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Makana Football Association.

In its hellish past of the last three centuries, Robben Island – known as South Africa’s Alcatraz – has been used to segregate such demographics as criminals, deserters, lepers and the mentally ill from civilisation, with the shark-infested Atlantic currents providing a natural barrier and it seems a highly unlikely location for one of the most influential football associations in the history of the game.

From 1961 the Island was used to imprison political opponents of South Africa’s National Party’s dictatorship – an evil regime that operated an apartheid policy following it’s rise to power after the Second World War. Apartheid introduced a system of total and mandatory racial segregation to the whole of South Africa in order to ensure white supremacy.

Under Apartheid black footballers were not allowed to play in the professional game alongside their white counterparts. Many educated themselves as best they could and joined political groups such as the African National Congress (ANC), the Pan African Congress (PAC) or the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO). Association with these groups meant many were arrested and incarcerated, and they would invariably be sent to Robben Island.

The prisoners found common ground politically in their hatred of the government and of apartheid, and socially, many of them loved football, which had been by far the most popular sport in non-white South Africa for decades. These things began to unify the men of Robben Island. Cellmates would fill their otherwise dull evenings by playing cell-football with a couple of rolled-up items of clothing, but this appetiser only made them hungrier for something closer to the real thing.

Their goal of outdoor 11-a-side football seemed a long way off but the regime’s insistence on following their own rules provided a ray of hope, all prisoners had a right to outdoor exercise twice per week, and on Saturdays, every prisoner was invited to register complaints or make requests with the warden. So all of the wannabe-footballers agreed to take it in turns to ask for the right to play football as their exercise quota. Unsurprisingly these requests were turned down, but undeterred, one prisoner in-turn made the request every single Saturday throughout 1965. When an International Red Cross visit to Robben Island was planned the warden suddenly had the motivation to sign off on these requests in a bid to make the regime appear less cruel and more hospitable.

A dusty rectangle of rock was assigned as the place for their new weekly activity, goalposts were constructed from planks of wood and fishing net that had washed ashore. An inmate that had previously been a cobbler moulded boots and prisoners experienced in gardening or farming helped the ground prosper from dry, lumpy rock to something that resembled a grass pitch.

Committees were formed and a full league structure began to emerge. By chance, the Red Cross also sanctioned and ordered a prison library to be installed on the island, and a copy of FIFA’s official rulebook was amongst the few original stock of books. It was studied by the committees and followed to the letter.

The teams eventually evolved into nine clubs – Bucks, Hotspurs, Dynamos, Ditshitshidi, Rangers, Black Eagles, Mphatlalatsane, Gunners and Manong FC., with each team having a president, a secretary and a written constitution. Policies on such things as transfers and player-of-the-year awards were agreed, a Referee’s Union was established, as was a Protest and Misconduct Committee. The name, like everything else, was agreed democratically and armed with the FIFA rulebook, a formal MFA constitution was drawn up and the creation of and the Makana Football Association was finally ratified in June 1969. 

Makana was the name of a legendary warrior-prophet who was banished to Robben Island in 1819 by the British as he battled against colonialism. His determination was deemed a fitting tribute to the football association which represented so much more than the sum of it’s parts to the latest collective to be on the island for defending their right to freedom.

For the vision to become reality, the men had one more ambitious target: a unique kit for each club. Every prisoner wore the same clothing, all day, every day. With the requests once again repeatedly laughed off by the warders, it was yet another appeal to the International Red Cross, who not only sanctioned the initiative but provided funding for orders to be placed for the kits to be mass-produced using sports shops in Cape Town.

The first competitive match of the Makana FA was played in December 1969 and organised, structured league football continued to be played by the political prisoners until the horrors of apartheid were finally overthrown and they were released. The majority of the anti-apartheid movements gathered behind Nelson Mandela’s ANC and forced an election in which the black people of a free South Africa could finally vote.

FIFA awarded South Africa the right to host the 2010 football World Cup, and not even the awful vuvuzela could ruin the vibrant, groundbreaking tournament. As part of the awareness programme around the tournament, a FIFA delegation which included many star players visited Robben Island to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 89th birthday in July 2007. At a ceremony that followed, FIFA inducted the Makana FA as honorary members, 38 years after their formation.