Makana Football founders honoured

A scene from More Than Just a Game, a
film that told the story of ex-political
prisoners Mark Shinners, Anthony
Suze, Lizo Sitoto, Sedick Isaacs
and Marcus Solomon.
(Image: More Than Just a Game)

Fifa honoured Makana FA founders in
2007 by making the association
its honorary member.
(Image: Fifa)

Minister Tokyo Sexwale kicking a ball in
Ekangala recently, reminding himself of
his playing days in Robben Island.
(Image: Bongani Nkosi)

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Bongani Nkosi

Playing football was a form of escapism for Robben Island’s political prisoners, bringing them temporary relief from their incarceration by the apartheid government.

More than 300 men used to gather at the grounds on the island to play their favourite sport in a league administrated by Makana Football Association, which was formed and run by the prisoners.

Now the UK’s De Montfort University is to honour four struggle heroes who campaigned to bring the Beautiful Game to the island in the mid-1960s, then a hard labour prison.

Mark Shinners, Sedick Isaacs, Lizo Sitoto and Marcus Solomon, icons from both the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania and the African National Congress, will be honoured with the Companionship of De Montfort University at a graduation ceremony in Leicester on 22 July 2011.

The university will honour the four in recognition of the role they played in “giving new hope to the prisoners of the notorious Robben Island, through playing the popular game”, it said.

Besides a gala dinner at the university, the group will also be treated to tours of the world-famous Wembley Stadium and Houses of Parliament in London. The South African High Commission will also honour them at South Africa House in Trafalgar Square.

It took the men three years to convince apartheid officials to allow prisoners, some then only in their 20s, to play football on the island. At first the men were punished for making such an appeal, and had to go a weekend without food.

Running Makana FA

The Makana Football Association was founded after authorities relented in 1967. A disciplinary committee, as well as a referees’ union, were formed as part of the association.

Up to 27 teams competed in the league, which stuck to stringent Fifa guidelines. The international federation honoured its founders in 2007 by making Makana Association an honorary member.

While Rivonia Treason Trialists including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada were barred from participating and even watching matches, then-youngsters like Jacob Zuma, Tokyo Sexwale and the four De Montfort University honoraries took to the field as players.

Today Zuma is president of South Africa and Sexwale the minister of human settlements.

“We were also young at that time, full of energy, and we needed to expend that energy,” Sitoto said in an interview published on the Fifa website in 2007.

“We wanted to get closer to one another because we were in different areas of the prison, and one way to do this was through sport.”

The political activists treated the football association “not just as an escape from the relentless and exhaustive regime on the island, but as a practice at running a government”, noted De Montfort University.

Visiting Professor Charles Korr at the university’s International Centre for Sports History and Culture has documented in detail the story of the four unsung heroes. He co-authored the book More Than Just a Game and co-produced a film of the same title.

“(Football) helped them to retain their sense of dignity and to continue the fight to create a free, non-racist South Africa,” Korr said in a statement.

“Winning the right to play football and successfully maintaining a league gave them one link to the pleasures of ordinary life before imprisonment,” he added.

The road to the 2010 Fifa World Cup, which was successfully held in South Africa, actually started on Robben Island, local organising committee boss Danny Jordaan commented recently.