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FIFA to hold meeting on notorious Robben Island

November 30, 2009 11:53 IST

World soccer's leaders meet this week on an island notorious for its once brutal prison but where the game offered relief and hope for hundreds of anti-apartheid activists.

FIFA's executive committee will hold a meeting on Thursday on Robben Island which lies in the middle of Cape Town's Table Bay and was for more than 18 years the jail that housed Nelson Mandela.

It will be a symbolic gesture on the eve of the World Cup draw in Cape Town and highlights how football was played by political prisoners jailed on the island by South Africa's old apartheid government.

The existence of soccer leagues among the prisoners was not documented until the publication of 'More Than Just a Game' by Chuck Korr and Marvin Close in 2007.

The book, which has since been made into a feature film, details the exploits of the Makana Football Association, a group created by inmates.

Among the leaders of the group was South Africa President Jacob Zuma, once a defensive player and later a referee.

Soccer's rulers have since awarded the Makana FA associate membership of FIFA.

The sport was at first banned on Robben Island and prisoners were punished for persistently asking to play.


It took three years of requests plus the intervention of the Red Cross and anti-apartheid Parliamentarian Helen Suzman before inmates were allowed to compete.

Originally it was for only 30 minutes on a Saturday. The first game was held on a windy December morning in 1967 between Rangers and Bucks.

A constitution was written for the association, committees were formed, disciplinary sanctions imposed and there were even authorised transfers, often on tiny scraps of paper.

Many of the political detainees had played regularly before being imprisoned, some at semi-professional level such as former South Africa President Kgalema Motlanthe and Patrick Lekota, later to become Defence Minister.

"Prisoners used any material they could lay their hands on to make a football," said Tokyo Sexwale of his time playing on the island while detained for anti-apartheid activities.

"We played with whatever was available and the football nets were made from real fishing nets which had been washed up on the island. We asked for permission to pick them up from the shore."

Sexwale is now the government's Minister of Human Settlement.

The meticulously-kept records of the association were uncovered in 1993 by Korr who based his book on 70 boxes of details of football activity on the island.

Mandela, who was jailed there from 1964-1982 but eventually led South Africa to majority rule in 1994, was forbidden from participating.

The prison is now a museum and a major tourist attraction. Makana was the name of a Xhosa tribal leader jailed on the island by the British in the early 1800s.

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