The long dribble to freedom

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Marck Shinners still fears he’s going to wake up, open his eyes, look up from his bed and see once again the bars on the windows. In 1963, he was locked up by South Africa’s apartheid regime on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela and hundreds of other political dissidents.

Trapped, tortured and terrified, the inmates endured horrifying conditions inside a cruel institution that threatened to crush their souls. But, within just a matter of months of his arrival, Shinners and some of his fellow prisoners achieved the impossible: setting up Robben Island’s very own football league, establishing its own football association and even drawing up a constitution that fully conformed to FIFA guidelines.

After the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, in which 69 unarmed anti-apartheid protestors were shot dead and more than 180 injured by police, the mood in South Africa had changed, with both the Pan-African Congress and the African National Congress, the two main anti-apartheid groups, moving away from a philosophy of peaceful resistance.

"There was an awareness," Shinners says, "that we were the victims of the system and that it was up to us to act; nobody was going to help us if we didn't help ourselves. I was a member of a student body related to the PAC. 

"We became aware that the authorities were not going to listen to any plans for change, and we knew that we had to meet force with force. We were inspired by various uprisings around the world, by the Mau Mau in Kenya, by Cuba, Ghana and Algeria. We learned as much as we could about struggles for freedom around the world. We wanted to organise the students into agitating in the community. I was arrested for 'conspiring to overthrow the state' on March 22, 1963, and charged two months later. I was sentenced to 10 years on Robben Island." 

As the opposition became increasingly radicalised, so the state crackdowns became tougher. There was no assumption of innocence; anyone arrested for a political crime had to prove they were not guilty. "The warders had a mandate to brutalise us, but not to kill us," remembers Tony Suze, who was jailed in 1963.

"The conditions were terrible," says Shinners. "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. We were mixed in with hardened criminals. The warders were the most vicious men you could get. The authorities had taken the decision to inflict pain and humiliation on us, trying to ensure that we succumbed.

"The health facilities were terrible. They just gave you Epsom salts for anything - toothache, whatever. 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."

The prisoners did complain, though, usually by means of a complaints book that was passed around on a Saturday morning. Sedick Isaacs was a chemistry graduate, jailed in 1964 for instructing members of the PAC in the use of explosives.

"When I got to the prison we were starting to negotiate, just to be allowed to play sport so we could go outside and feel the sun," he says. "The prison regulations stated we were supposed to be allowed half an hour of exercise a day, but we were locked up from six on a Friday till Monday morning.

“We kept writing in the complaints book that we wanted an exercise period and we were entitled to one according to the prison rules. We had indoor games, but just ludo and board games, and even then we had to make them ourselves, and they would confiscate them if they found them. There was a sort of informal football - just a bag tied up so it looked like a ball that some of the chaps kicked around - but we wanted to formalise it." 

These days, Isaacs, a thin man with a wispy moustache, is a professor of medicine at Cape Town University. Frankly, he looks it. Before being jailed, he had never taken part in any sport, and he admits he was probably the worst footballer on the island, but he quickly realised the value of football.

"I studied psychology while I was there," he says (he ended up getting two MAs in his 13 years on the island). "I got a book from the state library that explained about the effects of imprisonment. I saw prisoners who couldn't look people in the eye, who were not motivated to do anything. 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."

Determined to combat that, Isaacs helped organise a number of cultural activities - drama, music, education, and football. "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." 

Having campaigned for football, Isaacs missed its arrival, as he spent a year in solitary confinement for trying to smuggle out a report on prison conditions. He might have been foiled in that attempt, but gradually awareness grew of how bad things were on the island.

A group of British journalists arrived to inspect the prison in 1964, and Shinners happened to be one of those called to answer their questions. "It was easy for me to point out people who had been assaulted," he says, "and after that attitudes began to change."

One of the concessions made was to allow the prisoners to play football. "Football transports you," says Suze. "You are able to forget. You focus on that because it becomes the centre of you life. You live in two different worlds. When you finished you had to go back to the cells, but football kept the sordid environment away from your mind because you played, talked, slept football." 

It took time, though, to get to that stage. "When they told us we were going to be allowed to play, that seemed unimaginable, but at first it didn't quite meet our expectations," says Shinners. "A lot of the warders were rugby players who had no idea how football should be played, so we started complaining again to bring it under our control. They would just say 'OK, 11 of you and another 11 - you play'. They didn't think about ability or who could play in which positions.

“It was just about going out for exercise. And they'd not be bothered about time. Even in good conditions, it takes time to get a match under way. At first we had just 30 minutes, but that is not enough. By the time you were ready to start you'd be turning round to come home again because you didn't want to miss lunch, or because the warders were going off to play in the rugby league they had running.

"We had to explain how the game was played, so we turned to FIFA. That was another major achievement: eventually the authorities said they didn't care how we played. We put in place a structure - a referees' association, a first-aid group - people who could help in case of injuries.

“We even managed to get help to train up first-aid people. And football is a spectator sport. We knew we couldn't play with 22 while everybody else stayed in the cells. They said they couldn't allow hundreds and hundreds of prisoners out, but we said football was so important to us that we would make sure discipline was not a problem. It projected something of ourselves to the warders, and it was very important that we were organising ourselves." 

