Soccer was more than just a game on Robben Island
While sporting attention is turned to the draw for the preliminary round of the 2010 Soccer World Cup this weekend, a different view of soccer in South Africa is being premiered in front of a celebrity audience on Friday.
Director Junaid Ahmed’s film More Than Just a Game tells the astonishing story of how political prisoners on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in captivity, used soccer as one of the means of surviving the brutal regime imposed on them in the apartheid era.
Former prisoners and their warders contributed to the making of the film, which centres on the story told by Tony Suze, who spent 15 years on Robben Island after being found guilty of sabotage as a 19-year-old in 1963.
“It took a very, very long time, but eventually the authorities agreed that we could play football on a Saturday afternoon,” Suze told Reuters. “They thought it was just going to be light recreation, but we soon developed an organised league system. We called ourselves the Makana FA.
“There were eight ‘clubs’ in the top division. We started off playing in our prison garb, but eventually had proper kit. My club was Manong FC, the others were the Hotspurs, the Gunners, Rangers, Dynamos, Ditshitshidi, Bucs, Mphatlalatsane and we played by Fifa rules and the league thrived.
“There were 3 000 or 4 000 prisoners on Robben Island at the height of the regime and the league was a very big deal.”
The film features Presley Chweneyagae, who earned international acclaim when he played the lead role in the film Tsotsi in 2005.
“Much of the filming was done back on Robben Island and it was extremely upsetting knowing what fellow South Africans did to other South Africans there,” he told Reuters.
“But it was also very uplifting in the end too. It showed how sport, and especially football, can change the way people think.”
Director Ahmed added that ultimately the story is one of triumph.
“It’s an amazing tale of triumph over adversity, and it is a different look at South Africa and Africa, which are often portrayed so negatively. I also hope it inspires the new generation who have been born since apartheid ended.
Suze added: “Football was the beacon for us. We eventually played a lot of different sport on Robben Island—tennis, volleyball, rugby. But it was no holiday camp.
“Football broke down the barriers, though. The fact the World Cup is going to be in South Africa in 2010 might not seem to have much relevance to what happened on Robben Island—but you could say that’s where the seeds first took root. What the old South African FA were doing at the time meant nothing to us.
“But when us political prisoners eventually started new lives in the new South Africa, we did not forget football and what it meant to us.
“We believed we would be running the country one day and we were right and football played a huge part in shaping and maintaining our spirit of resistance.”—Reuters