Sexwale's long walk to footballing freedom

JOHANNESBURG - It is a very long way from an isolation cell on Robben Island to a seat of honour at the opening match of the World Cup finals, but at least two men should complete that incredible journey next year. One is Nelson Mandela, who spent two decades in the notorious apartheid prison off Cape Town until 1982, before finally leading South Africa to majority rule in 1994. The other man, who was alongside him through several years of imprisonment, is Tokyo Sexwale, 56, Mandela's friend and a pivotal player in helping South Africa win the right to stage the World Cup. All being well, for Mandela is now in failing health at nearly 91, when they take their seats at Soccer City stadium for the start of the competition on June 11, the dream Sexwale had three decades ago will finally become a reality. It was Sexwale, now human settlements minister, who first persuaded the authorities to allow inmates to play football on Robben Island. The sport evolved from a kick-around in the prison's corridors with balls made from cleaning rags into organised leagues with teams that played on marked pitches and used proper balls and kit. As Sexwale told Reuters in an interview this week: "Behind the bars we defied the rules of apartheid and the racist leaders, but we obeyed the laws of FIFA. "Whenever we played football, we played by FIFA's rules. We were not prisoners then, we were players. Slowly, slowly, it changed. Every journey has a first step." Sexwale and his fellow inmates formed their own football association on the island known as the Makana FA, with him as its secretary. Two years ago when Mandela turned 89, the sport's ruling body uniquely created an "honorary membership" for the Makana FA. KARATE KID The story of football on Robben Island was told in director Anant Singh's moving 2007 film "More Than Just A Game" - but many aspects of Sexwale's multi-faceted life could just as easily be dramatised. Tokyo Sexwale: The Karate Kid; Tokyo Sexwale: The Revolutionary Years; Tokyo Sexwale: Political Prisoner; Tokyo Sexwale: Business Tycoon. And possibly, one day: Tokyo Sexwale: South African President. Sexwale, one of the country's richest tycoons, was seen as a strong candidate for leadership of the ruling ANC party in 2007 before stepping down to support Jacob Zuma -- another Robben Island prisoner -- who began a five year term as state president last month. In 2005 Sexwale starred in South Africa's version of The Apprentice television programme, but is now a member of the World Cup organising committee. Born Mosima Sexwale in Soweto in 1953 he took a keen interest in karate as a youth, hence his nickname Tokyo. VERY PROUD "I am feeling very proud right now. I used to dream of a free South Africa and of course I always thought that was worth fighting for," he told Reuters. "Life teaches you many things but I was always optimistic because if you are a fighter -- if you believed that a fundamental change would come one day, you become an eternal optimist. "We believed that we would change South Africa, we believed the world would stand with us and we also believed one day that we would die in prison, but that our cause would succeed. "But we also never stopped hoping that one day football, under FIFA's administration, would come back to South Africa. "We had been members of FIFA before, but because of what was happening under apartheid we were banned. That was a very powerful message to the leaders at the time. That was a step that helped pave the way to freedom. GREAT RISK "FIFA played a huge part, Sepp Blatter played a huge part, as I have said, before, at great personal risk and at great risk to his reputation. He stood his ground, he knew the World Cup had to come to Africa and he helped it happen. "But it all started there on Robben Island, and now we are on the eve of something that will define this country and this continent for many years to come." FIFA president Blatter told Reuters this week: "I would regard him as the spiritual father of South African soccer. "He is a great South African, a great African, and he has a great future in front of him. He has been with Nelson Mandela all the way and one day could follow in the footsteps of Mandela himself." Danny Jordaan, the chief executive officer of the 2010 World Cup organising committee agreed and told Reuters: "He gave two things to this country. He kept the vision alive that one day there would be a free and democratic South Africa. "From a football perspective, he ran the Robben Island FA, he was the secretary of that FA which has now been specially recognised by FIFA. You could say he was the one who got the ball rolling to where we are today." Robben Island and the rag balls may now be far behind, but the once improbable dream is close to coming true.