Monday, July 05, 2010

Guest Post: football, freedom and South Africa

Today's guest post is from one of Hackney's finest, Pippa Lane. Here she discusses the fascinating history of the Makana Football Association, and wonders whether everything was quite as splendid as the official history seems to be saying.

The eyes of the world have been focussed on football in South Africa in recent weeks and South Africa’s former political prisoners have shared some of the limelight. A couple of weeks ago the BBC ran a short feature on the Makana Football Association - the body created and run by political prisoners that organised football on Robben Island (some of whom are pictured right with Fifa President Sepp Blatter). This coverage typifies how former political prisoners, and Nelson Mandela in particular, have been almost deified in the last two decades.

Nonetheless, the Makana Football Association was incredible. It was modelled on international rules and within months of its establishment contained twenty-six sides organised into three divisions. The Association was named after Makana, a Xhosa leader banished to Robben Island in 1819. He drowned trying to swim back to the mainland.

The prisoners kept detailed records from the various sport and recreation committees on Robben Island and these are kept in the archive of the Robben Island Museum. These records reveal a level of tension rarely reported by former Islanders in the years after their release. There were frequent allegations of biased or incompetent refereeing and resignations by referees and prisoners often referred to a past golden age of sport on the Island. A letter written by a prisoner in 1983 said:


Sport has for the duration of our stay here been the cementing force which has effectively obliterated our natural identities. I have all these years given my services unreservedly to the promotion of sport in the general sense. It has in recent years been quite clear that we have lost the recipe, sport has suddly [sic] become the source of conflict.

I choose this moment to announce my resignation as one of your rugby referees, and consequently shall not consider myself obliged to carry out any duties assigned by you in future for the rest of my stay here.

I regret the inconvenience which might be caused by my decision, but I prefer to retire with my dignity.

Thanking you

Yours in sport

However, the archives of the various clubs do not disclose such a time of calm and cooperation. A letter to the Robben Island Sports Association in 1981 contained an excerpt from a document 10 years previously:
we are where we are, and being where we are we find ourselves exposed to psychological and physical pressures which have a telling effect on our material and spiritual well-being. ... The purpose of sport is, therefore, to kill boredom, to reduce tension, to chase away anxiety. But once this purpose is overlooked, once points … or victory become the be all and end all of things, then our inter-personal dealings will become corroded by boredom, wrecked by tension and shattered by anxieties and the playing of sport will be the cause of those very maladies which sport was supposed to cure.
The letter went on to reflect that “The above excerpt was written more than ten years ago but its message is still as fresh, as valid and as relevant today as it was then.”

The creation of a football league on Robben Island was no doubt an incredible achievement in hostile circumstances. However, South Africa’s political prisoners were not super-human and the political prison was destructive, not a seedbed of democracy. The political prisoners were often frail, petty, bored and argumentative. Ordinary people like you and me, then. I think that makes their actions and commitment to overthrowing a terrible regime all the more heroic.

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