A half-day tour of Robben Island near Cape Town helps acquaint visitors to South Africa with a history of the country.
The 1400-acre island wasn't always a prison. Located just seven miles north of Cape Town, early Dutch settlers first used Robben Island for hunting and cattle ranching. It was later used as a leper colony, mental asylum, military base, and prison for common criminals. In 1961, the first black political prisoners were housed at Robben Island, and South Africa continued to use it as a prison until 1996.
The most famous political prisoner held at Robben Island was Nelson Mandela. During his 18 years on the Island, Mandela was allowed 12 family visits of 30 minutes each per year, and the visitors had to be over 18. When his 16-year-old son was killed in an auto accident, Mandela had not seen him since he was a baby. Mandela was sent to another prison on the mainland in 1982 but returned more than a dozen times to the island before he died in 2013.
The Robben Island ferry sails from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. Advance booking is recommended at the Robben Island Web Site.
View of Cape Town and Table Mountain
Cape Town is about 7 miles from Robben Island. In the early days, a few prisoners stole boats and escaped to the mainland. No one escaped after 1820.
Interior of Robben Island Ferry
It is a 30-minute ferry ride to Robben Island. Seating is both inside and outside, and there are restrooms and a snack bar onboard.
The Guest House on Robben Island has been used for conferences since the prison was closed. It was once used as the British Commissioner's Residence.
While this area is not considered a World Heritage Site, the Robben Island Lighthouse has plenty of history worth noting. Sitting at the top of the highest point on the island, the lighthouse was built as a replacement to the bonfires that were set in the 1650s to ward off maritime threats sailing close by.
This run-down building on Robben Island is not part of the maximum security prison. It was once used as an infirmary.
Many prisoners worked at the quarry, including Nelson Mandela, who worked there for 13 years, moving limestone from one end of the quarry to the other.
Other political prisoners worked on Robben Island road building, but most did their time in the quarry. Since there was no need for all the limestone, the prisoners would break it up and carry it to one end of the quarry one day and then back the next - the work was really just busy work. As a result of being in the bright sunshine every day, working on the white limestone, he suffers today from eye problems and photographers are not allowed to use flash when taking his photo.
The past prisoner who led our tour said that the men used their time in the quarry to teach each other a variety of different things, from languages to history to current events.
World War II Guns
During World War II the prisoners were all evacuated from the island so that the South African Army/Navy could use the island to protect Cape Town.
Unfortunately, according to our guide, even the armed services in South Africa were on "African time", which meant that the large guns still sitting on the island were not finished until 1947, so they have never been used.
Maximum Security Prison
Visitors are able to tour the Maximum Security Prison, including the cell which once held Nelson Mandela.
Island Maximum Security Prison
Here is another photo of the maximum security prison that was used to house political prisoners from the 1960s to the 1990s.
Animal and Plant Life
Robben Island is flat and very dry. Up until to 1890 Robben Island was treeless. At that time, the British introduced the Australian eucalyptus tree. It took off, and today there are many eucalyptus trees on the island. Unfortunately, this tree is very water hungry and it absorbs all the groundwater.
Today there is no fresh water on Robben Island except for what is captured in cisterns. It is all imported from the mainland.
With the trees came birds, and 129 species have been documented on the island. One other pest on the island has been feral cats. At one time there were over 100 cats, and they were mostly feeding on the birds. Robben Island management starting killing the cats, but the Greenpeace movement from Switzerland protested and stopped the killing. Another pest imported to the island by the British were rabbits, which also overrun the island.
According to our guide, learning from each other and sports were the main pre-occupations at Robben Island.
Other than cisterns, Robben Island has no source of fresh water. All water is brought over to the island from the mainland.
Sixty Robben Island prisoners slept in this room. Before 1971, the prisoners slept on the floor with one blanket per person and had open, barred windows.
Bunk Beds and Open, Barred Windows
Political prisoners were kept at Robben Island starting in 1961, and conditions were horrible for the first decade. Prisoners slept on the floor in open rooms.
After 1971, prisoners were provided bunk beds and allowed to study when now working in the quarry or on the roads.
Black prisoners held at Robben Island were not allotted as much food as colored or Asian prisoners. No whites were housed on Robben Island.
Exterior of Nelson Mandela Cell Window
Nelson Mandela's cell is the one in the middle of this wall. This photo was made from the courtyard seen in a later photo in this gallery.
Nelson Mandela Prison Cell
Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years altogether and spent 18 years on Robben Island, most of it in this tiny cell.
View of Prison Yard from Nelson Mandela Prison Cell
Nelson Mandela had this view for 18 years while imprisoned at Robben Island. He was allowed to walk in the courtyard each week and did a little gardening.