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A tribute to two heroes of South Africa

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DMU was saddened to hear of the deaths of Professor Sedick Isaacs and Lizo Sitoto, who were recipients of the Companionship of De Montfort University.

The men successfully campaigned for the right to play football matches while kept in appalling prison conditions under the Apartheid regime of South Africa.

The Companionship is the highest prize from the university and was presented to Sedick and Lizo, alongside their close friends Mark Shinners  and Marcus Solomon, in July 2011, in recognition of the role they all played in giving new hope to the prisoners of the notorious Robben Island through playing the beautiful game.

The stories of these men’s lives on Robben Island - and the role football played in bringing different factions together to fight for a free South Africa - have been described in the book “More Than Just A Game”, co-authored by Chuck Korr, a visiting research professor at De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History and Culture.

Here Chuck Korr pays tribute to the men:

Professor Sedick Isaacs passed away on 18 October aged 72, followed less than three weeks later by fellow former Robben Island prisoner Lizo Sitoto, aged 69.

The men were together in July, 2011 when they were honoured by De Montfort University as Companions of the University.

When DMU Vice-Chancellor Professor Dominic Shellard read out the citation paying tribute to them, the audience gave them a long standing ovation and the graduands responded by stomping their feet in recognition of what these men had accomplished and the sacrifices they had made.

It was the most emotional moment I have seen at a graduation and I’ve been attending them for 45 years. The following day was the last time I saw these two men.

They were political prisoners on Robben Island for 13 and 16 years respectively.

While on the Island they were beaten, fed badly, and worked from dawn to evening in intolerable conditions. 

Sedick and Lizo were part of the first generation of prisoners in a place that was supposed to break them.

They, and their comrades, came up with ways to sustain their morale and keep their dignity. Education and political discussions were constant features, but they added something special – a demand to play sports.

After three years of protests and hunger strikes, the South African rulers relented and the men  started the Makana FA, an organized football league with a structure to match any in the world.

The two men were different in so many ways. Lizo was solidly built with a booming laugh and a singing voice to match it. Sedick was thin with a quiet demeanor that almost demanded respect.

He had been a science and mathematics teacher and he seemed always to be thinking about how things worked and how people would react.

He was famous throughout the Island for the challenges he raised to the prison authorities and the subtle sarcasm with which he could phrase things.

The fact that he served longer in solitary confinement than any other prisoner was testament to his toughness and how the authorities loathed him.

That Sedick and Lizo were active participants in the Makana FA would have surprised their friends at home. 

Lizo grew up in a rugby culture in the Eastern Cape and Sedick’s only sporting interest in Cape Town was swimming.

Lizo used his rugby skills to become the goal keeper for the island’s best team. Sedick never achieved much skill at football, but his organizational talents contributed to the lives of hundreds of prisoners.

He was the secretary of clubs, he organized the library, and created the annual Robben Island Olympics. His proudest accomplishment was the education programmes which ranged from basic literacy to post-graduate courses.

When Lizo and Sedick were released from prison, they suffered internal banning and the threat of re-imprisonment.

Lizo finally went into exile with his wife Margaret.

After freedom came to South Africa, they returned and established an early childhood centre in the township where he was raised.

With two master’s degrees, Sedick became the “highest qualified egg seller in Cape Town” since he was prohibited from teaching or undertaking research.

He earned a PhD in 1990 and from 1993 to 2005 was a professor in the medical school of the University of Cape Town.

Upon retirement, he began teaching basic mathematics in a township school.

Neither Sedick or Lizo expected to get recognition for what they did on the Island. They would describe it as just keeping faith with the struggle.

It was my good fortune to discover thousands of letters and documents that detailed the events surrounding the Makana FA.

When I wanted to interview them, they seemed surprised why an historian, especially one from America, would come to South Africa just to talk to them.

I cannot imagine any historian who has been luckier than I was in the choice of a subject. It gave me a whole new way to understand Robben Island. More importantly, it was the basis for a special friendship with Sedick, Lizo, their families, and their comrades.

The publication of More Than Just a Game and the release of the companion film proved to them how their story resonated with people.

When FIFA invited them to a ceremony that made the Makana FA the first honorary member of FIFA they got worldwide recognition.

But when they stood on the stage during the De Montfort University graduation ceremony and heard the reaction from people who had previously not known who they were or what the Makana FA had been, the men were overcome with emotion and elation.

 

Posted on Thursday 13th December 2012

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