A few weeks ago, I visited Cape Town, South Africa. It’s a famously beautiful city, right on the ocean – but that’s not what I took away from this trip.
The boat ride from Cape Town to Robben Island is just five miles, and takes only 30 minutes. But to the prisoners held there, starting in the 17th century, it might as well be on the dark side of the moon. Only a handful ever tried to escape, and none made it – most notably Makana, a famed 19th century Xhosa leader, who drowned halfway to freedom.
Sixty years ago, when the Apartheid government rounded up resistance leaders in Pretoria and Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Capetown, it sent them to Robben Island. The plan was simple: cut off the snake’s head, and the body dies.
But the prisoners outwitted their captors. By putting the strongest resistors in one place, the government gave its enemies a chance to work together– and an ideal training ground for taking down the government when they left.
The prisoners paid dearly for their education. The black inmates were given a small, rough mat to sleep on, a blanket as thin as the gruel they ate, and no shoes or coats when the cold came. But the guards were quite generous with one thing: beatings. Some were lethal.
The prisoners broke rocks every day in the quarry, where it’s so bright, many went blind. To this day, photographers don’t use a flash when they take former prisoner Nelson Mandela’s picture. His eyes can’t take it.
But the prisoners refused to lower themselves to the level of their captors. When the uneducated guards couldn’t pass their tests for promotions, the prisoners tutored them, and gradually wore down their hatred.
When the prisoners got the nerve to ask to play soccer on Saturdays, the warden eventually agreed, figuring they would be far too tired to play.
He was wrong about that. They played, and they played. For 30 minutes a week, they were not prisoners. They were free. The feeling was so intoxicating, they formed teams, and then a league they called the Makana Football Association, in honor of the Xhosa warrior who drowned escaping.
They adhered to the strictest edicts of international soccer. They kept statistics, administered tests for officials, disciplined players, and even created their own constitution, which runs longer than our own.
The league became so popular they formed a second league, and a third. They eventually added volleyball, tennis, and rugby – the so-called “white man’s sport” – and even created their own Makana Olympics.
They learned a lot more than sports. They learned how to negotiate with their oppressors, how to govern themselves, and most important, how to break down their own barriers and band together. Only when they did that, they quickly discovered, did they have any power at all.
When the warden pushed them too far, the prisoners boycotted the next week’s soccer games. And the next. And the next. Every single one of them stubbornly stayed in their cells, until the warden finally backed down.
When the prisoners were released, they returned with more confidence, determination and political skills than they had when they arrived. The government had intended Robben Island to serve as a quarantine -- but by sheer will and wits, the prisoners transformed it into an incubator, one where they learned from each other, and taught the next generation what to do.
When the Apartheid government finally fell, President Mandela picked many of his leaders from the Makana Football Association – including three cabinet ministers, and the current president. In 2004, these very leaders brought the World Cup to Africa – which they announced, alongside Pele and other legends, on Robben Island.
My tour guide was a former prisoner. When we talked the next day about the Makana Football Association, I asked him what team he played on.
“The Rangers,” he said, beaming with pride. “We were very good!”
I disagreed. I told him, you were better than very good. Much better.