Imagine an alternate reality of the United States in the 1960s, where the collective experience of the political elite had been formed in all-black baseball leagues. The country is led by President Jackie Robinson, Vice President Satchel Paige, and Secretary of State Willie Mays. Sounds crazy? Replace baseball with soccer, and you've got South Africa, a country that has given new meaning to "political football."
Much attention has been paid to President Nelson Mandela's role in South Africa's 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph, captured in the film Invictus. But Sean Jacobs, a Cape Town native, historian, and author, describes that tournament as "a blip" in South Africa's history of racial conflict. "The real story," he says, "is soccer."
And the real story begins several miles from the site of Cape Town's swanky new stadium -- on Robben Island, which will be clearly visible to billions of TV viewers as they tune in to this month's World Cup. The island prison colony was home to thousands of South Africa's political prisoners during the apartheid era. Of the men who played in the prison's soccer league, an astonishing number would go on to become important figures in shaping post-apartheid South Africa.
Their ranks include current President Jacob Zuma, opposition leader and former Defense Minister "Terror" Lekota, Minister of Human Settlements "Tokyo" Sexwale, and Kgalema Motlanthe, who completed former President Thabo Mbeki's second term. Mandela never participated; he watched the early games from an isolation block until the authorities built a wall to obstruct his view. Zuma had the distinction of doubling as a referee. Leave it to a future president to play one weekend and arbitrate the next.
More Than Just a Game, written by Chuck Korr and Marvin Close, revealed that Robben Island's inmates had two favorite books from the shelves of the prison library: Karl Marx's Das Kapital, and Denis Howell's Soccer Refereeing. After years of steadfast petitioning, prison authorities finally agreed in 1967 to let the inmates establish their own soccer league, the Makana Football Association. The prisoners spent their weekdays breaking rocks in the quarry, but two hours of every Saturday were reserved for soccer matches. Sunday evening was for talking about the game, Monday to Wednesday for dealing with breaches of rules, and Thursday and Friday for choosing squads and strategizing. The thought process among the players, according to Jacobs, was: "If we can run a league in these extreme conditions, then maybe we can run a country."
The Afrikaner officials of the apartheid regime never embraced soccer. They loved rugby and cricket and funded those sports generously, but saw soccer as a game for Africans. At first, they ignored the sport -- then they began to ban some matches. In April 1963, at the Natalspruit Sports Ground in Johannesburg, authorities locked the gates and left a note saying the day's games had been canceled. Fifteen thousand supporters scaled the gates, carrying an extra pair of goal posts to replace a set that had been removed. The matches went ahead.
The government would later try a new tack, organizing an annual match between black and white players. The plan, however, backfired: It merely emphasized the inequitable and racist nature of the country's political system. The matches did, however, succeed in undermining the apartheid regime in crucial ways. In 1976, the government allowed a mixed-race team to play against a visiting Argentine squad in Johannesburg. Black and white South Africans lined up together on the pitch, though the stands were still segregated. The home team won 5-0, including a hat trick for a then unknown black player named Jomo Sono. When he scored against Argentina, his teammates, black and white, did what teammates have always done: hugged and shook hands. This feel-good victory was overshadowed only a few weeks later, however, when approximately 500 black South Africans were killed in the Soweto uprising -- including Ariel Kgongoane, a prominent player for the Kaizer Chiefs.
Apartheid's opponents quickly seized on the potential of using soccer to rally support and raise funds. The African National Congress (ANC), then a banned underground movement, quickly realized that wherever there was soccer, there was a crowd. Political meetings suffered a blanket ban from 1976 onward, but it was far harder to prevent several members of a political party from sitting together in the stands, amid thousands. Zuma, for instance, would emerge from hiding to attend the matches of the Zulu Royals and confer with other politicians. And it's no coincidence that when Zuma returned from exile in Zambia in 1993, his first residence was at the home of the owner of the Orlando Pirates, one of the largest soccer teams in South Africa.
By the 1980s, activists commonly organized themselves into soccer squads to confound the regime. They could travel easily across international borders, and matches represented a valuable source of money for underground anti-apartheid organizations. Peter Alegi, a historian and author of African Soccerscapes, told me that as early as 1944, the revenue from soccer matches was being handed over to the ANC. Patson Banda, a former player for the Orlando Pirates, remembers one game that was played across the border in Zimbabwe in front of more than 100,000 paying fans. Again, the ANC received the proceeds collected at the gate.