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Many of us know about Robben Island from what we have seen on TV and heard in the news. It is synonymous with Nelson Mandela and his struggle against the oppressive racial regime during the Apartheid years.

Long gone are those days and now Robben Island stands as a beacon of hope and one of Cape Town’s most popular tourist attractions. The history of this island is bursting at the seams and taking a tour will open your eyes to what happened all those years ago.

History of Robben Island

Robben Island is named after the Dutch word meaning “seal island” as many Cape Fur Seals reside around the island. Since the end of the 17th Century, the Island was used for the isolation of political prisoners. The Dutch settlers were the first to use the island as a prison.

The island was also used as a leper colony and animal quarantine station. Starting in 1845 lepers were brought to Robben Island from the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley (Heaven and Earth).

From 1961, the island was used by the South African government as a prison for political prisoners and criminals. The Maximum-Security Prison for political prisoners was closed in 1991, three years before Nelson Mandela was elected as the first black president of South Africa.

Robben Island was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999.

Robben Island, the political prison

Being a political prisoner in South Africa during the Apartheid era meant that you were fighting for a cause, for the basic human rights of all South Africans, regardless of race, gender or social standing.

The guards at Robben Island were cruel and relentless when it came to political prisoners. In Nelson Mandela’s book “A Long Walk to Freedom” he speaks bluntly about the ordeals that he and his fellow comrades endured while on Robben Island. Many felt that being on this island of isolation meant the end of their struggle against the oppressive rule, but men like Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada kept the morale of the men up.

Mounted with international pressure and continuous hunger strikes and sit-downs, the tight hold that guards had over prisoners relaxed and the attitudes of the guards began to change.

Robert Sobukwe was another political prisoner on the island, but he was sentenced to solitary confinement and lived in a house that was set away from the main prison. He had no contact with other prisoners except for secret hand signals that could be spotted by other prisoners while out exercising.

Robben Island tours

The boats run three times a day for the Robben Island tours – 9 am, 11 am and 1 pm

  • The ferries depart from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront
  • Your tour of Robben Island will take 3 and a half hours, which includes your boat trip to and from the island
  • Your tour starts at Murray’s Bay situated on the east coast of the island and from there you will take a short walk to the buses
  • You will get to see the historical sites of the island from your bus
  • Once you get to the main prison you will be given a tour by a former political prisoner who will share his own stories with you
  • You will meet your island tour guide once you get to the bus
  • All the guides at Robben Island have a broad knowledge of the multi-layered 500-year history of the island
  • Your tour route includes the leprosy graveyard, the Lime Quarry, Robert Sobukwe’s house, the Bluestone quarry, the army and navy bunkers as well as the Maximum-Security Prison
  • Your tour ends at Nelson Mandela’s cell

#FUNFACT: The first recorded landing on Robben Island by Europeans was in 1498. A group of Portuguese sailors took refuge and stayed overnight in a cave.

What else to expect on your Robben Island tour

Midway through your tour, you will stop over at a little café for refreshments, but the setting is something that cannot be forgotten. You can see right from Robben Island towards Cape Town and the view is simply breathtaking.

If you would like to take something home with you before you leave the island there is plenty to browse through. From Robben Island fleece jumpers, books on political prisoners, artwork and photos, you will find something to remind you of your time spent on Robben Island.

Your boat trip to the island will start you off with your marine and wildlife sightings. On your way, you might see Cape Fur Seals, Southern Right Whales, and the Dusky and Heaviside Dolphins. There is much more to Robben Island than the history, there is a great deal of wildlife that lives and takes shelter on the island.

Robben Island is home to over 32 species of mammals, which include the Bontebok, Springbok, Steenbok, Fallow Deer and Eland. Robben Island is also home to over 132 species of birds, including endangered birds. There is a mixture of sea, water and terrestrial birds that use Robben Island for breeding and roosting.

Visiting Robben Island is something that you need to do if you are in the Cape Town area. Take the time to learn about some of South Africa’s most important history and see where things started to change for so many people.