By Jere Longman
OBBEN ISLAND, South Africa — Sedick Isaacs approached the infamous and windswept prison here, now closed, and pounded the door knock. His first trip here, on Dec. 1, 1964, had not been so voluntary or droll. He was bound in chains at the time and dumped out the back of a truck, not to leave for 13 years.
“When you got here, you were no longer a person, you were a thing,” Isaacs said.
One way that political prisoners maintained their humanity during the apartheid years in this notorious place was to form a soccer league, the Makana Football Association, which operated from 1969 until 1991 and which has received international attention in retrospect during the World Cup.
Soccer brought relief from the exhausting life of breaking rocks in a quarry. It conferred dignity on prisoners subjected to beatings and humiliating body-cavity searches and meals of thin porridge streaked with tracings of worms and bird droppings. It provided a means of resistance, organization and unity to leaders of rival political parties, the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress, who found in a game a means of bonding and harnessing their opposition to the apartheid system.
Jacob Zuma, now South Africa’s president, was a captain of the Rangers club, a sturdy defender and also a referee. Dikgang Moseneke, the deputy chief justice of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, drew up the league’s constitution and was its chairman. Steve Tshwete, another player, became the country’s first post-apartheid sports minister.
“These men believed that there would be a free South Africa while they were still alive,” said Chuck Korr, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and a co-author of a book about the soccer league called “More Than Just a Game.”
“They had every reason to believe that if it wasn’t them, it would be people like them who would have to provide the administrative backbone,” Korr said. “The cliché that sport trains you for life — no, it doesn’t, but in this case, it did.”
Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa who spent 18 of his 27 years of incarceration on Robben Island, was kept in an isolation unit and not allowed to play soccer. In the 1970s, a wall was built to keep him and others in the unit from even watching games, Korr said. Yet eventually Mandela’s moral authority, as much as anything, would win the hosting of the 2010 World Cup for South Africa.
“South Africa wouldn’t be free if not for what generations of men went through on Robben Island,” Korr said in an interview in Port Elizabeth, on the country’s southeastern coast. “I know very few former prisoners who think they could have gotten off the island in the same emotional state had it not been for the existence of football. I think you can make a really good case that the Makana F.A. is the genesis of having the World Cup here.”
Robben Island sits about four and a half miles off Cape Town in the cold, treacherous waters of the Atlantic. Table Mountain is visible from the two remnant soccer fields at the former prison, a beautiful and taunting site for those once incarcerated there.
On Sunday afternoon, Isaacs, a scientist, visited the prison with a reporter and a photographer, as he sometimes does, amused that tourists now pay to come to a place that he desperately longed to leave for more than a decade.
“One of life’s ironies, isn’t it?” he said.
At 70, the lanky Isaacs wears his hair in a boyish mop, which belies the profile of political prisoner 883/64, as he was known when brought here on charges of making explosives.
He holds a Ph.D. in epidemiology and is the president of the African region of an association that applies mathematics, statistics and computer methods to health issues. Yet Isaacs is perhaps most widely known as the former director of the Robben Island prisoners’ sports and recreation unit, helping to introduce sports like soccer, rugby, tennis and even a version of the Summer Olympics.
Soccer was the most popular. Meticulous records were kept regarding rosters and match reports. A disciplinary committee was formed, along with a referees’ union. In the prison library, Isaacs found a book of rules issued by FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, and the prisoners remained adamant about playing their games by international standards.
“It made us as independent as possible,” Isaacs said.
When prisoners in the armed struggle against apartheid began arriving at Robben Island in 1962, recreation was forbidden. Furtive games of chess were played with pieces made from soap. Boards were drawn on cell floors or pieces of paper or blankets. Soccer began in a communal cell in 1963 with balls made from paper, rags or shirts that could be quickly pulled apart if the guards approached.
In December 1964, prisoners began to request to play soccer outside on a proper field. For three years, they were denied. But pressure began to mount on South African authorities. The country was banned from participating in the Olympics and the World Cup. The International Red Cross intervened, and in December 1967, prisoners were allowed to form a league.
One day, a ball was simply tossed into a cell, Isaacs said.
“Some of the older men looked at it suspiciously,” he said. “A few of the younger guys smiled in delight.”
The first league dissolved after authorities began using the privilege of playing soccer as a tactic in punishment. In 1969, the league reformed as the Makana Football Association, named after a Xhosa warrior who tried to escape from imperialists on Robben Island in 1820.
Games were played on Saturdays and lasted a half-hour each. The original field, not regulation size, was leveled with a roller and watered by prisoners. Improvised goals were made of driftwood and fishing nets that washed ashore. Early on, rubber from car tires was sometimes used to fashion cleats. Eventually, with help from the Red Cross, uniforms and soccer boots were purchased with money that prisoners had received from their families.
“Football saved many of us,” said Lizo Sitoto, who was imprisoned on Robben Island from 1963 until 1978. “When you were outside playing, you felt free, as if you were at home.”
Nine teams were part of the original league, which gained honorary FIFA membership in 2007. Play was held in three divisions, according to skill levels. While handling league business, prisoners referred to one another as Mister, but not everything ran smoothly. Disagreements about refereeing were common and heated. One famous dispute in 1970 lasted for three months and nearly tore the league apart before being resolved.
“These guys were not plaster-of-paris saints,” Korr said. “If you compare their matches with those in England, they both had rowdy supporters and complaints about the referees. The two differences were, as far as I know, nobody ever threw a punch, and the visiting supporters didn’t get on a train and go home after the match.”
A regulation-size field was eventually approved by the prison authorities. On Sunday afternoon, Isaacs stood on the abandoned field, which was sandier and less grassy than he remembered. Earlier, he opened the door to Mandela’s former cell, and the clang of the key turning in the lock still seemed ominous. Isaacs also entered a cell where he spent 10 months in solitary confinement. The cold, he said, was still in his bones.
Now it was silent outside except for the pounding of waves in the distance.
“Before I went to Robben Island, the smell of the sea was always a smell of holidays and going to the beach,” Isaacs said wistfully. “Now it’s a smell that puts me back in prison.”