Humanity has the ability to survive in the most difficult of places and none more so than Robben Island, perhaps South Africa’s most notorious Apartheid era prison. Situated almost 7km off the coast of Cape Town, the island is little more than 3km long, yet it holds a significant place within South Africa’s history. From the early 1960’s the island was used as a maximum security prison and housed many of South Arica’s prominent Apartheid opponents with Nelson Mandela being the most famous.

Within its confines prisoners were treated according to the harsh rules of the penal system. Some prisoners were allegedly buried up to their necks in sand whilst guards urinated in their faces, whilst the mainstay of the prison population were made to participate in hard labour. The aim of the prison, as well as to punish those held inside, was also to dehumanise them. However, what the prison could not contain was the spirit of those inside. Prisoners, skilled in the arts of subterfuge, would participate in games of chess away from the prying eyes of guards by fashioning pieces from bars of soap and boards were drawn on cell floors with rags. Within this game of cat and mouse subterfuge, football had its place. For three years from 1964, prisoners every Saturday would make a simple demand to guards, “we would request that we be allowed to play football” – prisoners had been playing games within their cells for a long time with shirts tied together (in a fashion that they could be quickly untied in case guards suddenly appeared) in a ball, but they had never been able to play in the open air.

The plight of the prisoners was picked up by the International Red Cross and eventually the authorities relented. Sedick Isaacs was a teacher who was sentenced to twelve years at Robben Island having been found guilty of sabotage. Isaacs, who once had his toilet paper confiscated by guards having been caught playing chess, described the moment that prisoners were given permission to play football. A cell door was opened and a ball was thrown inside; “some of the older men looked at it suspiciously…a few of the younger guys smiled in delight”.

It was the beginning of an organised football league which became known as the Makana Football Association. The prison library had a copy of FIFA’s laws of the game and details were acted out to a minute degree as former detainee and recent FIFA Presidential candidate Tokyo Sexwale once explained; “we played 90 minutes. The pitch we played on had to be a certain shape and size…the players dressed in a certain way. Even the spectators dressed up in the different colours of their teams”. Other players who later went on to shape a post Apartheid South Africa were Dikgang Moseneke, a former judge, and the current President of the country Jacob Zuma, himself a referee and by all accounts a handy defender too.

The pitches at the prison looked across the sea towards Cape Town and its famous landmark Table Mountain, yet there were spots within the prison where the pitches were not visible. The prison’s most sensitive inmates Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Katrada and of course Nelson Mandela were not allowed to witness any of these games being played just metres from their cells, indeed a wall was built simply to block off Mandela’s view of the pitches.

The resourcefulness of the participants was not to be underestimated though. Nets were fashioned from fishing equipment that washed up on the island and goal posts constructed out of passing driftwood. Eventually, with help again from the International Red Cross and also inmates’ families, kits, boots and even referee whistles were acquired. The games helped bring a sense of dignity and normality to the daily life of those incarcerated at Robben Island and also helped ease tensions within its walls, especially between those members of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress. Isaacs said that football “made us as independent as possible”; Sexwale believed that “the game of football kept us alive…the Makana Football Association was a vehicle that united all of us”

It was once said that nothing good comes out of poverty except football. In that same way, in the notorious house of one of the twentieth century’s vilest ideologies, the only beacon of positivity that those inside could turn to was football.