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More Than Just a Game: Soccer vs. Apartheid: The Most Important Soccer Story Ever Told

More Than Just a Game: Soccer vs. Apartheid: The Most Important Soccer Story Ever Told

by Chuck Korr

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Timed perfectly for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the true story of how political prisoners under apartheid found hope and dignity through soccer

In the hell that was Robben Island, inmates united courageously in an act of protest. Beginning in 1964, they requested the right to play soccer during their


Timed perfectly for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the true story of how political prisoners under apartheid found hope and dignity through soccer

In the hell that was Robben Island, inmates united courageously in an act of protest. Beginning in 1964, they requested the right to play soccer during their exercise periods. Denied repeatedly, they risked beatings and food deprivation by repeating their request for three years. Finally granted this right, the prisoners banded together to form a multi-tiered, pro-level league that ran for more than two decades and served as an impassioned symbol of resistance against apartheid. Former Robben Island inmate Nelson Mandela noted in the documentary FIFA: 90 Minutes for Mandela, "Soccer is more than just a game…. The energy, passion, and dedication this game created made us feel alive and triumphant despite the situation we found ourselves in."

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“The story of an obscure soccer league that liberated a nation: the Makana Football Association played all its games behind closed -- and locked -- doors on South Africa's Robben Island. An incredible story that chronicles how soccer helped political prisoners in their triumph of the human spirit over the Apartheid system.” —New York Times

“That this conflict between generations-- one more in the tangled collection of conflicts stemming from party affiliation, class, and the rage and resentments great and small built into any system wherein one race is persecuted by another-- could be overcome to the benefit of most of those concerned is testimony to the will, imagination, and patience of all the prisoners involved. That soccer played any part at all in the process may be justification for the contention that this chronicle is ‘the most important soccer story ever told.'” —The Boston Globe

“A truly inspiring story...Highly recommended for all readers, whether they are soccer fans or not.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“Well worth reading, even by those who don't know a thing about soccer.” —Booklist

“In Korr and Close's book, we see how a successful soccer league was a victory not just for prisoners, but for the whole of humanity.” —Maclean's

“This story adds a compelling dimension to our understanding of the struggle against apartheid.” —Desmond M Tutu

“For the men of Robben Island prison, soccer was more than a game. This story of the victims of political oppression, and how they found dignity and hope through sport, stands as a remarkable testament to the human spirit.” —Bob Costas

“In more than forty years of covering sports at the New York Times and for CBS and PBS, I have never seen a story that has so vividly brought together the nature of games, politics and the human spirit.” —Robert Lipsyte

“Soccer is more than just a game. Soccer can create hope where there was once despair. I remember how we, the prisoners on Robben Island, played soccer to keep our spirits high during the dark days of this country. The energy, passion, and dedication this game created made us feel alive and triumphant despite the situation we found ourselves in.” —Nelson Mandela, from the film FIFA: 90 Minutes for Mandela

“A fascinating account of the immense importance of the sport.” —The Guardian (UK)

Library Journal
As the world of soccer prepares to descend on South Africa [see "Sporty South Africa," LJ 3/1/10], Korr (history, emeritus, Univ. of Missouri, St. Louis) and British scriptwriter Close remind us of what the nation represented not so long ago. Set at the height of South Africa's apartheid system of legalized racism, this is the remarkable story of how soccer unified prisoners on Robben Island, a two-square-mile island just seven miles from Cape Town, which after 1960 was home to thousands of political and criminal prisoners, including, most famously, Nelson Mandela. In a truly inspiring story, the Robben Island prisoners struggled against all odds, and in spite of a prison administration more determined to humiliate and dehumanize than rehabilitate inmates, to organize an eight-club football (soccer) league that followed FIFA rules, with over 1000 prisoners playing. Through interviews and use of prisoners' own sources, the authors make a unique contribution to soccer and the history of a nation's abuse of an entire ethnic group. Korr was historical consultant and coproducer of a docudrama of the same title in 2007 (not yet seen in the States). VERDICT Highly recommended for all readers, whether they are soccer fans or not, and all public and academic libraries.—Boyd Childress, Auburn Univ. Lib., AL

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More than Just a Game

Soccer vs. Apartheid: the Most Important Soccer Story Ever Told

By Chuck Korr, Marvin Close

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2008 Chuck Korr and Marvin Close
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2276-0


The Apartheid State

'The goal is that eventually there will be no black South Africans.' Cornelius Mulder, Republic of South Africa Cabinet Minister

Cape Town, 1964. Sedick Isaacs stood on a downtown street corner reading a newspaper and trying to look nonchalant. The unassuming, bespectacled young high-school teacher contemplated the enormity of what he was about to do. He gazed at the front page in his hands, which informed him that Nelson Mandela had been taken into custody. He was not a sports fan, but if he had flicked to the back page, he would have read that football's world governing body, FIFA, had banned the all-white apartheid South African team from playing international soccer. But Sedick wasn't really taking in much of what he read. He glanced up and down the street, decided that the coast was clear, and disappeared into a chemist's shop.

