor or outdoor games but in the end the spirit of survival prevailed. It was once illegal to have a football in this prison. And this morning I arrived with Sepp Blatter and members of the Fifa executive committee.”
Perhaps it was the setting on that December day, 24 hours before the draw was made in Cape Town, perhaps it was the bitter history of the island that still cast a shadow despite the blue skies, whatever it was, it was an inspiring moment and part of a story that shows just how beautiful the beautiful game can be and how it can provide light in the darkest of corners and the remotest of locations.
There wasn’t much beauty in the tiny cell that Sexwale, now a member of the South African government and FIFA, called home between 1977 and 1990. Sexwale is not as famous or as celebrated as Nelson Mandela (who is?) is now or was he as notorious in South Africa as prisoner number 46664 back then but he still has a quite a story to tell of life on the island as do many of the other folk who were sent here.
Mandela Returns To Robben Island
It is now a story shared by thousands of tourists. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is a popular destination for tourists spending a little time in Cape Town, a quick 20 minutes ferry journey from the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. That complex, now full of upmarket bars and restaurants, was not so glamorous in decades and centuries past when it provided prisoners of war, lepers, or, in the second half of the twentieth century, opponents of apartheid with their last taste of the African mainland.
The political prisoners dumped here after the Second World War endured all kinds of hardships. At times there were 40 sharing a cell, beatings were far from uncommon and the physical labour, working at a nearby quarry from where the stone to construct the prison’s buildings were extracted, was constant and tough.
FIFA had chosen those buildings to host their Executive Committee meeting on December 3 and so it was fitting that we focused on the part that football played in this particular story. When Sexwale addressed the press later the same day, it was a first chance for many of us to hear the story of the Makana Football Association (MFA).
Football On Robben Island
The MFA came into being on Robben Island. Every week from 1964 to 1967, a prisoner, a different one every time as punishments often followed such impunity, would make an official request to be allowed to play football and every week for three years, the prison warder would refuse.
Then, one day the authorities relented, figuring in the words of Antony Suze, another long-term prisoner, that, “we would have little energy after our work and would soon tire ourselves out.”
The opposite happened. The inmates threw themselves into football and everything to do with it. Everything was organized; a copy of FIFA’s rule handbook, was, along with Karl Marx’s Das Kapital the most popular book in the prison library.
Every result was recorded as were every yellow and red card and every disciplinary action. Referees were examined and players were registered, official letters were exchanged.
On one page of a special booklet provided by FIFA providing a look at the documents, records and letters compiled in the prison is a letter from the secretary of Manong FC (MFC) to the secretary of the Makana FA about the possible absence of players from a forthcoming fixture.
“I have been instructed to inform you that in the event of Cell “C” being locked up on Saturday, as it is strongly rumoured, five (5) of the MFC “B” Division Members/players will also be amongst those locked up. We hereby make a request that the M.F.C “B” Division plays a friendly match with the D.U.F.C (Dynaspurs United) or the match be postponed.” Like every letter, it was signed off with "Yours In Sport".
FIFA boss Sepp Blatter said it best. “They had disciplinary committees. They had red card, yellow cards," he said. "It was wonderful . . . They did it and did it well."
Sexwale agreed. "When we were here, we continued to defy the rules of apartheid. Here you deny apartheid, but you can't defy FIFA rules,” he said.
The organization on the island was impressive but it had to be as Suze explained: “It was born out of necessity. When you have 2,000 prisoners, a small pitch and not much time, then you have to make sure the whole thing is run as well as it can be.”
Fishing nets became nets of another kind at weekends as a league began to take shape. Most of the teams formed followed membership of the different political organizations in the prison. The Pan- African Congress and the African National Congress had their differences off the pitch but the game of football had them co-operating and working together, a lesson, if one may be so trite, for the future governance of the country as a whole.
The Wall Was Built To Stop Players Handing Messages To Prisoners In Solitary Confinement In Cells behind The Goal
Suze admitted as such. “We never lost our belief that we would one day be involved with governing the country one day. Football played a part in that.”
But there was one team that was open to anyone and didn’t care which faction you belonged to as long as you had what it took on the dusty pitch - which Mandela could watch through the bars until the authorities blocked the view by building a wall to stop players passing messages to him.
Manong FC drew its ranks from all walks of prison life and prospered because of that fact. Manong won eight out of nine titles and even featured current South African President Jacob Zuma, who was, according to Suze, a fearsome defender. “What do you expect from a man with two heads?” He said to the guffaws of the local members of the press pack. Suze quickly added that he was joking.
Anthony Suze Shares His Story
For these men, the arrival of the World Cup is a serious but special moment. The arrival of FIFA Executive Committee was another.
"It's a dream come true. We fought for freedom so our country can get events like this," another inmate Lizo Sitoto said.
"I wish all the prisoners who stayed on Robben Island could witness this, rejoicing. Football saved my life."