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Football and Apartheid

John Simkin

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This is what the publisher said about Chuck Korr's latest book.

This is the astonishing story of how a unique group of political prisoners and freedom fighters found a sense of dignity in one of the ugliest hellholes on Earth: Robben Island. Despite all odds and regular torture‚ beatings and daily backbreaking hard labour‚ these extraordinary men turned soccer into an active force in the struggle for freedom.

For nearly 20 years‚ the political prisoners on Robben Island‚ where Nelson Mandela was infamously incarcerated‚ somehow found the energy‚ spirit and resolve to organise a 1400 prisoner−strong‚ eight club football league which was played with with strict adherance to FIFA rules.

The prisoners themselves represented a broad array of political beliefs and backgrounds‚ yet football became an impassioned and unified symbol of resistance against apartheid. They refused to let their own political differences sway their devotion to the sport‚ which allowed them to organise and maintain leadership right under the noses of their captors.

This league not only provided sanctuary and respite from the prisoners′ cruel surroundings‚ it kept their minds active and many credit it with keeping them alive. More Than Just a Game chronicles their story‚ the politics of the time‚ the extraordinary characters‚ their heroism and the thrilling matches themselves.


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1. Why was sports so important to the prisoners and what was unique about how they ran it?

The men on Robben Island were not criminals. They were political prisoners. They felt they had an obligation to find ways to continue the struggle against apartheid, even in prison. They had to resist the efforts of the prison authorities to break them, emotionally, as well as physically. They had to educate themselves in preparation for the free South Africa they intended to create. They had to find ways to divert themselves from the harshness of the prison life. They had to create their own sense of community within the Island, preferably one that would minimize the political divisions that existed between members of the two important political factions. Sports, particularly football, served all these purposes. It also was something that they had done before they were sentenced to prison and playing football reminded them of the life they had left behind as a result of the involvement in the struggle. Football also gave them something to enjoy. Simply put, "It was fun, something that gave us something to look forward to and to talk about." Their struggle to obtain the right to play football (see below) gave them a renewed sense that they could resist the authorities.

Football was important to these men. Indeed it was too important, just to be a game. They felt they had to organize it. No matches were played before they organized a league, wrote a constitution, formed clubs, and created a number of committees to run the organization. Everything had to meet FIFA standards, including the referees who took written examinations. The men had a compulsion "to do things properly and to organize them", whether it was education, protest, or sports. There also was a practical reason to organize the league - there were hundreds of men who wanted to play and only one day and one field available for the sport.

It's not an exaggeration to say that many of the Robben Island prisoners had n attitude towards sports that was similar to that of Victorian middle class men - they believed that sports could build character and could be an important asset to insure that the men would strengthen their resolve to emerge from the prisoner stronger than they had been when they entered it.

One former prisoner summed it up in an interview to me, "you know that we were a British colony and that meant we understood that sports was much too important just to be a game."

2 Since Robben Island was a place known for cruel punishment, how did the prisoners secure the right to play football?

The South African government had an almost schizophrenic approach about how to handle the opposition. It had no compunctions about murdering people in detention, sending letter bombs to opponents or operating some of the most brutal prisons seen anywhere. At the same time, it engaged in a long running propaganda campaign to convince people in the West that South Africa was a liberal, enlightened, Western style democracy operating on Christian principles. Its prison authorities had a detailed set of seemingly enlightened rules by which to treat prisoners. The Robben Island prisoners used these contradictions against their captors. The prisoners pointed to the regulations that mandated that prisoners had the right to exercise. It took them almost four years of weekly protests (all of which carried punishment) to get the authorities to grant them the right to play football. They were insistent that this was a right, not a privilege.Two allies of the prisoners were the International Red Cross (IRC) and Helen Suzman, the only member of Parliament who spoke out against apartheid. The prison allowed the IRC to visit as part of a propaganda campaign and then were forced to let the prisoners tell the IRC about problems in the prison. Since Suzman was an MP, the prison had to grant her the right to visit and talk with the prisoners. Once the prisoners gained the right to play football, they insisted on the need to run it themselves. Any time the authorities interfered, the prisoners closed down their sports and found ways to get news of these actions to the IRC. The logical (illogical?) conclusion of this struggle was an incident in the 1970's when the commanding officer demanded that the prisoners resume playing sports before he would talk with them about some of their other grievances. He did not want his bosses in Pretoria to think he was sabotaging their efforts to look klike they were running a humane prison system.

