More Than Just a Game: The Makana Football Association

An Uruguayan coach supervises a soccer team's warm-up session before the inaugural game and the launching of a new soccer school in Goma, DRC (UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti)

An analysis of the socio-political power of football to transcend linguistic and cultural boundaries and promote unity within socities.

‘More than just a game’ is an oft-used cliché to describe the socio-political impact of sports. It is particularly apt in regard to some of the great inter-club (for example, Glasgow Rangers v Celtic, or Real Madrid v Barcelona in football) and international (Russia v Canada in ice-hockey) sporting rivalries. Annually, tens of thousands of football fans trek across Europe in support of their teams as they battle it out for coveted pan-European soccer trophies, while growing numbers of English cricket supporters – the so-called ‘Barmy Army’ – flee the European winter to follow their team around the ‘old Empire’ of India, Sri Lanka, South Africa, the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand.

Elsewhere in this magazine, Sellström has presented soccer’s impact in Africa as an instrument for peace-making, reconciliation and the forging of national identities. In each of the examples given – be they from Sierra Leone, Rwanda or colonial Algeria – soccer was a common denominator, the positive force which contributed decisively to the ending of the deadly spirals of hate and killing. Not in and of itself, of course. It was rather soccer’s potential which skilful and visionary leaders recognized and tapped into in order to effect profound changes. In the wrong hands, chauvinistic football rivalries can have an opposite effect. No one should forget the 1969 soccer war between El Salvador and Honduras, which followed a round of World Cup qualifying games. It lasted only for 100 hours, but cost 2,000 people their lives.

To the accounts of soccer as a positive and liberating force in Africa, we should add an inspiring story from the apartheid era in South Africa. It is the extraordinary tale of how thousands of political prisoners on Robben Island formed the Makana Football Association (MFA) and used soccer not only to reclaim their humanity, but also to undermine apartheid. The story premiered as a docudrama in Cape Town in November 2007, coinciding with the draw for the 2010 World Cup qualifying rounds. The movie drew on eleven years of meticulous research by the American historian Chuck Knorr. Assisted by the scriptwriter Marvin Close, his account More Than Just a Game: Soccer v Apartheid is perhaps the most important history to emerge from post-apartheid South Africa. It is certainly the most heart-warming and inspiring. It is also a rare commodity, a wholly original work. It tells a story – the prisoners and their warders apart – nobody knew. Neither could anybody beyond the Island ever imagine what took place.

The 1960s was the grimmest of decades in the struggle against apartheid, where nothing seemed to be working for the liberation movements. Outlawed in 1960 and forced underground, the anti-apartheid leaders and thousands of their followers were either banned, exiled or gaoled on Robben Island, a prison described by Knorr and Close as “horror incarnate”. On the Island, they were presided over by arrogant white supremacists to whom the impulse to hurt and humiliate was instinctive. In these harsh circumstances and dire times, the political prisoners demanded to be allowed to play soccer. Every week for three years, one prisoner after another made this an official request, and every week it was refused with the petitioner often being punished. But then, in 1967, the authorities relented. They hoped and believed that the agreement would be the end of a drawn out, tiresome matter and that after a few weeks the prisoners’ desire to play the game would dissipate. They could not have been more wrong. In many ways, it was at this moment that the South African authorities began to lose their monopoly control over the infamous prison outside Cape Town.

Conceived among the political prisoners in the collective cells, the MFA never included Nelson Mandela and his colleagues in the ANC leadership. They were all locked up in isolation cells. In the meantime, however, the MFA spawned a league of many different teams, some formed along party or ideological lines and others which recruited players irrespective of their affiliations or political leanings. Run according to FIFA rules, the MFA presided over a network of working groups, including referees’ and disciplinary committees. It became, in the words of one of its active members, Tokyo Sexwale, “a vehicle that united all of us. It ran across all political barriers”. While doing hard labour in the quarries, the prisoners may have been powerless automatons. In their cells, however, they reclaimed a degree of control over their lives. There, they debated for hours, planning upcoming fixtures and keeping detailed records of everything they did and decided on. Preserving the records became the task of prisoners dubbed ‘the archivists’. And preserve them they did.

On a visit in August 1993 – 18 years after the formation of the MFA – to the University of the Western Cape’s historical archives known as the Mayibuye Centre, its then Director André Odendaal, himself a distinguished sports historian, directed Knorr to no less than seventy boxes simply labeled ‘Robben Island – Sports’. Knorr later stated: “At that time I was totally unaware that there had been any sport on Robben Island. If anyone had mentioned the two words together, I would have said that it was an oxymoron”. The outcome of the chance encounter is described in this magazine.

Two important points should be made about the MFA’s impact on political life on the Island and, at a deeper level, on the transition process underway in South Africa in the late apartheid era. The first pertains to the MFA’s capacity to transcend the great political divide in the post-1960 liberation movement. With the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) today reduced to a political smidgen, it may be hard to understand the bitterness of the schism which emerged in 1959 with the breakaway of the so called ‘Africanists’ from the African National Congress (ANC). It was deep to the point of paralysis when it came to the possibilities of any united front operations. Yet, on the Island the PAC and the ANC worked and talked together, sometimes playing on the same team. Two ‘young Turks’ of the time, Dikgang Moseneke of the PAC and the ANC’s Indres Naidoo , worked hand in glove in the MFA. In the process, they did much to defuse the prevailing hostility between the two parties, laying a basis for a future where they could cooperate.

The second relates to the remarkable chemistry which developed over time between the prisoners and some of their gaolers. The exceptional friendship between Nelson Mandela and his gaoler, James Gregory, has been documented. Another of Mandela’s warders, Christo Brand, basically changed sides, after apartheid taking a job at the Robben Island Museum. Something similar took place with warders identifying with different MFA teams and in a myriad of ways becoming part of the football scene. In the process, each side became demystified in the eyes of the ‘other’. If not humanity, a sense of community emerged between people on the two sides of the great apartheid divide. A small blow, it should be said, to those who persisted with notions of the herrenvolk.

In 2007, FIFA awarded the Makana Football Association associate member status in recognition of its role in keeping alive the hope that one day South Africa would change and that the Robben Island generation would rule. In May 1994, that hope, once so distant, became a glorious reality.

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