DRAKENSTEIN CORRECTIONAL CENTRE, South Africa, July 1, 2010 -- 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.
"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.
"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.
"It gives me hope that Mandela was in this prison that I am," said Mtingane. "If Mandela was able to make it in this prison, so I tell myself, I can make it as he did."
The Hope Academy program has been in place at Drakenstein since 2008. Eighteen of its players have been released, and only two returned to prison.
"You're sort of half-hearted," said Slessenger, "because you see your best center leave the prison and you're like, 'Oh, no, I wish he could stay 'cause it weakens the team.' But you want to see that boy go on and be successful in his life, so it's dual feelings that happen."
Inmates Find Success, Struggles Outside
Andre Soetwateer was just released three months ago. He is working as an electrician now, playing in a soccer league. But he lives in the Cape Flats, a depressed area like so many others in South Africa. "It's very hard, very hard,'' he said. "A lot of friends (are) smoking and using drugs....So for me to come outside out of prison, not doing that, is very hard for me to get in with them and try to communicate with them."
And no soccer team can solve the soaring crime rate in South Africa. But inside Drakenstein, at a minimum, the Hope Academy is offering inmates some hope.
"It is a dangerous life to become a Christian in prison," said Mtingane. But his devotion to his faith has carried him this far and he is confident it will help him when he is freed from prison.
"I'm doing so many good things for people,'' he said. Adding, "I'm so happy."