Anthony, could you tell us a little more about why you were incarcerated on Robben Island?
In 1963 I had been out of school for some time, but then decided to return to school. Things on the political front began to heat up, and more and more students were getting involved in politics. When I got to this new school, it became inevitable that I got involved in it – with other students who were part of the PAC. We were taking instructions from our exiled body in Lesotho who were preparing to overthrow the government. We discussed the various issues around the subject.
In April of that year we were arrested because our plans for a revolution were leaked. The messenger couriers, travelling by train, were arrested and a list of our names was picked up. And that’s how I came to be arrested – 14 of us – with 12 of us prosecuted.
It’s been said that Robben Island has become ‘a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over hardship and adversity’. Do you think this comment would differ if the likes of Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela were never imprisoned there?
This is a good question, worth reflecting on. When you say Robben Island, the first person you think of is Nelson Mandela or Walter Sisulu. Had they not been there, a possible danger exists that this comment might not have been. Otherwise the island might have been properly identified with the majority of prisoners that were there. Prisoners of war are not usually identified through the generals that they got arrested with, they are simply prisoners of war. In our case, we were overshadowed by the fact that Nelson Mandela was on Robben Island.
Chuck, could you please explain how you latched on to the story of Makana Football Association.
I was teaching at the University of the Western Cape in 1993, and a friend of mine took me into a warehouse – an archive – and he pointed at this collection of boxes, about 70 of them. They were all labelled ‘Robben Island sports’, and I thought this has to be a mistake, you don’t have sports on Robben Island. It turns out that it had literally thousands of documents that included letters from prisoners to each other, match reports, the constitution of the Makana football association and referees’ reports. It took me half an hour to look at this stuff, and to realise there was sports on Robben Island, and secondly, that this was very serious stuff. These guys didn’t just play around.
In the four years following I started working on it, and began to contact some of the people who’d written all these documents. Then it became like a daisy chain: I was passed from one person to another, which in this case was really important. The ex-prisoners of Robben Island have every reason to be distrustful of anyone who wants to talk to them about their life on the island. You have to show them why you’re doing it, and I was lucky enough to establish a relationship with a couple of people who then made it clear to their comrades that I was serious, and most of all, the first ever person who wanted to talk to them about something that was pleasurable on the island, something where they took control. I didn’t want to talk to them about guards brutalising them, though that did come into it, the focus of it was something that mattered to them.
Tell us about the inspiration behind the name of the Makana Football Association.
The name was a national by-product. Makana was the first political prisoner to be incarcerated on Robben Island, and he died trying to escape from there. So in honour of this brave hero of Africa, the football association decided to call themselves the Makana Football Association. It wasn’t even difficult to name it after him.
In the days before the Makana Football Association was allowed to operate, how did soccer-loving prisoners manage to play?
Before the Makana Football Association, there was no football on Robben Island. The Makana Football Association was formed simultaneously with the authority that gave prisoners the rights to play football. When the privilege was extended, it became obvious to us that the game had to be organised in some form. We had one small patch of ground and eight clubs, so how were such a massive number of prisoners going to share this small pitch? So we organised ourselves into clubs, and the clubs had to be managed by some form of organisation. We simply imported knowledge of how soccer was administered elsewhere. Also, some of us had come from a soccer background, so we drew from those sources and the game went on.
Did the fact that Nelson Mandela was a D-rated prisoner mean that he could not watch any soccer games?
It’s true, he was not allowed to watch games. But this was not because he was D-rated, it was because he was segregated from us, from the rest of the prison. Initially they were allowed to watch from their cell windows, but then we abused that privilege by passing notes and information to them, shared newspaper cuttings and so on. The guards quickly realised that the games of soccer actually brought us closer to the segregated cells, and into contact with the prisoners there. So they built a wall in between us, making the separation physical and permanent.
With back-breaking labour in a limestone quarry making up the most of a prisoner’s average day, how did you find the drive for 90 minutes of high-energy sports?
We didn’t work in a limestone quarry, we worked in a stone quarry! The prison system deprived us, we were underfed, under-clothed and exposed to the weather, so the body adapted. We became stronger. The body had to resist those elements in some way. You either withered away and died or became stronger. We played a very physical game of soccer. We did hard physical work, and the work was a drudgery. But the physical part of soccer was pleasurable, so if we could withstand the physical drudgery of labour, why not enjoy the physical pleasure of playing?
It’s been said that the Makana Football Association played soccer to strict FIFA guidelines. How did you come about playing to the exact rules?
Well, we came with the rules from the outside. I was a soccer player before, and from
time to time we read about FIFA and how they organised things. So when we started playing soccer, well, what do you rely on? Previous knowledge. We didn’t have a referees’ chart, so we pieced things together from what we knew, what the referees behaviours and guidelines were.
I don’t know how it came about, but someone managed to bring in a FIFA book, a referees’ guide. Right from the outset we knew we had to get organised along known principles and guidelines by an established body, and the body that we understood was FIFA.
How did it feel when Makana Football Association gained an honorary FIFA induction?
It came as a total surprise. A total surprise, but it’s one of those honours one cannot just walk away from and forget. It was a ‘wow’ moment in our lives, especially for us who were involved in soccer on Robben Island, we feel rewarded in a way.
The MFA closed its doors with the closure of Robben Island in 1991. Aside from the book and movie detailing its story, does it only exist as a name today?
Yes, you are right. It exists only in the film and the book, and it’s a pity. But maybe that’s how it’s meant to be. Because it was a history on its own, it served its purpose then, and to take it forward might probably be imposing history on other generations. We are glad it lives on in memory in the book and the film.
In conclusion, Anthony, Chuck and Marvin, you’ve seen your story about football VS apartheid grow from a dream to a movie and from a movie to a book. What can you tell us about the ride?
Chuck: My original idea was just to write an article, a couple of articles. Then I realised that this was too good a story just to be a book, which is strange coming from a historian. And then the idea was to turn it into a film, because it deserves a broader audience. That’s when I met Marvin and the way to get it done was to cooperate on it. Oh, it’s a dream, it’s a responsibility. Thanks to Tony and others, I’ve gotten to meet a few dozen of – I was going to say the most remarkable men I’ve met – but rather people who have led the most remarkable lives I know of.
They are people who have all the human characteristics: good, bad and indifferent but most of all they persevered, they were on the right side, and they persevered. What’s important to me is they were the foot soldiers of the revolution and their story hadn’t been told, and one part about the story that mattered a lot to them was the whole idea of sports, and the only way that story can be told is if somebody sits down and writes it. Somebody goes out and films it. It’s a very simple equation: without Tony’s generosity and the willingness of him and other people to talk there was no story for me to do. Without Marvin sitting down and writing it out, completing all the first drafts, there was no book to be written. It’s a truly cooperative effort.
Marvin: There’s one thing that amazes me about football: that if there’s a universal language, then it is football. You could parachute a kid from this country down into any other country in the world. They wouldn’t need to speak the language or know the culture, but they would know how to play football together. I think it’s just so remarkably fitting that it was football that brought everyone together on Robben Island in the way that it did.
Sometimes, I find it a little bit overwhelming, and I often grapple with whether this is absolutely accurate and true. But yes, it is accurate and true, because it comes out as I told it. But as I say it, it’s daunting, it’s really very daunting. I’m glad that it’s a legacy that has been preserved, otherwise that legacy would have ended up in a box somewhere in an archive. Nobody would ever know that were actually a group of other people living alongside Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. And I think that this will make Mandela’s legacy even more important when this story is told in isolation. He was actually a part of a community of prisoners and was not alone on Robben Island.
Visit www.harpercollins.co.uk to buy the book.