Mandela still at centre of World Cup

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:11 PM ET

ROBBEN ISLAND - The former inmate spent seven years on notorious Robben Island after being jailed because he was a member of an ANC, the banned political party that was determined to overthrow apartheid.

Among his fellow inmates was Nelson Mandela, a man Itumeleng Makwela still refers to as "our leader." Mandela spent 18 years on Robben Island.

Makwela is now a guide on Robben Island. The notorious prison island has been turned into a museum heritage site. Daily tours take place. Tourists are taken out on some of the same boats that transported black political prisoners to Robben Island.

If there is one thing that Makwela emphasized repeatedly as he conducted the two-hour tour, it was that in this place of hopelessness, hope was never lost.

"Our leaders gave us hope," he said. "Some of the greatest leaders were here. They are now leaders in our government. But it wasn't just our leaders. We didn't let them take everything from us. We wanted to remain the people we were."

Travel anywhere in South Africa during the World Cup tournament and the one hope is that Mandela is able to make an appearance at the Cup final. Soon to be 92, Mandela couldn't make the opening game. He was grieving the loss of a granddaughter who was killed in a car accident coming back from the opening night concert.

Everyone, South African or visitor alike, believes the World Cup would not be complete without a Mandela appearance.

Meanwhile, just outside the prison cells is an overgrown field surrounded by wire fence. Around the perimeter are old wooden benches. It's where inmates played soccer. It wasn't just a pick-up game. They used the game to restore of sense of order and control in their lives.

They established the Makana Football Association. They played a full league schedule with numerous teams and a constitution. Makana remained in operation until 1991 when Robben Island closed.

Recently FIFA presented Makana with a certificate of honorary membership to FIFA.

"Last March, the original goalposts were taken down," another guide said. "I don't know why they were taken down but the original posts were still there."

Makwela talked about the importance of sport. He talked about the inmates not only playing soccer but also rugby, volleyball and tennis. A net would be set up in the prison courtyard.

"Nelson Mandela was a good tennis player," Makwela said.

He went to say that tennis balls were a way that prisoners communicated between A Block and B Block where Mandela was housed.

"They would put a very small hole in the tennis ball and stuff a note in it," he said. "Then they would hit it over the wall. When the ball came back, there was another note in it."

Makwela looks over the overgrown field and stares as if he can still see the games being played.

"It was very important for us to play," Makwela said. "It was a way for us to stay in control, to communicate with each other. I was a goaltender, a very good goaltender. No one scored on me. The games were good games."

It seems surreal to be talking to a former prisoner. Robben Island is a place where you can feel great emotion. It's as if the spirit of the men who spent some much time here and felt so much pain and sorrow still exists.

In the 17th century, the Dutch were the first to use the island for their political prisoners and Muslim leaders from the East Indies. There's a shrine, called a kramat, built in honor of Tuan Guru the Muslim leader. After his release, this Muslim holy man went on to found Islam among Cape Town's slaves.

Of the 32 teams who came to compete in the World Cup, only one took the time to visit Robben Island. It was The Netherlands.

Robben Island was also used to isolate people with contagious diseases. It was a leper colony. There is still a leper cemetery and a leper hospital on the island.

The British military forces used it as a base in the World War II. Gun emplacements are on the island. There was not one shot fired from the island.

In 1961, the Prisons Department took over and built the prison facility. Prisoners worked in lime quarries, still evident today, to build the prison. Hard labour and beatings were ongoing. But the prisoners refused to give in.

"We didn't have hot water," Makwela said "But we got it because we would go on a hunger strike. News would be taken out by our relatives and pressure from the outside world would be put on. We got hot water."

Mandela's old cell is the only one kept as it was. There were blankets on the floor, a bucket for a toilet and little else. The cell is about two metres by two metres. When Mandela became ill on Robben Island, public pressure forced the prison authority to give him a bed. He was the first prisoner to be given a bed.

Makwela hopes Mandela makes it to the final.

"After apartheid South Africans had a chance to show the world we were good at sports," he said.

It is the most emotional he shows through the entire tour.

"When I watched the World Cup opener, it gave me great pleasure to see everyone together" he said. "It was the thing many, many people wanted to see for the future of South Africa. I wish everyone could have seen it. A lot of people died here so that could happen.

"That's why Robben Island is here. We forgive but it reminds people what happened should never happen again."


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