A history of the Robben Island prisoners’ soccer team

2008-11-26 00:00

Harry Gwala features in this book, as hardline a referee as he was a Stalinist. So too does Jacob Zuma, combative at right back or centre half. This is the story of Makana Football Association and the long battle fought by Robben Island prisoners to establish their right to play soccer.

Its main interest lies in the psychology of political imprisonment. Lengthy meetings, attention to administrative detail, competitive weekly league matches and the display of sporting skill, were all designed to counter the dehumanising atmosphere of the island.

In the words of Marcus Solomon, sport functioned as social cement. Enormous ingenuity was exercised in assembling teams from different blocks for training and tactical sessions. Extraordinary efforts were needed to create and maintain pitches and even acquire paper for record keeping. And where else might a referee find himself sharing a cell with a player he had sent off the field that afternoon?

Ironically, the right to participate in sport gave the prison authorities extra control over the prisoners, in particular the opportunity for collective punishment, in spite of oversight from the International Committee of the Red Cross. The carefully negotiated soccer league weakened as the original prisoners were released and when the confrontational Soweto generation arrived. But the authors show how new prisoners in turn eventually learned valuable lessons around sports administration. One was Mosiuoa Lekota.

This book clearly targets the 2010 World Cup market. It is thus a pity that the political and historical background against which this interesting story is told comes across in such a shallow fashion. And it is inexcusable that the authors or editor should persistently misspell the names of Indres Naidoo, a leading island sportsman, and Hector Petersen. Sam Ramsamy appears as Sam Ramsay. South African history deserves much better than this sloppiness.

Christopher Merrett

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