Column: Lessons of the Makana League

South African prisoners of Apartheid learned more than sports
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

A few weeks ago, I visited Cape Town, South Africa. It’s a famously beautiful city, right on the ocean – but that’s not what I took away from my trip.

The boat ride from Cape Town to Robben Island is just five miles, and takes only 30 minutes. But to the prisoners held there, starting in the 17th century, it might as well be on the dark side of the moon. Only a handful even tried to escape, and none of them made it – most notably Makana, a famed 19th century Xhosa leader, who drowned halfway to freedom.

Sixty years ago, when the Apartheid government rounded up resistance leaders in Pretoria and Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Capetown, it sent them to Robben Island. The plan was simple: cut off the snake’s head, and the body dies.

But the prisoners outwitted their captors. By putting the strongest resistors all in one place, the government gave its enemies their first chance to work together – and an ideal training ground for taking down the government when they left.

But for this education, the prisoners paid dearly. The black inmates were given a small, rough mat to sleep on, a blanket as thin as the gruel they ate, and no shoes or coats when the cold came. But the guards were quite generous with one thing: beatings. Some were lethal.

The prisoners broke rocks every day in the quarry. When I stood in the middle of this place, the midday sun off the white stone was so bright, I could barely keep my eyes open. Working here for years, many prisoners went blind. To this day, photographers are asked not to use a flash when they take former prisoner Nelson Mandela’s picture. His eyes can’t take it.

But the prisoners refused to lower themselves to the level of their captors. When the uneducated guards often complained that they couldn’t pass their tests for promotions, the prisoners took it on themselves to tutor their oppressors, and gradually wear down their hatred.

When the prisoners got the nerve to ask the warden to play soccer on Saturdays, he waited several years before granting permission, according to the book, “More Than a Game.” When he finally did, he figured they would be far too tired after a hard week in the quarry to play.

He was wrong about that. They played, and they played. For 30 minutes a week, they were not prisoners. They were free. The feeling was so intoxicating, they formed teams, and then a league they called the Makana Football Association, in honor of the Xhosa warrior who drowned escaping.

They found a rulebook from FIFA, the international soccer federation, in the tiny prison library, and adhered to the federation’s strictest edicts. They kept detailed statistics, they administered training tests for the referees, and they conducted formal hearings to disciplined players and officials alike. They even created their own constitution, which runs longer than our nation’s.

The Makana league became so popular they formed a second league to meet the demand, and then a third. They eventually added volleyball, tennis, and rugby – the so-called “white man’s sport” – and presented their own Makana Olympics.

They learned a lot more than sports. They learned how to negotiate with their oppressors, they learned how to govern themselves, and most important, they learned how to break down their own political and social barriers to band together as one. Only when they stuck together, they quickly discovered, did they have any power at all.

When the warden pushed them too far, the prisoners boycotted the next week’s treasured soccer games. And the next. And the next. Every single one of them stubbornly stayed in their cells. It pained them – but it apparently pained the warden more. He, not they, finally backed down.

When the prisoners were released, they returned to their homeland with more confidence, more determination and more political skill than when they had arrived. The government had intended Robben Island to serve as a quarantine – but by sheer will and wits, the prisoners transformed it into an incubator, where they learned from each other, and taught the next generation what to do.

When the Apartheid government finally fell, and the people elected Nelson Mandela the new president, he filled many of the top posts in his government with leaders from the Makana Football Association – including three cabinet ministers, and the current president. In 2004, these very leaders brought the World Cup to Africa for the first time – which they announced, alongside Pele and other legends, on Robben Island.

My tour guide was a former prisoner. When we talked the next day about the Makana Football Association, I asked him what team he played on.

“The Rangers,” he said, beaming with pride. “We were very good!”

No, I told him, you were not very good.

You were great.

About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” He also co-authored “A Legacy of Champions,” and provided commentary for “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward, and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game,” which has been airing on various stations in Michigan and nationally.

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