Robben Island is a small landmass located off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the island is most known for housing the Robben Island prison where South Africa’s late president, Nelson Mandela, spent 18 of his 27 years of incarceration before being elected as the country’s first democratic president.

Robben Island has earned its place in history of being a maximum-security prison for anti-apartheid political leaders from 1961 to 1996. After the political prison was shut down, the island became a museum for visitors and tourists to pay homage to the resilient leaders who fought for South Africa’s democratic society.

The History of Robben Island

When the Dutch arrived in the Cape in 1652, they began using the small island just off the shore of the city as a grazing station for sheep and cattle. The island was kept for grazing until 1806, when the British annexed the Cape, seeing the island become a whaling station up until 1820.

In 1845, a colony of lepers were banished to the island and were soon joined by other outcast members of society, including paupers, alcoholics, criminals, mentally ill patients and more. In 1931, those living on the island were moved to the mainland, and the island became a military base during World War 2.

In 1961, the island was separated from the mainland. After this, the South African apartheid government opened a maximum-prison and started using the prison for religious leaders, political prisoners, convicted criminals and anti-apartheid activists.

The Robben Island prison

The prison was notorious for its harsh conditions and cruel treatment of prisoners. The prisoners had to comply with Robben Island maximum security structures and were forced to do tasks such as breaking rocks into gravel under harsh weather conditions. Prisoners were kept in solitary confinement which was primarily used as a means of punishment and torture.

Inside Robben Island prison
View from inside the former prison

Robben Island is famous for the many anti-apartheid freedom fighters incarcerated there. Members of the ANC, PAC and other organisations including the SA Congress of Trade Unions, National Liberation Front and the Communist Party were imprisoned on Robben Island for their anti-apartheid activism.

In 1964, famous anti-struggle figures, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and other ANC leaders were sent to imprisonment on the island. After decades of gruelling incarceration, finally, in 1996, following the unbanning of political organisations in 1990, all political prisoners were granted freedom and were released from Robben Island.

Why is it called Robben Island? If you’re wondering why it is named Robben Island, the word ‘Robben’ is the Dutch word for seal, named after a large colony of seals that once populated the land.  

An Overview of the Robben Island Tour

Robben Island is a reminder of the brutality, violence, discrimination and injustices of the apartheid system as well as being a symbol of the resilience of the human spirit over suffering and corruption.

Each year, thousands of tourists visit Robben Island to gain a deeper understanding of South Africa’s past and to view the tiny cell where Nelson Mandela stayed for 18 years.

Lime stone quarry on Robben Island
The lime stone quarry on Robben Island

The Robben Island tour begins with a ferry ride that departs from Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront from 9 AM, 11 AM and 1 PM daily, dependant on the weather. On average, the ferry ride to Robben Island takes approximately 30 minutes, and the entire tour lasts about three and a half hours. Once you land on the island, you will be transported by bus to the historical sites on the islands.

Guests can expect to see the leper graveyard, the lime quarry where prisoners were forced to do tasks, the army and navy bunkers and the former maximum-security prison where famous freedom fighters were incarcerated. The tour usually ends with a site visit to Nelson Mandela’s prison cell.

The former maximum-security prison is now a museum. Here, daily tours of the museum are conducted by ex-political prisoners who share their knowledge and information about the island and South Africa’s struggle, as well as their personal stories.

In years to come, the ex-prisoner tour guides will retire. At this point, it is unsure who will lead the tours, so if you are travelling to Cape Town, book a Robben Island tour while the ex-prisoners are still available.

The Robben Island tour provides fascinating insights into South Africa’s troubled political past. As well as a deeper understanding of South Africa, the struggle and the fight for freedom, a tour of Robben Island also offers detailed accounts from those imprisoned there that went on to serve essential roles in democratic South Africa.

Although the island itself is a gloomy destination, the educational value of the tour is invaluable. A visit to Robben Island is, without a doubt, a humbling experience.

Man looking out of Robben Island cell with Nelson Mandela decal on wall

The ferry ride back to the  V&A Waterfront gives visitors a chance to reflect on South Africa’s triumph and soak up the natural beauty of remarkable panoramic views of Table Mountain, Lion’s Head and the Atlantic Seaboard.

A recommended experience for all visiting South Africa, find out more about the Robben Island Tour. Best tied in with a Cape Town city and Table Mountain tour or a helicopter tour above Cape Town to view Robben Island from above, contact us to create a bespoke itinerary for your time in Cape Town.
If you’re planning your vacation in Cape Town and are looking to stay in the famous V&A Waterfront, we recommend the Silo Hotel, Cape Grace Hotel, One and Only and the Commodore Hotel. If you’re looking for more activities to enjoy while at the V&A Waterfront, read our recommended list of the top 10 activities to do at the Waterfront.

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