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Nelson Mandela spent 18 years on Robben Island.
Nelson Mandela spent 18 years on Robben Island.

Behind the bars football thrived

The World Cup represents the triumph of a spirit that grew at Robben Island and eventually overthrew South Africa's apartheid regime.

ROBBEN ISLAND // If the delegates at today's World Cup draw in Cape Town look out across the Atlantic, they will see on the horizon the dark mass of Robben Island, remote, windswept and bleak. For years it was one of the world's most notorious prisons, housing enemies of South Africa's apartheid regime, but from the horror grew one of football's most inspirational tales. Much of the talk around the World Cup is of its legacy, of the stadiums and the infrastructure it will leave behind, but it is worth remembering also that the tournament represents a tremendous victory, the triumph of a spirit that eventually overthrew apartheid and made possible South Africa's re-acceptance into the world.

When Nelson Mandela, who spend 18 of his 27 years in jail on Robben Island, was in the prison's isolation block, just about his only distraction was being able to look from his cell window and watch his fellow prisoners playing football. So the prison authorities had a wall built to obstruct his view, an indication that they recognised the significance of the sport to the prisoners. Football may have begun on the island as a pastime, a distraction from the everyday grimness of prison life, but it became something far more: at first a rare arena in which prisoners could take charge of their own lives then, ultimately, almost a microcosm of the new South Africa the prisoners wanted to build.

"I studied psychology while I was there," says Sedick Isaacs, who is now a professor of medicine at Cape Town University. "I got a book from the state library that explained about the effects of imprisonment. They'd studied the effects on prisoners in Nazi Germany, and shown how boredom and listlessness set in after the initial shock of imprisonment was over." He is a thin, clearly unathletic man, and he admits he had never been engaged in any form of sport before being jailed, but as he set up a range of cultural activities - drama, music and education - he realised football had a central part to play.

"The conditions were terrible," remembers Marck Shinners, one of only four men to be sentenced twice to Robben Island. "The toilet facilities were just a bucket between the 70-80 people in a cell. We got two five-litre cans of water - one for drinking and one for washing. The authorities had taken the decision to inflict pain and humiliation on us, trying to ensure that we succumbed. "The health facilities were terrible. The diet was mainly fried maize and porridge. There was very little difference between the fresh water and the seawater. The clothes were never new and barely fitted, made of a thick material, so in the winter when you washed them they were always damp when you put them back on. "We just had sandals, no shoes. Assaults were common, and you would be picked on if you complained."

But they did complain, regularly pointing out in the complaints book that was passed around every Saturday that they were not getting the stipulated minimum exercise period. "You had to find a way to survive the assaults, the degradation, the emotional insults," Shinners says. "We had to be able to come out as we'd gone in. Working in the quarries and on their building projects, we felt that with the passage of time we'd gain enough power to be able to make our demands with strikes and hunger strikes."

Gradually those protests made an impression, particularly as the Red Crescent and foreign governments began to apply pressure to the South African regime. At first the warders simply picked 22 men at random to go outside and play, but slowly the prisoners were able to establish a formalised competition. A decision was taken early that the body overseeing it should be set up by Fifa statutes, and so was formed the Makana Football Association - named after a king who had died after being imprisoned on the island following the British invasion of the Eastern Cape.

In July 2007, as a mark of its extraordinary contribution to the development of football in South Africa, it was granted honorary membership of Fifa. Goals were made from planks of wood and fishing nets washed up on the shore, and it was decided that the 1,400 or so prisoners on the island could support eight clubs, four run by the African National Congress - whose players included Jacob Zuma, now the president of South Africa, and Tokyo Sexwale, the minister for human settlements - and four by their political rivals in the struggle against apartheid, the Pan-African Congress.

"The fact the teams were founded on political lines was not particularly happy for me," says Tony Suze, who had played football at the highest amateur level before his arrest. "But it was the most practical way of doing it. Although my team was primarily PAC, I made it clear that we had no political affiliation. Ideologically, that was the right thing to do." It also, of course, allowed him to recruit the best players.

Initially the sport was all about participation, with each club running two or three sides to ensure that all those who wanted to play could play. "We'd gone to jail for democracy, and this was a chance to show ourselves that we could put that into practice," says Marcus Solomons, who had been a member of small Maoist group. "It helped overcome tensions and differences, and to break down the barriers between political factions. That was one of the main messages - that sport is about developing people. It's a social activity."

Gradually the football became more competitive, and disputes occurred. Everything, though, was done absolutely by the book. If players were disciplined, they would be granted the right to argue their case, and then to appeal if the judgement went against them. "At the time in South Africa there was no due process," says Isaacs. "There was torture and coercion. This was a chance to show you could have due process and how it could work."

Football took on a symbolic function. It became a representation of the outside world - which is why club secretaries would write formal letters to each other, even if they happened to be sleeping in the next bunk - but an idealised version of it. "In football," says Shinners, "there is a culture of transcendence. Football makes you transcend the area you find yourself in. People might not know you, but football gives you a sense of belonging. When we left the island, it was very clear that South Africa was changing, and that football was going to be important. South Africa had to come into the fold, but it needed transformation, and football kept people going during that time."

Even those who have become disillusioned by the commercialism of football recognise South Africa's hosting of the World Cup as a key point in that process. "To have embraced a type of body, to have looked to it as a model, and then, in your lifetime, to see your country hosting that body you'd been looking to, hosting the ultimate world event," Shinners says, his emotion obvious as his usual eloquence deserted him. "To see them bringing the World Cup to a country where colour used to undermine football, where the structures that refused to obey apartheid were victimised - To see everybody coming to this part of the world to pay homage - You feel you are dreaming to see that happening in your lifetime. We had a vision, but we never thought we'd see its fulfilment."

@Email:jwilson@thenational.ae The World Cup draw starts at 9.45pm today.

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