More than Just a Game


One of the great stories offering a glimpse of what Christmas is really about is the oft-told tale of British and German soldiers playing football in no-man's land on the Western Front on Christmas Day 1914. What is less often told is that the next day many of those who participated in that impromptu game refused to shoot at the "enemy" the next day, and had to be disciplined and re-deployed, with the respective high commands making sure there would be no repeat performances in 1915 and subsequent years. This is not just a story about Christmas, but also the transformative power of sport... Although given some of the Boxing Day football matches I've taken part in over the years, they were more likely to cause hostilities to break out!
I enjoy playing sport, particularly competitive sport. I'm not very good at it but there is something about it that helps me to switch off and let-off steam in a controlled way. As a young guy I really enjoyed rugby, but my knees got messed up, and for the last 20 years my main competitive outlet has been Monday night 5 a side football. Sadly, at the moment I'm injured, and have spent large parts of the past 2 years injured in one way or other... and there is no doubt that this has had a significant impact on, not only my physical but also psychological well-being, as I am reduced to "fantasy football" and getting my fix from Football Focus and Final Score...
Against that background I've just finished reading "More than Just a Game", the story of how sports in general and football in particular helped to sustain the prisoners on Robben Island under the apartheid regime. This isn't a story about the few famous prisoners like Nelson Mandela, but the hundreds of largely young men who were rounded up at various periods of unrest and dumped on that rock off the coast of Capetown. In the face of implacable hatred and oppression they used sport, and especially football, to provide a focus and discipline to prison life. They looked to FIFA and its rules as a paragon of fairness and sportsmanship (ironic in the light of recent accusations which paints FIFA's higher echelons as the epitome of corruption and cronyism, and the appalling way that FIFA behaved in relation to the building contracts and sponsorship around the 2010 World Cup in South Africa), and it brought together prisoners across political and generational divisions as well as providing life-skills that many went on to use in post-apartheid South Africa...
It also became the means of bridging the yawning gulf between the prisoners and the white authorities, both the prison administrators and the largely uneducated warders.
Lessons learned by the prisoners in solving conflicts over footballing matters were then applied to their general approach to their oppressors. The following extract was a particularly inspiring story of transformation and reconciliation:
The prisoners also strove to improve relationships with the harshest guards, choosing to target those considered most hostile, the ones who meted out regular beatings, for a variety of reasons. If these warders could be ‘humanized’, the prisoners reasoned, their attacks would decrease and conditions would improve.
Equally, these, in general, older guards exerted a strong influence over the younger warders. If their attitudes could be changed, it was hoped there would be a trickle-down effect. In addition, a hard-line ‘friendly’ guard could be of great use to the prisoners in terms of smuggling out unofficial letters and information. They were the warders whom the prison authorities would never suspect of helping inmates. Perhaps the most remarkable success story concerned the notoriously brutal guard Sergeant Delport, the scourge of the quarry. An older, towering, red-faced Afrikaner, he viewed the political prisoners with utter hatred and was notorious for his violent sadism. In their early years on the island, the men quickly grew to be particularly careful and cautious around him. Swift to anger and quick to use his truncheon, he didn’t need any reason or excuse to beat a man into unconsciousness. Mark Shinners referred to Delport as the ‘chief tormentor’. He was a nightmarish figure and was in complete agreement with apartheid’s ideals.
The four downward-pointing chevrons on the sleeve of his uniform jacket signifying long service gave some clue to the reasons behind Delport’s dark fury. Time and again, he had been overlooked for promotion. His unquestioning loyalty to the apartheid regime was never In doubt, and it soon became clear to the prisoners that Delport’s lack of success was down to his inability to pass the warders’ examinations. He could read and write, but his lack of reasoning and academic skills continually let him down.
One morning when he came to open up the cell blocks he was in a particularly black mood. Unable to stop himself, he confided to the prisoners that once again
he had been passed by for promotion. In order to open the lines of negotiation the prisoners offered their sympathy, praised his loyalty and abilities as a guard, and acknowledged that the prison bosses didn’t appreciate him. Then they quietly suggested to Delport that they could help him win promotion. He would probably remain a sergeant for ever, unless he did some studying - with the prisoners.
Remarkably, Delport sat down beside the men he reviled and began to study. With the help of the prisoners, who taught him maths and how to improve his vocabulary, he passed his matric (school leaving certificate). In the next round of promotions he was appointed from the rank of sergeant to lieutenant. Having studied and shared time with the men, this most hard- bitten believer in the harshest application of apartheid slowly changed his attitude.
He transformed from a brute into one of the most approachable and helpful of
warders. In the years after freedom came to South Africa, Delport encountered
some former prisoners and even apologized to them for his earlier actions on the
island. The former prisoners have no doubts about the sincerity of his words.

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