Soccer Saves: Soccer Team Changes Lives at South African Prison

Photo: Soccer Saves: Soccer Team Changes Lives at South African Prison: Christian Missionaries Bring Soccer and God to Lure Prisoners from Gang Life

Simphiwe Mtingane spent his first years in prison trying to earn respect -- by stabbing other prisoners. He was serving a 10-year sentence for rape, trying, he said, to rise through the ranks of a jailhouse gang.

But somewhere along the way, he realized he needed to change, he said, even at the risk of retaliation from fellow gang members. And he put that life behind him.

His way out? Soccer.

Now, Mtingane, 23, an inmate at South Africa's Drakenstein Correctional Centre, is co-captain of the prison's innovative Hope Academy soccer squad.

Kicking Crime
Kicking Crime

"A lot of inmates say that I'm a coward, that I'm running away," he said. "But I told myself, for me to become a better man, I am the one that has to make the decision... I'm being strong."

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Soccer, called "football" here in South Africa and much of the world, is a great unifier, bridging cultural and racial divides. In a country where 11 languages are spoken, they say soccer is the one universal language. And, according to the Christian missionaries running Hope Academy at this 580-inmate prison, soccer is a pathway to a better life for the 18 men who make up its soccer team.

VIDEO: 2010 World Cup in South Africa
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"We're looking at their football ability,'' said Mark Slessenger, national director of Hope Academy." Also, we want prisoners who have a desire to change, do something with their life, so they've got to have an attitude where they actually want to progress, get out of prison and do something positive."

Hope Academy is devoted to getting inmates out of the brutal gang culture that permeates South African prisons.

"These guys love football,'' said Slessenger "It's what they enjoy and soccer is just a way to get the guys out of the gangs. And if a guy loves soccer, he's willing to leave the gang to come and develop because of his love for the sport."

The team lives together in a communal cell, which they're required to keep impeccably neat. They must agree to live by a strict code: No violence, no drugs, no trouble in prison.

Soccer and Faith

Members practice three days per week, and there's one weekly game. The team also spends hours in coaching sessions. Last year they were undefeated.

Soccer is the lure, said Slessenger. But, as a Christian organization, he said, "We use it as a tool to get guys and then share our faith with them and encourage them and build them up."

At one recent session, Slessinger preached, "The Bible says here, 'With no vision the people perish,' so you could say with no vision this team, this academy would perish.''

Each inmate on the team has a proverb on his bed. "Pride leads to disgrace but with humility comes wisdom," reads the one on Simphiwe Mtingane's bed.

"It tells me that if we are proud, that tells me that you will go nowhere, you'll find yourself in a disgrace," said Mtingane. "And if you are a man with humility, then that is where you will find wisdom."

The Hope Academy project has an incredible sense of history. Drakenstein, formerly called Victor Verster Prison, is famous for having been the prison from where, after 27 years, Nelson Mandela walked to his freedom in 1990.

And soccer was key to the anti-apartheid struggle. It was a league inside the Robben Island prison, where Mandela spent 18 of his years behind bars, that served as a rallying point for the anti-apartheid movement.

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