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3. How did the men whose lives feature in the book end up on the Island and what have they done since their release?

One point has to be made clear at the start of any discussion of Robben Island prison. All the men in the maximum security section were political prisoners. That term did not exist in South African jurisprudence. Technically, all of the men were sentenced for some kind of criminal offenses, but each of their supposed "crimes" were carried out as part of an effort to change the apartheid government. Tony Suze and Mark Shinners were both young members of the Pan-Africanist Congress. They were convicted of a variety of charges including conspiracy to overthrow the government, and sabotage. Tony was sentenced with a number of other youths. One of the main charges against him shows the Alice in Wonderland (or Orwellian) nature of South African justice. He was charged with conspiracy with persons unknown to the prosecution, at a time and place unknown to the prosecution, to attempt to overthrow the government. The only defense was to dis-prove these charges. He was sentenced to fifteen years. Mark was sentenced to ten years. There was no chance of commutation of sentence for any political prisoner. Shinners served a second ten year term on the Island. Two years after his initial release he was arrested by the police after he had been seen entering Soweto during the 1976 uprising. What he was attempting to do was to convince students to draw back from their confrontation with the police since he saw no chance for them to survive in a pitched battle where the authorities had orders to "shoot to kill".

Lizo Sitoto was an ANC member, convicted of sedition, conspiracy, leaving the country without proper documents, and various other crimes. He served sixteen years, six months. Sedick Isaacs was part of a small Muslim political group. He was convicted of possession of explosives and various acts of conspiracy. He was sentenced to twelve years and served an extra year due to his efforts to smuggle out information about treatment in the prison. He served almost a year in solitary confinement, by far the longest such sentence and was beaten severely many times. Marcus Solomon was involved with the Yu Chi Chan Club (named after a book written by Chairman Mao), an organization that was dedicated to ending apartheid and bringing about a socialist state. It was much more a discussion group than it was involved in direct action. He was convicted of conspiracy, sedition, and attempting to overthrow the government and sentenced to ten years.

Upon their releases, all of the men had to try to construct new lives under the harshest conditions. They were under banning orders for a number of years and that restricted their movement, their ability to get jobs, and even how many people they could see socially.

Sitoto went into exile in Sweden with his girl friend. They were married there and were trained as pre-school teachers. They returned after freedom came to South Africa. They started a pre-school in the township where Lizo was raised. To this day, they support the school by raising funds from charities and private donations. It serves hundreds of children in a poor area of the Eastern Cape.

Isaacs had a B.A. and was a mathematics teacher when he was sentenced to the Island. He acquired two masters degree during his imprisonment. Upon his release, he had a number of menial jobs until he finally was allowed to study for a doctorate in mathematics. He could not obtain the kind of position his training warranted until the late-1980's. He became a professor of medical informatics at the University of Cape Town Medical School and has an international reputation in his field. After his recent retirement, he has become a consultant for a number of governmental organizations.

Suze became a teacher upon his release, but was sacked when the security officials threatened to close the school if he remained there. He gained qualifications in personnel management and other business activities. Since the late-1980's he has been involved in a number of businesses including the development of commercial properties.

Solomon had a number of jobs and was able to resume a career as a teacher. He recognized that the problem facing so many children in apartheid South Africa was the absence of hope. A few years later, he started a small organization in the Western Cape that emphasized the ability of children to have a positive influence on one another and the need of adults (as well as the state) to encourage children to take some control of their lives and to plan their futures. The lack of resources provided by the apartheid state and the constant humiliation inflicted upon "non-whites" made Solomon's goals both important and difficult. He raised funding for the organization (much og it from foreign charities and governments), set up the structure and has seen it grow into the nation-wide Children's Resource Centre.

Shinners was released shortly before the apartheid state crumbled. He involved himself with the PAC and was one of its representatives in the deliberations that wrote the new constitution for South Africa. He appeared before a number of international organizations to make the case for the struggle against apartheid.

In addition to their post-apartheid careers, all five are involved with groups that attempt to aid former political prisoners, many of whose lives were ruined (financially and personally) by what was done to them during the detention and imprisonment

4. What was the importance of Robben Island during the struggle against apartheid and what is its significance in the new South Africa?

