More than just a game: The Makana Football Association on Robben Island

22 Jun

Goal posts on Robben Island


The story of the Makana Football Association has been brought to light in recent years during the buildup to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It provides a great deal of insight into the historical importance of football in South African society. The formation of the Makana Football Association on Robben Island has been labeled as a “triumph of the human spirit” and a beacon of hope during the darkest days of apartheid in South Africa. Nelson Mandela or Madiba, as he is known by South Africans, is by far Robben Island’s most well known political prisoner. However, this is not his story. This is the story of the collective struggle of Robben Island’s prisoners to retain their humanity through something as simple as playing football. 

Just for some perspective, imagine an alternate reality of the United States in the 1960s, where the experience of today’s political elite had been formed in the negro baseball leagues. The country is led by President Jackie Robinson, Vice President Satchel Paige, and Secretary of State Willie Mays. Sounds crazy? Replace baseball with soccer, and you’ve got South Africa, a country that has shown that football is more than just an opiate for the masses and has given new meaning to the term “political football.”

For those of you unfamiliar with Robben Island, it is a prison just off the coast of Cape Town where hardened criminals and political prisoners who had been involved in the struggle against the Apartheid rule were sent. The conditions on Robben Island were dire, prisoners were undernourished, beaten, and forced to break rocks into smaller rocks that would eventually be used to reinforce the prison walls. The ultimate purpose of Robben Island was to isolate men from everyday society and to break their will to continue the struggle for change. In turn, the prisoners regarded it as an obligation to find ways to strengthen their resolve and to equip themselves with the skills and determination they would need to create the free, democratic South Africa they thought would exist during their lifetimes.

The construction of the Makana Football Association didn’t happen overnight, it was an extensive process that required ample perseverance. 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 warden would refuse. What eventually changed the mind of the warden is unknown but in the end he conceded the right to play football to the prisoners on Robben Island. Football was much more than just a game for the prisoners – it was one of the ways in which they confirmed their dignity as individuals and asserted their right to run at least a part of their lives despite the brutal conditions of the prison.

Of the men who played in the prison’s soccer league, an astonishing number would go on to become important figures in shaping post-apartheid South Africa.Their ranks include current President Jacob Zuma, opposition leader and former Defense Minister “Terror” Lekota, Minister of Human Settlements “Tokyo” Sexwale, and Kgalema Motlanthe, who completed former President Thabo Mbeki’s second term. Mandela never participated; he watched the early games from an isolation block until the authorities built a wall to obstruct his view and to stop prisoners from passing notes to him during the matches. Zuma had the distinction of doubling as a referee. Leave it to a future president to play one weekend and arbitrate the next.

This story has not gone unnoticed, in recent years a book was published that told the story of the Makana Football Association and a film was made based on the book. In the book “More Than Just A Game: Soccer vs. Apartheid: The Most Important Soccer Story Ever Told,’’ Chuck Korr and Marvin Close make the case that organizing and maintaining the prison soccer league increased the confidence, managerial skills, and morale of the inmates. Working together to convince the prison authorities that they should have the opportunity to build a proper field and to wear soccer uniforms rather than prison garb a couple of times a week helped the men to increase their sense of self-respect, and ultimately persuaded some of the guards and administrators to acknowledge the ingenuity, talents, and tenacity of the inmates. Perhaps more significantly, members of the various organizations dedicated to dismantling apartheid learned they could work together.

Trailer for More Than Just a Game

The Island prisoner community was made up of two major factions in the struggle against apartheid, the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) and the ANC (African National Congress), along with a number of small groups. The PAC was a group that had separated from the ANC and established itself in April 1959. The two groups disagreed on a number of issues including the future for a multi-racial South Africa and the tactics to be used to confront the increasingly violent enforcement of the apartheid regulations. They did agree on the need to end the system over time and, in the short term, to challenge some of its harshest policies but for the most part they remained hostile. They carried this hostility onto the Island, separating themselves as much as was possible in the close confines of the Island. The campaign for football and the need to create an organized structure for that changed the relationship between the PAC and the ANC. It was the first activity upon which the two largest political factions on the Island (at that time, the PAC was the larger of the two) cooperated which showed how much football mattered and that it was possible for the men to act together.