Minutes later, he stepped back out on to the street carrying a large parcel wrapped in brown paper. His heart skipped a beat when he spotted an armoured police van draw to a halt on the other side of the road. Sedick pressed himself into the shadows of a doorway and watched carefully as police officers jumped out on to the pavement and proceeded to ask a couple of black pedestrians for their passbooks.

The apartheid government had brought in the Pass Laws in the Fifties and, since then, black men and women had been restricted as to the areas in which they were allowed to live, work, and move around. Passbooks, known as dompas, had to be carried at all times, effectively turning black men and women into foreign guestworkers in their own country. The passbook contained all their personal details, their photograph, and fingerprints, and had to be shown on request to any white civil servant, police officer, or government official. Not surprisingly, the dompas were much hated.

Sedick was of Asian descent and therefore not strictly required to carry a passbook, but he knew that, having a non-white face and being in such a white area of the city, he was bound to attract attention. If the policemen spotted him, they might want to body-search him and, more worryingly, demand to look inside the parcel he was carrying.

What he had just purchased from the chemist's was perfectly legal – a number of different household products and chemicals that anyone could buy over the counter – but, once mixed together, they formed the basis of an explosive. A trained chemist, Sedick had bought the ingredients in order to manufacture bombs.

A softly spoken intellectual, Sedick had grown up in the Bo Kaap district of the city, where he attended Trafalgar High, one of the best non-white schools in South Africa. It was there that his teachers had taught him about the way in which democracy was practised in other parts of the world and how various revolutions had been necessary to bring about justice and change. These lessons made a lasting impression upon Sedick, who had grown up in a South Africa torn apart by the inequalities of apartheid.

When he was at university studying chemistry, he had become involved in various political discussion groups. However, the thought of demonstrations and armed struggle was alien to Sedick and his friends. It was only when a friend of his father introduced him to people living in the black township of Langa that he became acquainted with brutal oppression at first hand. His father's friend was a tailor and would send his salesmen out into the black townships to tout for business. As a teenager, Sedick would accompany them into the corrugated huts and breezeblock sheds that were home to the black people of Langa.

There, he met young, politicized radicals who were talking about taking direct action to overthrow the apartheid regime. At first, their angry commitment shocked him rigid but, the more he came to know the impoverished day-to-day lives they were forced to live under apartheid, the more he came to understand.

He became a member of the Muslim Youth Movement and met other people who wanted to take protest politics that little bit further. Some members of his group had got hold of small arms while others spoke about the possibility of sabotaging government-run buildings and installations. Sedick's contribution had been to use his skills as a chemist to test gold, and then to help smuggle it to help raise funds for the group but, recently, he'd been learning how to make explosives – and teaching other members of the movement to do the same.

Now, pulling back into the shadows, trying to keep out of sight of the police, he pondered the irony of possible capture. If the police called him over, he could be arrested without having set off a single bomb. His own personal battle against apartheid would be nipped in the bud. This time, however, he was lucky. The passbooks were clearly in order, the black workers were waved on, and the police van disappeared down the road. Sedick drew a silent sigh of relief and began cautiously to make his way home with his explosive ingredients.

Introduced by the racist National Party in a whites-only election in 1948 when Sedick was just a child, apartheid forced a system of total racial segregation on South Africa in order to ensure white domination over all aspects of the country.

During the Second World War, hundreds of new factories and workshops had opened in urban areas across the nation, making everything from munitions and military equipment to uniforms, army boots, and tents. To drive this rapid economic growth, industry had needed labour and, attracted by the promise of better wages and jobs, thousands of poor black and Asian workers migrated to the towns and cities. Cumulatively, this caused massive overcrowding. The authorities couldn't cope. Housing was hopelessly inadequate, and shanty towns and squatter camps began to spring up in places like Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Port Elizabeth – and in Sedick's home city of Cape Town.

