Since as far back as the 17th century, Robben Island has been used for incarcerating political prisoners. The most famous prisoner who spent nearly two decades in the cells of the prison wearing the prison number 46664: Nelson Mandela. The man known for his empathy, big heart and brilliant leadership who took a nation out of an era of racial hatred and into one where a rainbow nation is celebrated.
Above: Photo of Table Mountain taken from Robben Island by Patty Ghillebert
Nelson Mandela wasn’t the only significant leader to have served time on the island though. Many African leaders, Dutch and British soldiers and civilians, Muslim leaders from the East Indies, women, and anti-apartheid activists, including South Africa's founding leader of the Pan Africanist Congress, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, were held captive on Robben Island.
Decades ago, the island wasn’t just used as a prison though; it was also used as a defense station for training purposes in World War II (1939-1945). It was also used as a hospital for those with leprosy, as well as for those who had mental and chronic illnesses. In those days there was no cure for these diseases, making the Robben Island a prison for the patients too.
Above: Photo of a prison security tower on Robben Island by Adam Ciesielski
Today there are daily scheduled ferry trips to the island that take tourists out from Victoria and Alfred Waterfront to Robben Island for a tour of the 5km2 sea-locked stretch of land where many prisoners spent many years of unnecessary time. You can buy your tickets at the Waterfront, at the Robben Island information Centre near the lighthouse, or you can pre-book tickets online.
A tour of the island is three and a half hours long and takes you on a journey through every aspect of what life was like on the island. The tour includes a return trip by ferry, a guided tour of the maximum security prison (by ex-inmate or prison guard), interaction with an ex-political prisoner and a 45 min bus tour around the island.
The stories told by the tour guides are brilliant and have said to be tales that are not soon forgotten by the hearer.
If you’re keen to book your tour to Robben Island in the high season, make sure you book your trip in advance, it is extremely busy, and rightfully so. The experience is amazing.
The island is now a World Heritage Site, museum, and an important reminder to democratic South Africa of the price that was paid for its freedom. Robben Island: a land brimming with culture, history and secrets of a passed political regime.
Dalene is a travel writer dedicated to portraying Africa and its people to the world to promote better communication and understanding between cultures across the continent. Dalene hopes to one day jump with the Masai and see the sun sink behind the orange dunes of the Namib Desert and experience Travel in Africa at its fullest