Two of the most godforsaken soccer pitches in the world are on Robben Island, a flat rock battered by Antarctic winds and icy waves in the southern Atlantic, 6 miles (about 10 km) off Cape Town on the tip of Africa. The island’s isolation made it a natural prison for British colonists, who kept their enemies there, including the warrior-prophet Makana, who drowned trying to escape in 1820. In the 1960s, the island became apartheid’s Alcatraz for 2,000 prisoners, among them Nelson Mandela, who served 18 of his 27 years in jail there. Repressive regimes often mistake fastidious procedure for legitimacy, and under Robben Island’s rules, the chief warden had to meet the inmates once a week to hear their grievances. For three years, beginning in late December 1964, the men united around a single demand: the right to play soccer.
In 1967 the warden finally allowed a 30-minute kick-about every Saturday. The prisoners responded by setting up two pitches on the sandy ground outside their cells and — going way beyond mere exercise to create a sophisticated institution with both real and symbolic weight — set up a 24-team league run strictly according to FIFA regulations by the newly inaugurated Makana Football Association.
The prisoners understood that under apartheid, soccer was revolutionary. Player skill disproved the idea that blacks were physically inferior; meticulous administration did the same for mental ability. The game was based on fair play, the sporting equivalent of human rights. Chuck Korr, the University of Missouri sports-history professor who co-wrote More Than Just a Game, about the Robben Island soccer league, says Makana’s internal structures — “fair, equitable and based upon the twin ideals of justice and democracy” — became a school for South Africa’s future leaders. Evidence for that can be found on Makana’s old team sheets, a virtual roll call of South Africa’s leading politicians, judges and tycoons — including President Jacob Zuma, then an imposing central defender. But if soccer on Robben Island helped prisoners forge a future, it was also indispensable to them in the present. Through the long night of apartheid, a civil weekend game was how the prisoners preserved their dignity.
Today, South Africa is holding another soccer tournament, and the rebel spirit of Robben Island will resonate at every match. South Africans are no longer fighting a ruling regime but a ruling perception. For much of the world, Africa remains the hopeless continent, a place of war, famine and babies with flies in their eyes. Its richest nation, and the World Cup host, is known for some of the worst levels of violent crime on earth, a global record HIV/AIDS population of 5.7 million out of 49 million and the kind of poverty that accompanies an unemployment rate of 35.4%. On that view, staging the world’s premier sports and television event in Africa is unfathomable folly. Just last January, British newspapers wrote off the World Cup as “a disaster” (Daily Mirror) and a dream “in tatters” (Daily Telegraph).
To Africans, such doubts can seem like ignorance and prejudice. Because the truth is that Africa is changing. It is still home to catastrophes like Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. But if you take its 48 nations together, foreign investment is now double that of aid, democracy is beating back dictatorships, and economic growth is robust. Similarly, while free South Africa has often turned out to be less admirable than the man who led it there, crime is falling, antiretroviral drugs are widely available, and water, electricity and good roads are widespread. There is a persistent racial economic divide, but it is fading, as millions of middle-class black South Africans and a new black elite can attest.
Just as soccer was a game changer on Robben Island, South Africa wants the World Cup to be one for it and for Africa. “It’s to show the world that we are capable,” President Zuma tells TIME. Danny Jordaan, head of South Africa’s organizing committee, agrees. “If we can deliver the World Cup,” he says, “we will have finally dismissed the idea created by apartheid that there are greater and lesser human beings. We will be ready to take our place in the world.”
From the outside, Soccer City — on the eastern edge of Soweto, where the first and final games of this year’s World Cup will be played — looks like a vast calabash, an African cooking bowl. Inside, the architecture is more politicized. The pitch sinks into the ground and, surrounded by tiers of 94,000 seats, resembles an open cast mine. The players’ tunnel is a replica of a mine shaft. This is not a paean to the industry whose gold sustained apartheid; it is a memorial to the black labor on which white racism relied. On May 3, in a nod to how things have changed, Jordaan thanked the new generation of workers who built South Africa’s World Cup venues by giving out 54,000 match tickets, two to each. “The world can see what you have built,” he said. “This is not just a stadium but a monument, a demonstration of this country’s ability and capability.”
Soccer and rebellion were inseparable in Soweto. It was early Sowetans, migrant mine and farm workers, who set up the first teams in opposition to whites-only leagues in the late 19th century. Sowetans also established the Inter Race Soccer Board in 1935 and, in 1937, the Orlando Pirates, the legendary township team that took the skull and crossbones as its standard. After 1948, when apartheid promoted white supremacy from social custom to legal requirement, Alegi says many soccer players “suddenly found themselves political activists” out of the simple desire to field and play the best teams. For Jordaan, a student activist and briefly a professional player, soccer “became the platform to build the struggle against apartheid.”
