Football gave Zuma and other prisoners a human face on Robben Island

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The 2010 Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup soccer finals in South Africa have captured the attention of a worldwide audience. But how many fans realize the game once helped political prisoners like South Africa President Jacob Zuma maintain their humanity while serving time in the notorious apartheid-era prison on Robben Island?

In the book More Than Just a Game: Soccer vs. Apartheid: The Most Important Soccer Story Ever Told, sports historian Charles Korr and co-author Marvin Close document how black political prisoners on Robben Island formed the Makana Football Association (FA), an action that would have far-reaching results even after the men were released from prison.

“The prison experience played an important role in the struggle against apartheid, and football was an important part of the lives of the men on the island,” Korr said following his recent visit to South Africa for the FIFA matches.

“Makana FA helped prisoners connect to a larger outside world and helped preserve their sanity. It allowed them to retain their dignity and sense of purpose and to have some control over their lives.”

More than just a game

Korr, who taught history at the University of Missouri – St. Louis from 1970 to 2003 and is now a professor at the Centre for Sport History and Culture at De Montfort University in England, said Makana FA was a 1,400-member soccer league consisting of eight clubs or teams that played matches for 20 years, adhering strictly to FIFA game rules. Zuma participated in the league while incarcerated in the maximum security prison, located near Cape Town.

The soccer league was important as a school for organization, Korr said, because “it helped the prisoners develop the administrative skills that would be needed to run the country when freedom was finally achieved.”

Korr’s involvement with the Robben Island soccer story started when he was a visiting professor at the University of the Western Cape (Cape Town) in 1993. “A colleague showed me boxes of documents which were the basis for the archives of the Robben Island Museum,” he said, and those contributed to the research for his book.

“Human after all”

Two of the founding members of the Makana FA were its first chairman, Dikgang Moseneke, currently deputy chief justice of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, and President Zuma, who was captain of Rangers FC, one of the Robben Island league clubs.

Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first post-apartheid-era president, was a prisoner on Robben Island for many years but had no role in the soccer league, Korr said.

“He and the other prisoners in the isolation section had no open contact with the vast majority of the prisoners who were in the communal section. However, Mandela did know about Makana FA and how much it meant to the prisoners. When the authorities discovered he could watch part of a match, they built a wall to make that impossible.”

Korr said most guards regarded the prisoners as “subhuman terrorists and men who should be punished for their refusal to accept the idea of inferiority based on race. However, the way the prisoners organized and played sports did convince a few of them that the prisoners might be human after all. Some bonds resembling friendship developed when prisoners tutored some of the guards so that they could pass examinations and be promoted.”

International attention

While in Cape Town to attend a commemorative ceremony on Robben Island, Korr was invited to speak at the U.S. Consulate about the role soccer played in the lives of political prisoners and the nation as a whole.

Korr said the international sports boycott of South Africa became an important part of the anti-apartheid struggle. (South Africa was suspended by FIFA in 1963.) “Those people who complained that politics should not intrude into sports never understood that the white South African government had from the very beginning politicized sports.”

In 1991, during the dismantling of the apartheid system, a new South African Football Association was formed and gained admission to FIFA.

Consul General Alberta Mayberry said: “Just as the FIFA 2010 soccer World Cup brought the world to Cape Town, Chuck Korr’s discussion of his book was a great opportunity for so many of us from different backgrounds to come together for a meaningful discussion of sports and social change. From Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham of the Bahamas to FIFA executives, academics, former political prisoners, journalists and civil society leaders, we were riveted by Chuck’s stories.”

About his recent trip to South Africa, Korr said, “It has been fascinating to see how the population has rallied in support of the tournament and the great hospitality that has been shown to visitors from around the world.

“I think it’s fair to view hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup as a kind of international ‘coming-out party’ for South Africa — the final step in the transformation from pariah state to respected member of the international community,” he concluded.

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