World Cup Brings Justice for Apartheid League in Former Prison

As the soccer world cup heats up in South Africa, it is worth remembering that the present day South Africa is largely a result of the sacrifices of courageous men and women who stood up against apartheid in their native land. These people spent best years of their lives locked away for the crime of speaking for equal treatment for all of South Africans.

These brave souls are a model for not just the South Africans, but for all humans everywhere on this globe. As the saying goes, sacrifices of one generation make way for better lives of the next generation. Below, we reproduce a small yet powerful story about the political prisoners in South Africa, who formed their own football federation behind the prison walls. As they bask in the limelight their country enjoys on the world center stage, we hail these heroes who stood valiantly and selflessly for the equality of all men. May their sacrifices never ever be forgotten.


World Cup Brings Justice for Apartheid League in Former Prison

Reproduced from

 By Tariq Panja

 June 10 (Bloomberg) — For Lizo Sitoto, the arrival of the soccer World Cup in South Africa is another justice for the former political prisoners who nurtured the sport there.

 Sitoto, who was incarcerated on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, was among the group of inmates that formed the Makana Football Association, which ran soccer leagues at the penal colony.

“Football is more than a game for us because it kept us living,” said Sitoto, 68, looking over at the dusty field where he learned to play and kept goal on most weekends for his team, Manong FC. “I wonder what would have happened if we were never allowed to play football on the island.”

Soccer provided salvation for many at the prison, which is visible from Cape Town’s new 4.5 billion-rand ($600 million) Green Point Stadium. As many as 1,400 inmates were held there. On June 11, another former prisoner, South African President Jacob Zuma, will step onto the field at Johannesburg’s Soccer City to open the 19th World Cup. Former President Mandela, 91, may also attend.

Sitoto remembers Zuma, who spent a decade on Robben Island, as a “tough but fair” referee in matches organized by inmates. The games adhered to international soccer rules and provided a break from a daily regime of hard labor.

Red Cross Balls

Sitoto, who was interviewed at the former prison after December’s draw for the World Cup, arrived as a 20-year-old after the country’s then apartheid regime found him guilty of charges of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government.

He wears sunglasses to shield his eyes after they were damaged by the glare of the sun on the island.

Balls, once made from rags, were provided by organizations like the International Red Cross as the league developed. The rest was up to the inmates.

Boots were made by removing the heels from women’s shoes and adding soles from rubber tires; goal nets were handmade by salvaging fishing nets and rope that had washed up on the shore of the exposed rock on which the prison was built.

The league itself consisted of three divisions featuring nine teams. Like today’s professional leagues, coaches were always searching for new talent, sometimes getting a star player to swap clubs in exchange for packets of cigarettes.

Relations between prisoners and those guarding them were often frosty. Inmates were identified by numbers not their names. Mandela’s, 466/64/, became an emblem for the anti- apartheid struggle. Yet, as the prison league developed, so too did the guards’ interest.

Easing Boredom

“They were hostile initially,” Sitoto said. “But as we were playing, they saw we were human beings and we entertained them because life for them was as boring as it was to us.”

The entertainment wasn’t available to all. Men like Mandela and African National Congress activist Walter Sisulu weren’t only barred from playing, but also watching the weekend games.

They would be left to peek through windows of the isolation wing where they were held, and sometimes could be heard laughing and clapping, said Sitoto.

“Having these beautiful games of international status was our dream on Robben Island,” Sitoto said. “I wish even those who were with me on the island, even those who have passed on, could be here with me to see some of our dreams realized.”

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