Football vs Apartheid

The players who challenged racial oppression

It was a Saturday morning in early April 1968. It was the hour that Robben Island’s inmates would usually be limbering up in their cells, stretching their wrought bodies, trying as best they could to shake off the ails of another week of back-breaking labour in the quarry. The prison wardens began making their rounds, the clattering sounds of cell blocks being opened indicating that it was time to play. To the astonishment of the guards, as they opened the cells, nobody moved. One of the inmates briefly glanced up and stated calmly: “No football today”.

Robben Island – a piece of land jutting out of Table Bay some four miles from Cape Town – was used by the South African government from 1961 as a place to incarcerate political prisoners and convicted criminals. On that day in April, these men began boycotting their hard-fought right to play football, to preserve a game, which had become a lifeline in the fight for survival.

“It was once illegal to have a football in this prison,” said Tokyo Sexwale, one of the many who had been imprisoned for speaking out against racial discrimination or committing acts of violence against the regime. Their days consisted of hard manual labour outside in the quarry. Back in their cells, the men were condemned to boredom: any form of recreation to fill the endless hours was strictly forbidden.

“We came here young, with our feet and eager to play sport,” Sexwale added, “We were not allowed to play any indoor or outdoor games, but in the end the spirit of survival prevailed.”

The prisoners challenged the rules and found momentary respite from everyday life in jail through improvised games of chess. The men moulded the figures out of pieces of soap, using floors, pieces of paper and blankets as chessboards.  

That was until one day in 1963, when an inmate threw what resembled a ball into the middle of a communal cell. From then on, the prisoners dedicated their creative energy to creating footballs from paper, rags or shirts; anything that could quickly be pulled apart in the event of approaching guards.

Among the clandestine footballers was Sedick Isaacs – political prisoner 883/64 – brought to Robben Island upon charges of sabotage following his arrest for testing explosives on Cape Town’s Strandfontein Beach. “Some of the older men looked at it suspiciously,” said Isaacs remembering the sight of the makeshift ball. “A few of the younger guys smiled in delight.”

For three years, the prisoners’ sustained lobbying efforts failed. Week after week, one prisoner after the other made an official request. This act itself was dangerous and often resulted not only in a refusal, but in beatings and food deprivation.

As the authorities stood firm, pressure upon South Africa from the international community began to weigh heavily. Due to a sporting boycott, the country had been denied participation in the Olympic Games and the World Cup. Aid organisations like the International Red Cross demanded proof that prisoners were being treated humanely. In December 1967, the authorities begrudgingly gave in and Saturdays were officially scheduled as match day.

Improvised goals were constructed from driftwood and fishing nets found washed ashore. Before boots became available, inmates cobbled together their own from women’s shoes, replacing the heel with studs made from the rubber of car tyres. The pitch, previously a dry, desolate patch of land, was levelled and regularly watered by the prisoners. The former scrubland became a luscious, green playing surface. Soon enough only talk of politics rivalled football as the main topic of discussion.

For Lizo Sitoto, football provided relief. Despite daily backbreaking nine-hour shifts in the quarry, he found an extra source of energy to throw his body around as a goalkeeper. “A person locked up and doing nothing cannot think. When you were playing outside you felt free, as if you were at home. When soccer was there, it gave us something to talk about. That’s why it’s more than just a game”.

It wasn’t long before the authorities realised how much football had come to mean to the prisoners. The prisoners, too, were aware that it offered a weapon to be turned against them. Soon, the pleasure of playing started to be withdrawn as punishment, transforming the game from human right to psychological warfare.

“Staff shortages” among wardens during the allocated playing times were cited as reasons for cancelling sessions, dashing hopes of playing without any warning. When the players were lucky enough to step onto the pitch, games were at the mercy of interfering guards. In the middle of an ongoing game, they would wander onto the pitch pretending to take part or maliciously take shots on goal.

At other times, the guards would abruptly send the inmates indoors before the game had ended. While in the isolation cells, some prisoners – among them, Nelson Mandela – could watch the inmates play games from their cells. Only a short while later, a wall was built to block the view. The game the inmates so treasured had been turned into a form of sabotage.

In the cell blocks and at the quarry the players discussed a plan of action, eventually agreeing to a united boycott. Though, to some, forfeiting their only source of relief amid the gruelling monotony of prison life seemed counterproductive, the majority agreed that is was a necessary short-term sacrifice. The men all wanted to resume football sessions as soon as possible, but it had to be on their terms. 

Mounting pressure on the prison authorities who were being closely observed by the international community for human rights violations began to take effect. As a concession to the demands from abroad, the South African regime appointed a more lenient senior prison management team.

With their arrival in June 1969, the prisoners saw their opportunity. They were right. The new prison authorities allowed football activities to resume on the prisoners’ terms, regarding this as a tactical move to appease international critics of the government and convince them that the prison colony was not “Devil’s Island” as decried by the foreign press.


Soon after, the prisoners formed the Makana Football Association, taking the name of Xhosa warrior-prophet Makana, who himself was imprisoned on Robben Island by the British military for his protests against imperial power.

Tony Suze was part of the group that wrote, rewrote and eventually drafted the official constitution of the MFA with guidance from one particular book the group found amongst the meagre stock of the prison library: “Somehow, we found a FIFA book there and played according to FIFA rules,” Suze remembered. “We played soccer on Robben Island with such passion and such detail – it was another way of survival.”

By formalising the game, the prisoners found a means of agency and a sense of freedom. In the rules, they also found a way of expressing values that conformed to their own ideals: fair play and equity, of justice and democracy.

Over the duration of a morning and afternoon session, nine clubs fielded teams that competed across three divisions, provisioned by designated referees and a disciplinary committee. If players lost sight of the rules, they were to be disciplined at a committee hearing. The six games played each Saturday were organised by club managers, themselves inmates, who wrote formal letters despite being separated by a few metres of concrete.

Games were 30 minutes long, 15 minutes each way, with half time hurried through as an immediate turn-around. The top division at times drew crowds of hundreds of fellow inmates to watch the hotly contested matches. The tired excuse of being too short of staff to police the crowd had waned and instead the guards started to view the prisoners as capable of behaving themselves, due to the attitudes toward discipline and organisation shown by the men.

The inmates who were unable to participate in or follow the live action, were instead fed full match reports through a secret communication system. Notes left by cell block cleaners in bed sheets helped forge a fandom that spread throughout the entire prison. Each week commenced with the analysis of the past weekend’s action, before the group turned their attention to upcoming fixtures.

“Football formed our reality and not the insane reality of prison life that was expected to break us down,” said Suze. He was one of more than half of the political prisoners detained on Robben Island, who played football between 1966 and 1991 – and regained a sense of dignity and hope before apartheid was finally brought to an end.

"With football, we manipulated the system. As long as it had to do with football, we were able to tell the authorities how we wanted it, why we wanted it and so on and they would listen. That was an expression of some kind of freedom for us. In a situation that sought to undermine us, it gave us hope.”