South Africa

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Robben Island, located in Table Bay close to the city of Cape Town, is known throughout the world as the prison in which leaders of the South African anti-apartheid movement were incarcerated, including its most famous inhabitant, Nelson Mandela, who spent the last 18 years of his 27 year imprisonment here. The island ceased to be a prison for political prisoners in 1991, with the last of the non-political prisoners leaving in 1996. Today Robben Island and its buildings symbolize the triumph of the human spirit, and the victory of freedom and democracy over oppression. In 1999 the island was declared a World Heritage Site.

Robben Island

Robben Island 1

The island was first used as a prison as far back as the 17th century when the Dutch first came to the area now known as Cape Town. During the 19th century it became a place to banish uncooperative African chiefs, captured solders, and an odd mix of civilian prisoners, plus a number of Muslims from Dutch colonies in the East Indies. Not all of the inhabitants were considered as being criminals. Also confined to the island were a number of people suffering with mental health problems, and there was even an isolated community of lepers. The last lepers left in 1931 but the leper graveyard still remains and has become part of the island tour.

Robben Island 2

Robben Island, now a museum, can be visited throughout the year, although boats are less frequent, and hours are reduced during the winter. Boats leave on a regular basis from the Nelson Mandela Gateway located on the V&A Waterfront, and the popularity of these tours, means it is advisable to book in advance. A visitor should allow about 3.5 hours for the tour.

Robben Island 3

During World War II the island was used as a base to help defend South Africa from the Nazi threat. After the war it became a navy training centre and a refuelling base for ships having to navigate around the cape due to the closure of the Suez Canal.

Robben Island 4

It was in 1959 that Robben Island became a maximum security prison and until its closure in 1991 over 3000 prisoners were housed here. It was Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was sent after receiving a life sentence 1963. Prolonged solitary confinement, inadequate food levels, and beatings were commonplace, also contact with the outside world was extremely limited. Some of the prisoners went on hunger strike, and this with the help of legal action and international pressure resulted in the introduction of more humane conditions.

Robben Island 5

Former inmates became tourist guides and the “Footsteps of Mandela” tour introduces visitors to the infamous B Section, and the cell of Nelson Mandela. Other exhibitions include personal items of former inmates, and a collection of cameras that were smuggled in.

Robben Island 6

Part of the island tour includes a trip to the lime quarry where the prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, were put to hard labour. Other attractions include a shrine to the Muslim leader Tuan Guru, plus the house where Robert Sobukwe, who founded the Pan Africanist Congress, was held in solitary confinement for 9 years.

Robben Island 7

The name Robben Island comes from the Dutch for Seal Island, and Cape seals can still be seen here. The penguin population was almost wiped out during the 19th century but they have now returned in great numbers. Also found on the island are springbok, eland, ostriches, lizards, and tortoise. Just off the coast can be seen both dolphins and whales.