Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa
Far more than the seals it was named for...
Did you know that Robben Island near Cape Town in South Africa is considered by some to have been a school of higher learning?!
An Aerial View of the Island
This small rocky island lies in Table Bay about 12km north east of Cape Town. It was declared a World Heritage site in 1999.
While Nelson Mandela and his contemporaries were imprisoned there, the prisoners called it Nelson Mandela University or Robben Island University because they had committed themselves to self development and freedom in spite of their incarceration.
What a testimony to the strength of the human spirit!
Why is Robben Island a World Heritage Site?
UNESCO's requires that certain criteria be met for a place to be recognised as s World Heritage site. Those applicable to this site are:
- The buildings... bear eloquent testimony to its sombre history.
- The island and its prison buildings symbolize the triumph of the human spirit, of freedom, and of democracy over oppression.
Apartheid has been dismantled. South Africa has been a democracy for since 1994. In spite of this, Robben Island as a symbol is still incredibly important to us in South Africa. That's why the Museum is there.
History of Robben Island
The island's pre-apartheid history is not very interesting to the lay person, though if you're an archaeologist, it's probably fascinating!
It was first inhabited in the Stone Age, when people could actually walk to it from the mainland. Later, sea levels rose and from then on little is known about the island's uses until the late 17th century. That's when the Dutch colonists arrived at the Cape of Good Hope.
The Dutch were the first to use the island as a prison. It was a matter of 'out of sight, out of mind' for those troublesome individuals trying to put a spanner in the works of the colonists' plans!
In the late 19th century the island's isolated position made it a predictable choice for a leper colony and mental illness hospital. The leper church is still standing today.
During World War II it was used as a training and defence station.
Finally, in the 1960's the island became infamous as THE prison for South African anti-apartheid activists.
It has been a museum since 1997.
Nelson Mandela was the most famous inmate, but a fair number of our current Members of Parliament, not to mention Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu all had the misfortune of being inmates there for many years, too. They did hard labour in the limestone quarry there and were subjected to shocking prison conditions.
Robben Island Tour - What a Trip!
Your journey starts from the Clocktower at the
Victoria and Alfred Waterfront
. It is from here that you catch the ferry.
The Museum's standing exhibits are on display there. The island itself and its buildings are a living museum once you arrive.
This famous quote by Nelson Mandela always inspires me. He said
"We will not allow Robben Island to be turned into a chamber of horrors. Many of us learnt valuable lessons here, this was in fact our university of learning."
Don't miss out on this trip - it's so worthwhile. Right now the guides who take you around the island are still former detainees. Obviously they won't be around forever! Their stories about life as a prisoner there are so moving, so personal. They are a gracious and dignified testimony to the strength of the human spirit.
Each cell tells its own story of its own inmate, and the presence of small personal items from that time donated by former inmates brings the details to life.
Robben Island Advisory -- Bookings, Tickets, Useful Information.
- Book ahead (online bookings), Robben Island Tel +27 21 413 4233 / 37, especially in high season!
If you can't get a booking you may have to join a local tour company group - they make block bookings, the sneaky rascals... ;-)
- E-mail bookings: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Take windbreakers, the island can be cool even in warm weather!
- Allow 3 and a half hours for the tour.
- There's plenty of parking at the Clocktower.
Open every day except May 1st (Workers Day)
Ferries depart from at 09h00, 11h00, 13h00 and 15h00.
Hours may be extended in peak periods.
Your ticket price includes the return ferry ride, a guided tour of the prison and limestone quarry and a 45 minute bus tour of the island.
- Adults - R180
- Children (under 18 years old) - R90
In case you missed it above, I advise you to BOOK AHEAD if you can!
You may find the following related pages interesting:
Nelson Mandela Biographies
From Robben Island back to the Homepage