Located in Cape Town's Table Bay, Robben Island is one of South Africa's top historical attractions. For centuries it was used as a penal colony, primarily for political prisoners. Although its maximum security prisons have now closed, the island remains famous as the place where former South African president Nelson Mandela was an inmate for 18 years. Many leading members of political parties like the PAC and ANC were imprisoned alongside him.
In 1997 Robben Island was turned into a museum, and in 1999 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has become an extremely important symbol for the new South Africa, reflecting the triumph of democracy over apartheid and the ongoing journey towards racial tolerance. Now tourists can visit the prison on a Robben Island tour, led by ex-inmates with firsthand experiences of what life in the prison was like.
Robben Island is located several kilometers offshore and all tours start with a ferry ride from Cape Town's V&A Waterfront. The journey takes around 30 minutes, giving you plenty of time to admire spectacular views of Cape Town and Table Mountain and to look for the whales, dolphins, penguins and fur seals that inhabit Table Bay. The crossing can be quite rough, so those that suffer from seasickness are advised to take tablets. If the weather gets very bad, the ferries won't sail and tours are canceled.
Touring the Island
The trip begins with an hour-long bus tour of the island. During this time, your guide will tell you all about its history and ecology, including its use as a military base and leper colony. You'll get off the bus at the limestone quarry where Nelson Mandela and other prominent ANC members spent many years doing hard labor. At the quarry, the guide will point out the cave that doubled as the prisoners' bathroom.
It was in this cave that some of the more educated prisoners taught others how to read and write by scratching in the dirt. History, politics and biology were amongst the subjects taught at this "prison university" and it is said that a good part of South Africa's current constitution was written there. It was the only place that prisoners were able to escape the watchful eyes of the guards.
The Maximum Security Prison
After the bus tour, the guide will lead you to the maximum security prison where more than 3,000 political prisoners were held from 1960 to 1991. If your guide on the bus wasn't an ex-political prisoner, your guide for this part of the tour certainly will be. It is incredibly humbling to hear stories of prison life from someone who experienced it firsthand.
The tour starts at the entrance of the prison where the men were processed, given a set of prison clothes and assigned a cell. The offices of the prison include a prison court and a censorship office where every letter sent to and from the prison was read. The tour also includes a visit to the courtyard where Mandela later tended a small garden. It was here that he secretly started writing his famous autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.
Experiencing the Cells
On the tour, you will be shown into at least one of the communal prison cells. Here, you can see the prisoners' bunk beds and feel the pitifully thin mats and blankets. In one block, there is an original sign displaying the prisoners' daily menu. In a prime example of apartheid racism, food portions were assigned to prisoners based on their skin color.
You will also be taken to the single cell in which Mandela lived for a time, although prisoners were routinely moved for security reasons. Although communication between the communal cell blocks was forbidden, you will also hear from your guide how prisoners came up with ingenious ways in which to continue their fight for freedom from within the prison walls.
The entire tour lasts approximately 3.5 hours including the ferry trip to and from Robben Island. Tickets can be booked online or purchased directly from ticket counters at the Nelson Mandela Gateway on the V&A Waterfront. The tour costs R360 per adult (approximately $25) and R200 per child (approximately $15). Tickets often sell out, so it's advisable to book in advance or make arrangements with a local tour operator.
The Robben Island ferry sails four times a day from the Nelson Mandela Gateway and departure times change according to the season. Make sure to arrive at least 20 minutes ahead of your scheduled departure because there's an interesting exhibit in the waiting hall that gives a good overview of the island's history. Remember that although the guides on Robben Island will never ask for tips, it is customary in Africa to reward good service.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on January 14 2019.