A Guide to Visiting South Africa's Robben Island

A Guide to Visiting South Africa's Robben Island
Frans Lemmens/ Getty Images

Located in Cape Town's Table Bay, Robben Island is one of South Africa's most important historical sights.  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 for incarcerating former South African president Nelson Mandela 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 good over evil, and of democracy over apartheid. Now, tourists can visit the prison on a Robben Island Tour, led by ex-political prisoners who once experienced the horrors of the island firsthand. 

The Tour Basics

The tours last approximately 3.5 hours, including the ferry trip to and from Robben Island, a bus tour of the island and a tour of the maximum security prison. Tickets can be booked online, or purchased directly from ticket counters at the Nelson Mandela Gateway on the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. Tickets often sell out, so it's advisable to book in advance or make arrangements with a local tour operator.

The Robben Island ferry departs from the Nelson Mandela Gateway, and timings change according to the season. Make sure to arrive at least 20 minutes ahead of your scheduled departure, because there's a very interesting exhibit in the waiting hall that gives a good overview of the island's history. Since the late 17th Century, the island has also served as a leper colony and a military base

The Ferry Ride

The ferry ride to Robben Island takes around 30 minutes. It can get quite rough, so those that suffer from seasickness should consider taking medication; but the views of Cape Town and Table Mountain are spectacular. If the weather gets very bad, the ferries won't sail and the tours are cancelled. If you've booked your tour in advance, give the museum a call on +27 214 134 200 to make sure they're sailing.

The Bus Tour

The trip begins with an hour-long bus tour of the island. During this time, your guide will begin the story of the island's history and ecology. 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 would teach 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 - 1991. If your tour 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. Our guide explained that he used to write letters home using as much slang as possible, so that the censors couldn't understand what was written. 

The tour also includes a visit to the courtyard where Mandela later tended a small garden. It was here that he clandestinely 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.  

Our Guide

The guide that led the tour on the day that we visited was involved in the Soweto Uprising of 1976 and imprisoned on Robben Island in 1978. When he arrived, Nelson Mandela had already been on the island for 14 years, and the maximum security prison had earned itself a reputation as the worst in the country. He was one of the last men to leave the prison when it finally closed its doors in 1991. 

He was actively recruited by the Robben Island Museum. He underestimated how emotional returning to the island would be, saying that the first few days at work were almost unbearable. However, he made it through his first week and has now been guiding for two years. Nevertheless, he chooses not to live on the island as some of the other guides do. He says it feels good to be able to leave the island every day.

NB: Although the guides on Robben Island will never ask for tips, it is customary in Africa to tip well for good service. 

This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on October 7th 2016.