In 1951, blacks, Indians and coloreds (a loose ethnic group including descendants of Malaysian slaves and those of mixed race) founded the South African Soccer Federation (SASF), which had color blindness written into its constitution. By the mid-1960s, the SASF’s league was drawing crowds of all colors to watch mixed teams, including one with a white midfielder, Erik Tinkler, whose ponderous style prompted the fans to nickname him Mandela. “This was extraordinary,” says Alegi. “It proved South Africans wanted to be integrated and was a smack in the face for apartheid orthodoxy, which held that segregation was needed to keep the peace.”
It couldn’t last. Once Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress leaders were jailed in 1963, the authorities turned on soccer. Players and officials were harassed. Grounds were closed. By 1965, come match day, the Pirates were to be found wandering the townships looking for an open space on which to erect their goalposts.
The SASF soon died. But soccer’s connection to the antiapartheid movement endured. FIFA suspended South Africa in 1964. In 1979, it went further than any other international sporting body by making the end of apartheid an explicit condition of South Africa’s return to world football. Inside the country, soccer became indivisible from the struggle. After student protesters were barred from rallying at Orlando soccer stadium in 1976, Soweto exploded in riots from which apartheid would never truly recover. In 1994, hours after being inaugurated as the first black president of a new South Africa, Mandela celebrated by watching the national team play Zambia at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg.
A Voice of Hope
On April 5 this year, Africa’s two greatest club teams, the Pirates and the Kaizer Chiefs, also from Soweto, met for the continent’s most legendary fixture: the Soweto Derby. Though held a day’s drive away at the new stadium in Durban, the match sold out in 12 hours. The game was unremarkable: the Chiefs eventually won 3-1 on penalties. The crowd didn’t appear to notice. For two and a half hours, 60,000 fans wearing makarapas (miners’ helmets decorated with feathers, slogans and giant Flavor Flav-type spectacles) danced, sang and deafened each other with vuvuzelas — 3-ft.-long (91 cm) plastic horns. Placards in the crowd proclaimed hastily scribbled messages of impulsive jubilation. “We are ready,” read one. “Feelings is here,” announced another.
The game was a reminder of another truth: if soccer changed Africa, Africans changed soccer. They made it more democratic — the number of places reserved for African teams in the World Cup rose from zero in 1966 to five today. They made it bigger business — Africa was the world’s third largest TV audience for soccer in 2006. And they have produced so many international players that European soccer wouldn’t be what it is today without African talent. Top teams such as Chelsea and Inter Milan rely on world-class talents like Ivorian Didier Drogba and Cameroonian Samuel Eto’o. The poorer teams of Eastern Europe count on the low wage demands of Africa’s less illustrious players just to survive.
The most significant change Africa brought to soccer involved the way the game itself is played. The European game was historically played with round leather balls on standardized pitches. Such an orderly setting often encouraged a disciplined, methodical game that sublimated the individual to the team. Many Africans, by contrast, grow up playing barefoot on rutted streets, kicking anything — a can, a straw basket, a ball of rubber bands — that rolls. That requires aptitude, spontaneity and creativity “just to keep the ball in play,” says Jordaan, and tends to produce the most brilliant of stars, individuals of jaw-dropping skill. A European machine inspired by a few African magicians is now the signature style of many of the world’s most successful teams. Soccer is a lot more fun too, nowhere more so than in a stadium with a singing, dancing African crowd. “Fans in Africa move to a different drum,” says Alegi. “And it’s a very loud one.”
So try to imagine the atmosphere at that first game on June 11. It will be raucous — 94,000 people bursting with pride and happiness and accomplishment. But for a few minutes, at least, and before a single ball is kicked, the crowd will likely be in tears. Quietly surveying Soccer City as Jordaan gave away tickets to those who had built it was Siphiwo Ntshebe, a 36-year-old tenor of growing international fame. His audacious journey from a township choir on South Africa’s southern coast to a music scholarship in London and a five-album deal personified Africa’s transformation. For the past few months, Ntshebe had had a new job: coaching Mandela. The pair was practicing duets of South Africa’s national anthem. They were also, said Ntshebe, working on and recording “a new song about hope for Africa and the world” that Mandela co-wrote and on which Ntshebe sings while Mandela intones, “The generosity of the human spirit can overcome all adversity. Through compassion and caring, we can create hope.”
The plan was for Ntshebe to perform the song accompanied by Mandela’s recorded voice before Mexico and South Africa took the field in the opening game. Ntshebe confessed he was a little worried about Mandela, who, at 91, is easily tired and was not always up to practice. Though on other days, Ntshebe said, “he’s very good. He can get really high.” Tragically, it was to be Ntshebe who wouldn’t make it. On May 24, after contracting acute bacterial meningitis, he died at Livingstone Hospital in Port Elizabeth.
Jordaan says he will still play a recording of Ntshebe and Mandela at the opening ceremony. It will be heartbreaking, for sure, but it could also be, as Ntshebe intended, the most sublime of African revolutions. On June 11, a billion people will tune in to watch the biggest event in the world — and find an African team about to play an ever more African game on the edge of Africa’s most famous township. And then the greatest man on earth will speak of hope.