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.

Its constitution followed exactly guidelines laid down by FIFA and, in July this year, the MFA was given associate membership of FIFA. Goals were made from planks of wood and fishing nets washed up on the shore. A pitch was marked out on an area of sandy rough ground. It was decided that the 1400 or so prisoners on the island could support eight clubs, and the way things were in the early days, it made sense for the PAC to run four and the ANC four.

"The fact the teams were founded on political lines was not particularly happy for me," says Suze, who had played at the highest amateur level in South Africa (there was no professional structure) before his arrest. "But it was the most practical way of doing it." 

The PAC took their four best players, surrounded them each with three more good players to form a nucleus, and then roughly divided the rest. "Although my team, Manong, was primarily PAC, I made it clear that we had no political affiliation," Suze says. "I came from a football background, and I respected the sport and loved the game. Ideologically, that was the right thing to do." And it also, as he acknowledged with a gentle chuckle, allowed him to recruit the best players.

At first, at least, participation was the key, and most clubs established second and third teams to play in lower divisions to try to ensure that anybody who wanted a game could play. "We had to make sure everybody had an involvement," says Marcus Solomon, who was imprisoned for being a member of a small Maoist group.

"We'd gone to jail for democracy, and this was a chance to show ourselves that we could put that into practice. 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."

Even those like Nelson Mandela who were held in isolation and so prevented from taking an active part in matches benefited. "Mandela said many times that he loved the game," the FIFA deputy general secretary Jerome Champagne says. "When the wardens on the island discovered that his only entertainment, his only pleasure, was watching the games through the bars and windows of his cell, they built a wall just to punish him." 

Apartheid may have sprung from an extreme strand of Victorian thinking, but Solomon's belief in the value of sport is almost Victorian in its intensity. Football boomed in England in the nineteenth century as the public schools, following the ethos of muscular Christianity, encouraged sport as a means of building character, and Solomon believes it fulfilled a similar function at Robben Island.

“It kept you fit," he says. "It was relaxing and enjoyable and it helped to balance life. It was a diversion. You had to practise, know the rules and develop discipline. Sport brings harmony, helps to sustain life, to give you a balance between the emotional, physical and spiritual spheres. You had to know that you couldn't just go round kicking people - if things had run out of control there would have been great problems; you had to play according to the ideals of the game."

Occasionally, though, those ideals were tested. Shinners, the captain of Ghana, a PAC team, became close to Jacob Zuma, the current deputy president of the ANC and then the captain of Rangers, but rivalries did grow up, most notably between Ghana and Manong, the two leading PAC sides.

Prisoners began to define themselves not by political affiliation but by which team they supported, and so it was decided that, in order to try to calm tensions, after the league and knockout cup competitions had ended one season, to play an inter-cell competition. It went badly wrong. 

By chance, most of the best players on the island, including Suze, had ended up in Cell C4. Their team, the Atlantic Raiders, were favourites to win the competition, which inevitably meant that when they played the unfancied Blue Rock - "old guys who had trouble getting together a team", as Shinners put it - most of the support was against them.

Remarkably, and to general hilarity, they lost 1-0. "Emotions spilled over," Shinners says. "Their pride had been hurt, their noses put out of joint by being beaten by these old crocks. It was ironic: the attempt to break the aggression between teams actually led to the worst situation."

Atlantic Raiders protested ‘about nothing’, Suze now admits. "We were just being silly, being naughty," he says. Isaacs was not on the pitch, but he was a member of C4 and, just saw controversy as a way of staving off boredom.

“The referee of that game was Hary Gwala," he remembers. "He was a member of the Communist Party, an intellectual, who loved to discuss things in minute detail. The Raiders thought he would do that again, but he just made the decision and blew his whistle.

“The Raiders took the matter up with the MFA. My view was that anything that created discussion was interesting, so I decided to act as their defence. When it came to their next match, the Raiders held a sit-in protest, so all their players were charged with misconduct."

On it dragged, with appeal and counter-appeal. "It all got out of hand," Suze says. "It began as a group of good players being humiliated by a nondescript side, but one thing led to another and what had been a practical joke became a serious matter. We knew we were wrong and that we were being disruptive, but we couldn't see any way out." 

What the dispute did do, though, was to test the procedural structures of the MFA. "The players in the end were found guilty and suspended," Isaacs says. "At the time in South Africa there was no due process. There was torture and coercion. This was a chance to show you could have due process and how it could work."

Quite aside from the effect it had on morale, or as a distraction from the grim reality, it became apparent that football had a symbolic function. It replicated 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 outside world in which there was justice, and even people who were transparently guilty got a fair hearing.

"Football has its own momentum," Shinners says. "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." 

There are significant reasons to worry about the practicalities of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, but as a gesture, it could hardly be more potent. When FIFA granted The Rainbow Nation the right to host the World Cup, it emphatically welcomed them back into the fold.

Shinners is an eloquent man but about this he can barely articulate his feelings. "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 victimized - 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. You just feel sorry for the people you played with in prison who have passed on and will not see it. We did have a vision, but we never thought we'd see its fulfillment."

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