For the political prisoners, administering and managing football became a developmental process for honing administrative and leadership skills. Tony Suze, one of the men who helped organize the league commented that,

“Football was a crutch that supported us from mental collapse but it also focused us on who we were, what could happen (if we honed our organizing skills), and what would be! There was never any doubt in our minds that we were a government-in-waiting. And everything we did, including playing, managing and administering soccer, had to be done properly.”

Anthony Suze and Sepp Blatter hug for the cameras during Fifa’s visit to Robben Island

The men who established the Manong Football Club, Gunners, Rangers, Ditshitshidi, and the other teams that made up the Makana Football Association felt that their duty was to maintain themselves physically, psychologically, and spiritually while incarcerated, so that when they got off the island, they would be fully equipped to take up once again the struggle for the freedom of their people. Playing soccer became an important part of the routine that allowed men like Tony Suze and Jacob Zuma to emerge stronger than ever from confinement and move South Africa toward a more promising future.

Let us now put the story of the Makana Football Association in the context of the larger history of football in South Africa. The Afrikaner officials of the apartheid regime never embraced football. They loved rugby and cricket and funded those sports generously, but saw football as a game for Africans. At first, they ignored the sport — then they began to ban some matches. In April 1963, at the Natalspruit Sports Ground in Johannesburg, authorities locked the gates and left a note saying the day’s games had been canceled. Fifteen thousand supporters scaled the gates, carrying an extra pair of goal posts to replace a set that had been removed. The matches went ahead.

Soccer kept countering apartheid — white teams knew that to test themselves they had to play against the black teams, and unofficial games became more and more common. The truth became obvious: The white league was second class. Few were surprised at its collapse in 1977. Despite the outright segregation in the rest of South African society, in 1976, the government allowed a mixed-race team to play against a visiting Argentine squad in Johannesburg. Black and white South Africans lined up together on the pitch, though the stands were still segregated. The home team won 5-0, including a hat trick for a then unknown black player named Jomo Sono. When he scored against Argentina, his teammates, black and white, did what teammates have always done: hugged and shook hands. This feel-good victory was overshadowed only a few weeks later, however, when approximately 500 black South Africans were killed in the Soweto uprising.

Jomo Sono

Jomo Sono, when he returned from his lucrative stint alongside Pelé in the New York Cosmos, made a very political statement in 1982 apartheid South Africa — he bought the white soccer powerhouse, Highlands Park.

 Apartheid’s opponents quickly seized on the potential that football had to rally support and raise funds. The African National Congress (ANC), then a banned underground movement, quickly realized that wherever there was football, there was a crowd. Political meetings suffered a blanket ban from 1976 onward, but it was far harder to prevent several members of a political party from sitting together in the stands, amid thousands. Zuma, for instance, would emerge from hiding to attend the matches of the Zulu Royals and confer with other politicians. Peter Alegi, a historian and author of “African Soccerscapes”, claims that as early as 1944, the revenue from football matches was being handed over to the ANC. Patson Banda, a former player for the Orlando Pirates, remembers one game that was played across the border in Zimbabwe in front of more than 100,000 paying fans. Again, the ANC received the proceeds collected at the gate.

By the late 1980s, football matches were at center stage of the country’s rapidly evolving politics. ANC flags, which were still banned, were seen openly in football stadiums, a sign of the regime’s weakening grip on power. In 1991, South Africa’s current football federation was founded. During its inaugural meeting, it made the astonishing assertion that its formation was “only natural … as the sport of soccer had long led the way into breaking the tight grip of racial oppression.” It was an audacious statement, even dangerous, as the fall of apartheid was still more than two years away.

Football played a central role in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and what happened on Robben Island is just one compelling chapter in the larger story of how something as simple as football became a bastion of hope for all those who believed in a brighter future for South Africa.


Korr, Chuck(2010) ‘Tony Suze’s reflections on the importance of sport in the struggle to end Apartheid’, Sport in Society, 13: 1, 32 — 35

 Suze, Anthony(2010) ‘The untold story of Robben Island: sports and the anti-Apartheid movement’, Sport in Society, 13: 1, 36 — 42,0

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