By the end of the war, for the first time in South Africa's history, there were more blacks than whites living in the cities. Many whites, particularly those aligned to the Afrikaaner Right, saw this as a dangerous development and feared that blacks would come to dominate these urban areas. They came up with apartheid – in Afrikaans, 'separateness' – to counter what they described as 'black danger'.

In practice, what it meant for black people and non-whites such as Sedick was a life choked and constricted by the injustices of discrimination. The belief underlying the system was that all white people were superior to blacks and coloureds, and their 'uniqueness' needed to be protected with all the power of the state. There had been a lot of racial discrimination and separation between the races in South Africa before 1948 but, from that year onwards, it was legally sanctioned.

As Sedick grew into childhood, the regime officially classified every individual in the country by race – white, Asian, coloured, and black. Members of the same family who did not share exactly the same skin colouring or even had a different hair texture could be classified as racially different. Individual government officials could and did enforce the rules selectively and arbitrarily. Many families were split up as a consequence, children being taken into care. Such measures were justified by the claim that they were necessary in order to maintain the system and to avoid the inevitable catastrophe that would be caused by racial mixing.

The government passed laws making interracial sex illegal and prohibiting mixed marriages. Police went to extraordinary lengths to impose these laws, even raiding houses and breaking into bedrooms to photograph couples as evidence.

New signs and hoardings went up all over South Africa: 'Whites Only'. To separate the races further, racially divided schools, universities, and hospitals were created. All public amenities, from swimming pools and beaches to public toilets and parks, were split into white and non-white areas. Restaurants, cinemas, hotels, and cafés were segregated. Whites rode on white-only buses, waited at 'white' bus stops. Naturally, it was the whites who got the very best of everything, especially when it came to economic benefits such as jobs and land. More than 80 per cent of the land, including any that was rich in valuable minerals, was reserved for 12 per cent of the population.

The apartheid government then introduced laws that would effectively make black people foreigners in their own country. These laws created bantustans (homelands) – impoverished rural territories akin to reserves for Native Americans in the US and Aboriginal peoples in Australia. They covered less than a tenth of South Africa's land mass. The plan was to herd the entire black population into them, effectively partitioning the whole country into white and non-white districts and thereby alleviating apartheid fears of black domination in the towns and cities. Administratively, the homelands were to be run by puppet chiefs hand-picked by the government. They had little power and had to defer to their white masters on all aspects of local governance.

More than three million people were forcibly evicted from their homes and banished to areas too small and lacking in resources to support the numbers living in them. Vibrant, thriving multiracial districts such as Sophiatown in Johannesburg and District Six, near Cape Town, were demolished and destroyed. Sophiatown was one of the oldest black areas in Johannesburg, with a population of over fifty thousand. Famous throughout black South Africa and beyond for its jazz music, its thriving art and culture, it was cleared virtually overnight. During the hours of darkness, gun-toting soldiers and police arrived in scores of flat-bed trucks to remove its population by force, taking them against their will to rough, undeveloped land 15 miles from the city centre. The government dubbed the area Meadowlands; black Africans called it Soweto, a corruption of Southwest Township.

Once the forced evacuation of Sophiatown was complete, its homes were bulldozed and all evidence of its previous occupants airbrushed from history. A new town was built for blue-collar whites. The government planners named the new suburb Triumf – 'triumph' in Afrikaans.

This pattern of enforced repatriation was to repeat itself across South Africa as Sedick grew into his teens. It soon came to include Asians, coloureds, and Chinese. Over three hundred thousand people were forcibly exiled from the towns and cities and banished to the poorer rural areas of South Africa.

However, without the largely manual, semi-manual, and domestic labour provided by blacks, Asians, and coloureds, the white districts would have ceased to operate. They were so reliant on non-white labour that the government had to find a means to allow other races to continue working in the towns and cities but at the same time strictly control their movement – hence, the introduction of the Pass Laws for blacks. The government did, however, keep a cold, vigilant eye on other non-whites – particularly men such as Sedick, already known to be a member of an organization critical of apartheid. As Sedick had come to understand, the tentacles of South Africa's secret police stretched out into every area of life in the country. Desperately poor blacks and non-whites were paid and blackmailed into informing on their more militant friends and neighbours. Security agents infiltrated most, if not all, of the organizations committed to opposing apartheid and exerted an increasingly iron grip on dissent.

To a degree, Sedick sensed that it would be only a matter of time before he was arrested for his activities. For the moment, however, he was still in the game. He walked nervously back home from the chemist's shop, desperate not to attract attention to himself as an Asian face in a white area of the city. He passed further police patrols but, that day, luck was on his side. He reached his home without being stopped, and began his experiments.

