Described as a symbol of ‘the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, suffering and injustice’, Robben Island is best known as the site of Nelson Mandela’s incarceration from 1964 to 1982. Many other notable South African political figures, including Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, were sentenced to hard labour here concurrently with Mandela during the apartheid regime.
The last political prisoners were released from Robben Island in 1991, and in 1996 it was declared a national monument. In 1999 it became a Unesco World Heritage Site.
However, the island’s history far predates its use as a South African political prison. Since being discovered by the Portuguese in 1488 it has functioned as a mail station, whaling station, leper colony and animal quarantine station, before it began to be used by colonial powers as a jail.
Visit the island
A visit to Robben Island is a sobering yet fascinating window into South Africa’s political past and the nature of the man who became our most beloved former president.
Tours depart daily from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront at 9 am, 11 am, 1 pm and 3 pm, weather permitting. Boats disembark at Murray Harbour, where you will be shown to busses to transport you around the island. Tours are all led by former political prisoners well versed in the island’s 500-year history and include visits to the stone quarries, army bunkers, maximum security prison and, finally, Nelson Mandela’s cell.
Tickets are R250 for adults and R120 for children under 18 years. Tours take roughly 3.5 hours, with a half hour ferry trip there and back. Go to www.robben-island.org.za for more information.
Photography Sarah Woods/HSMimages.co.za