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South African Movie Shows How Football Unified Apartheid Prisoners

During South Africa's apartheid era, many of the nation's black activists were detained in a notorious island prison near Cape Town. A new film is revealing a bit of hidden history about prison life. The movie is about football, and how many prisoners feel the sport saved their lives. For VOA, Terry FitzPatrick reports.

Sedick Isaacs says the smell of the ocean makes him think of prison. Walking along Cape Town's waterfront, Isaacs peers at an island just off shore. Robben Island. It is a place many regarded as the "Alcatraz of Africa."

"When I look at that island, I almost get a shiver of freezing cold. And I think that probably is very difficult to get out of a person's mind," he said.

Isaacs was a scientist, imprisoned as a saboteur for teaching anti-apartheid activists how to make bombs. He spent 13 years on Robben Island.

Isaacs is one of five former prisoners whose experiences are chronicled in a new film, entitled More than Just a Game. Isaacs helped organize a prison football league. He was worried about the toll that poor nutrition and harsh conditions were taking on Robben Island inmates.

"And I knew that there are long term effects of imprisonment. I can still quote the textbook: like mental vacuity, listlessness. And I thought we need to keep alive and prevent those things from happening to us, because there is a revolution taking place in South Africa. And once we are released we need to be healthy enough to take our places again in that revolution," he added.

More than Just a Game is part documentary, part dramatic re-enactment. It is set in the turbulent 1960s and 70s when many liberation leaders were jailed. They endured brutal punishment and long days of breaking rocks in a quarry. Soccer brought hope.

It took prisoners three years to get permission to play football on Saturdays. When authorities relented, inmates organized a formal league, with eight teams, trained referees, tournament rules and trophies. They called it the Makana Football Association.

Documents about the league were discovered by an American professor from the University of Missouri, Chuck Korr.

"The prisoners on Robben Island are of a generation that believe fervently in the Victorian values of sports builds character. They used football as a way of reclaiming their dignity. This was something they ran. Anytime authorities tried to interfere with it they closed it down and then they threatened to talk to the International Red Cross, they threatened a hunger strike. Football was theirs," said Korr.

League activities were meticulously documented, and Korr's scholarly research led to the making of the movie by Durban-based Videovision Entertainment. Korr realized how important the project was for South Africans as he talked with a member of the crew during filming.

"He said when he went to school all he ever learned was how many ships the Portuguese sent, and the names of the first Dutch governors. He said: 'My people were never allowed to have our own history. And what this film is doing is restoring to us the past that we were never allowed to learn',"said Korr.

Several of South Africa's current political and business leaders played soccer as inmates on Robben Island. But Sedick Isaacs says More than Just a Game is about more than apartheid. He feels it's a universal story of human spirit overcoming adversity.

"I feel the message is that there were other people on the island besides the politicians, and how within this community we had internal problems and how we actually solved it," said Isaaacs. "That's what we want the world to look at."

More than Just a Game will premiere later this month (November 23, 2007) when hundreds of international sports officials gather in South Africa to organize the 2010 World Cup football tournament.