- More Than Just a Game: soccer v apartheid
'More than just a game' is an oft-used cliché referring to the socio-political impact of sports in our current world. While in Europe countries may have ceased going to war with each other, rival European soccer fans have not. While the world no longer fears the might of the British army, European security groups worry at the prospect of a different kind of 'invasion', that by tens of thousands of supporters of English clubs as they trek across Europe in support of their teams as they battle it out for coveted European soccer trophies. Soccer is not alone. International cricket has in the last 20 years witnessed the emergence of a new British army, the so-called 'Barmy army' of English cricket followers who flee the European winter in pursuit of their national team as they take on the 'old Empire' of India, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The British are not alone in their fanaticism as rival Egyptian soccer fans recently demonstrated so fatally. More than just being a game, it seems that to some of those fans soccer is more a matter of life and death.
But there is a whole other side to the power of soccer. In 2010 to coincide with the soccer World Cup in South Africa, the Durban-based NGO, ACCORD (the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes), put out a special journal entitled Playing for Peace which presented accounts of soccer as an instrument in Africa for peacemaking, reconciliation and the forging of national identities.1 Drawing on the experiences of Rwanda, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Algeria, it documented how the game has been used as a positive force, contributing sometimes decisively to ending the deadly [End Page 162] spirals of hate and killing. Not in and of itself, of course. It was rather soccer's potential which skilful and visionary figures, politicians and players like Didier Drogba in the case of Ivory Coast, recognised and tapped into in order to effect profound changes and hasten the end to hostilities. Of course, in the wrong hands the opposite could be the result, witness the so-called 'soccer war' between Honduras and El Salvador following a 1969 world cup qualifying match. The war lasted only 24 hours but shamefully and tragically it cost over 2,000 lives, a war crime for which no one was held to account (Kapuscinski 1991).
To these accounts of soccer as a liberating and positive force, we can now add the inspiring story from the apartheid era in South Africa told in this book under review. Though published in 2008, it has received too little attention, but such is the fate of history in this age of the internet. It is the extraordinary tale of how thousands of political prisoners on Robben Island formed the Makana Football Association (MFA)2 in the mid-1960s and used soccer not only to reclaim their humanity but also to undermine apartheid.
The story premiered as a docudrama in Cape Town in November 2007, coinciding with the draw for the World Cup's qualifying rounds. The film of the same name as the book drew on eleven years of meticulous research by the American historian, Chuck Knorr. Assisted by the movie's scriptwriter, Marvin Close, Knorr's work is in this reviewer's opinion, the most important new and wholly original work of apartheid-era history to emerge from the post-apartheid academy. It is both heart-warming and inspiring in telling a story which, apart from the prisoners themselves and their warders, nobody knew - or even imagined. Who could have thought that the game of soccer could have thrived in that grim place - described by the authors as 'horror incarnate' (2008:259) - in that grimmest of apartheid's decades, the 1960s?
The Island of the 1960s was, as the authors tell, presided over by largely arrogant white supremacist officials to whom the impulse to hurt and humiliate blacks was ingrained. Nonetheless, week after week from...