One evening some days later, Sedick drove out with three comrades to test his newly made explosives in the Strandfontein beach area of Cape Town. A long expanse of white sand that ran for many miles along the west coast at its furthest point away from the city, it was remote and secluded. Out here, Sedick and his colleagues hoped to be far from the attention of the security forces. They set off a couple of devices in the sand and then, on the drive back home, stopped outside a power sub-station, pondering whether to blow it up with their last remaining bomb. However, Sedick's luck had run out: the police were waiting for them.

It soon became clear that the security police had been watching Sedick for weeks. He guessed that the reason had little to do with his nascent bomb-making activities. Sedick had become friendly with a local white girl, something that both violated the 'immorality laws' and offended the deeply held prejudices of most white South African policemen.

Along with his three comrades, he was taken at gunpoint to Woodstock police station. They were questioned overnight and the following day transferred to Cape Town's notorious Caledon Square police HQ.

There was not enough room for him in the block used for prisonersdetained for security reasons so he was placed in a cell with a man charged with common-law criminal acts. Staring at the peeling, grey-painted walls and trying hard not to despair about what the future might hold, Sedick started to chat with the man, asking what he was in for. The answer turned out to be multiple counts of murder, rape, and attempted murder. The man then returned the question and, when Sedick said he had been charged with political offences, the prisoner, several inches taller and a hundred pounds heavier than Isaacs, let out a long, slow whistle. 'Wow, that's dangerous stuff, man!' he said. Sedick was soon to discover precisely how dangerous.

Many of Sedick's interrogators were hard-line right-wingers who positively despised black and coloured political agitators and reserved their most savage and sadistic interrogation techniques for them. In their eyes, Sedick was a terrorist, incapable of understanding that he was challenging a system that had been created by the racially superior whites to build a better, happier, more prosperous South Africa. The only thing holding the country back was men like this Sedick Isaacs trying to take the law into their own hands. He threatened the security of the state and therefore had to be punished.

Flouting every international agreement on human rights and the treatment of prisoners, a team of interrogators worked in shifts from eight o'clock in the morning until midnight, taking it in turns to work Sedick over, both mentally and physically. First, he was threatened with torture. Members of the security police described in graphic detail and with great relish what they intended to do to him if he refused to co-operate. They wanted information – about Sedick's comrades, about the plans his group had for future sabotage, where and when it would happen.

When Sedick didn't give them the information they wanted he was subjected to long bouts of sleep deprivation, to soften him up for future beatings and punishment. Used as a weapon by torturers the world over, depriving a prisoner of their sleep leads to disorientation, reduces a body's tolerance to physical pain, and makes them highly suggestible to cutting a deal or volunteering information.

Then his interrogators made good their earlier, graphic promises and set about Sedick with fists, rifle butts, and feet, following up the beatings by attaching electrodes to various parts of Sedick's body. The torture lasted for days. Sedick learned really to 'expect hell' if the guards stepped unsteadily into an interrogation session smelling of alcohol. Fortified by 'Dutch courage', the torturers would launch brutal physical attacks on the prisoners, any last inhibitions spirited away by drink.

His interrogators continually informed Sedick that his comrades had told them everything, there was no reason for him to hold back, but to Sedick that made no sense. Why would his torturers continue to beat him and give him electric shocks in order to extract information if they already knew everything?

For many prisoners, as with Sedick, the torture would continue throughout the hours of darkness. Inmates in another section of the police HQ cells were woken one night and subjected to an insidious form of psychological torture. A prison guard crept sinisterly up and down the corridors whispering through the grilles in each of the doors that one of the men was going to be killed that night.

Prisoners were also set against each other. Common-law inmates were paid with extra rations and privileges to attack, beat, and sexually assault political prisoners. The torturers thoroughly explored every single possibility to destabilize, disorient, and put the fear of God into the reviled politicos.


Excerpted from More than Just a Game by Chuck Korr, Marvin Close. Copyright © 2008 Chuck Korr and Marvin Close. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

CHUCK KORR is professor emeritus of history at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of The End of Baseball As We Knew It and West Ham United. He has been published in the New York Times and has appeared on ESPN and CNN.

MARVIN CLOSE is a scriptwriter in the United Kingdom.

Chuck Korr is professor emeritus of history at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of The End of Baseball As We Knew It and West Ham United. He has been published in the New York Times and has appeared on ESPN and CNN.
Marvin Close is a scriptwriter in the United Kingdom.

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