Robben Island became a kind of testing ground to see if the regime could neutralize the opposition to apartheid. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has shown the world that the South African security forces and the government at its highest levels sanctioned the killing of political opponents. But even if the government had the ability to kill larger numbers, it did have some restraints. The most important was its standing in the international community. The purposes of the Island were to ensure that the most dangerous opponents of apartheid were not free to work against it. It also served as a warning to other people not to involve themselves in political struggle. If the Island was the sign of the power of the stare, it also became the symbol of resistance to it. The fact that some men came off the Island and continued in the struggle showed that there might be hope for the future. The physical presence of the Island also provided a visible symbol that the opponents of apartheid turned into a world wide cause. It was an offense in South Africa to talk or write about what happened on the Island, a policy which provided the world wide anti-apartheid movement with a useful way to discredit claims by South Africa to share the values of western democratic society.

After the end of apartheid, the Island achieved almost mythic stature. For years before 1989, it had become identified with one prisoner, Nelson Mandela. After then, it was transformed into a kind of pilgrimage site for people to understand the hardships that men suffered to bring an wend to apartheid. Thanks to the efforts of many former prisoners and the involvement of the new government, the newly closed prison has been turned into a museum which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Thousands of tourists visit the Island every year and when they tour the prison, their guide is always a former political prisoner. The Robben island Museum runs a number of courses for youth. The purpose of the Island is to ensure that the history of apartheid and the struggle against it is not forgotten, as well as ensuring that people from around the world come to understand that peaceful change can be accomplished.

One of the purposes for writing the book is to show the Island in its fullest context. The men who shared the isolation section with Mr. Mandela were known to the world outside of South Africa, but they represented a very small fraction of the prison population. The vast majority of men were housed in communal cells and suffered extreme condition while working in the stone quarry. These men might be described as the "foot soldiers" of the struggle and little has been told about their lives. The confronted sadistic guards on a daily basis and were the victims of a concerted effort to break their will to resist. One important purpose of the book is to present a more complete story of what happened on the Island and to show what life was like for the thousands who were imprisoned there.

The cover is the only known photo of the men playing football on the Island. It was a propaganda photo taken by the prison authorities to show how well the treated the prisons. As we said in the introduction to the book - "the faces of the players have all been blacked out and obscured. The apartheid authorities steadfastly refused to view the prisoners as human beuings or individuals. They were faceless terrorists, without names, known only by theire prison numbers. We hope that this book puts faces back onto these players."

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5. What connections are there between football on the Island and the forthcoming 2010 World Cup?

6. Although football is a major part of the book, what are other things in it that are equally significant?

5. It was no surprise to me that almost all of the former prisoners who were involved with football on Robben Island are enthusiastic supporters for South Africa's efforts to attract the World Cup. Part of their feelings about 2010 stems from the knowledge that football means something to the vast majority of the South African population as well as their own belief that football embodies a whole set of values that they know were important to them on the Island and which they think are just as important to South African society. Hosting the world's most important international sporting event also means that South Africa has taken its rightful position on the world stage. It is a visible sign of the maturity of this relatively new nation, new in terms of a free and democratic nation. As far as the former prisoners are concerned, South Africa's hosting of other international sports events (for instance, the 1995 Rugby World Cup) were only a prelude to hosting an event that will focus the attention of the world on South Africa and features THE sport that is important to the vast majority of the population. When the men organized their FA on the Island they made sure that it followed all the guidelines to be a FIFA organization. The fact that FIFA chose to make the Makana FA (in 2007) the first organization ever to become an honorary member of FIFA meant a great deal to the men who were involved with football on the Island. Hosting the World Cup is the next natural step in the progression of football in the struggle for freedom. As one prisoner said in 1970, "first we will have a FIFA worthy organization on the island, someday the world of football will come to a free South Africa. I share their hope that the organizing committee will find ways to include recognition of the Makana FA and what football meant on Robben Island as part of the ceremonies surrounding FIFA World Cup 2010

6. Football is a central focus of the book, but the real story deals with how the men believed that football had important qualities that would enable them to use it as a way to continue their struggle against apartheid, to retain their sense of personal and communal dignity, to create their own community within the repressive structure of the island, and to prepare themselves for the day when freedom would come to their nation. The book shows why football mattered, but most of all it shows why football was much more (and still is) than just a game to these men and to the society in which they lived.

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