Freedom: How Football Conquered Apartheid

Ben Mountain

This week saw an astonishing and moving political protest enacted, as it so often is, through the powerful medium of sport. If you haven’t yet seen it, check out the video below. Anyway, sport has always been a tool of the people, especially when making voicing a political stance. However back in South Africa during the 1960s and 70s, football in particular became more than just a unit of protest.

It became a life saver.

In 1948, the National Party gained power in South Africa and began to enforce one of the most prejudice, discriminatory and divisive regimes in modern history.

Apartheid rule lasted for a shocking 43 years and only ended as recently as 1991.

It divided a nation and marred the proud history of South Africa indefinitely. An ongoing battle against its sick ethos was hard-fought and passionate.

For the political prisoners and opposers to Apartheid on Robben Island – home to Nelson Mandela for 18 years – the battle was won on a very certain field.

That field, of course, being the football field.

Faced with stifling oppression, abuse, and grueling working conditions, the prisoners managed to establish freedom where the very concept didn’t exist.

There was a group of talented and passionate footballers on Robben Island in the 60s and these men were never going to let football leave their lives. Initially playing with tied up rags in the dark of their cells, the inmates later managed to run a professional football league; with FA rules, sanctions, kits, boots and even an entire Olympic-style event in years to come.

Inmates took it in turns to write to the prison officials to request that football be allowed on the island. By 1966, the Makana Football Association had been formed and today it has honorary FIFA status.

The determination to achieve all of this, it appears, arose from an unerring and unconquerable love of sport. Football, of course, being most loved by the men. But the game meant much, much more than just a good excuse for a kickabout and a break from the weight of their oppressors clamped around their shoulders.

It was symbolic. It represented their ability to organise, to collaborate and to lead in a nation where their very status was determined to be inferior by the colour of their skin.

Yet here, upon the most heavily controlled place in South Africa, was a group of imprisoned black men smoothly running an entire footballing league like any other whilst having their lives dictated and twisted by agents of Apartheid control.

The men organised the most liberating of events and pastimes in the most suffocating of circumstances.

“We played soccer on Robben Island with such passion and such detail—it was another way of survival,” Anthony Suze, political prisoner of 15 years

“Survival” was obviously key on the island, with many too weak or aged to work the back-breaking hours spent imprisoned down in the quarries, carrying out menial and unrewarding manual labour. But it was during these dark and exhausting times that prisoners discussed football and politics and much of the sport’s organisation was carried out here.

Should one man fall ill or be struggling with the unforgiving workload, his fellow inmates and often fellow ‘fans’ would lighten the load and increase their own work rate in order to accommodate.

Resultantly, these grueling hours became easier. Thanks to the joy of football on the island, inmates could discuss something that inspired joy and ambition in a place destitute of positivity. Rival political groups such as the ANC and PAC bonded over football and the sport became the only thing able to cross the vast political divides of such a tense time.

For those who couldn’t play, there was a great deal of organising to be done. Leagues were kept, rules were adhered to, points and goals were recorded, kits were repaired, incidents were dealt with by an actual governing body and official letters were sent between club representatives; many of whom occupied adjacent cells.

It all came back to that control and ability exercised by prisoners in the face of their oppressors.

Football went from being a source of escapism from the misery of inmate life to a political stand in the annals of time for the country’s battle against racial oppression.

When the prison management attempted to use football against its inmates by controlling and often banning it in morale crushing demonstrations of power, the footballers would simply refuse to play once word got out regarding the new, more liberal and fairer approach that the prison has adopted regarding football.

With the authorities knowing that football on Robben Island did much to strengthen South Africa’s international standing – having been banned from the 1964 Olympics – there was little they could do but flout it to the world and exploit the image it allowed them.

The prisoners, fully aware of their symbolic status, were competent and brave enough to hold this against their oppressors.

When Apartheid finally fell in 1991, the world rejoiced. Nelson Mandela had been freed the year before and the gruesome Robben Island was shut down that same year.

There had been many protests and symbols striking out against the world’s most suffocating racially segregating regime post-war, but perhaps it was the actions of those stuck in prison for upholding their beliefs that were the most prominent.

Not for the Hollywood-esque scenes of rallying cries and unified workers, but through the simplest of pleasures. Football overcame Apartheid.

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