Robben Island is known as a symbol of the triumph of human spirit over adversity. The name ‘robben’ is derived from the Dutch word for seal, as seals and birds were the only life that the Dutch encountered when the island was discovered in 1652. The island is 3.3 kilometres long and 1.9 kilometres wide and sits approximately seven kilometres from the mainland in Table Bay.
The island was used at various times between the 17th and the 20th century as a prison, a hospital for socially unaccepted groups and a military base. It is most well known for being a maximum security prison for political prisoners.
The buildings that made up the prison have now been converted into a museum commemorating the liberation struggle in South Africa against the apartheid government. The island was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 and visitors can take a tour from the V&A Waterfront.
The island’s history begins in the 1500s, when it was spotted by the crew of a passing ship, who landed to replenish food supplies from the meat of the seals.
In the 17th century the Dutch began to use the island as a prison and Sheikh Madura, who opposed Dutch colonialist in his native East Indies, was imprisoned here. His shrine now stands near the entrance to the prison building.
From 1846, Robben Island became a hospital for the mentally ill, lepers and chronically ill paupers. Initially this was voluntary and lepers were free to leave if they wished, however the introduction of the Leprosy Repression Act in 1852 restricted the movement of those suffering from leprosy. In 1891 fifty-two lepers were admitted to the island and by 1892 this number rose to 338. The leper graveyard and the lepers’ church are the only reminders of the leper colony still on the island. The graveyard is only a small portion that has been maintained of the much larger cemetery.
During the 1930s the hospital buildings were burnt down and bunkers and guns were built on the island in anticipation of war, although they were never used in combat.
In 1959 the island was taken over by the Department of Prisons and the first political prisoners arrived on the island in 1962. They were followed by members of the banned African National Congress including, of course, Nelson Mandela. Throughout the apartheid many black people were kept on Robben Island as political prisoners and it became the most notorious prison of the South African apartheid regime.
The modern day apartheid system emerged from a long history of colonial conquest, dispossession and economic exploitation. When European settlers arrived at the Southern tip of Africa in the mid-seventeenth century, established black communities were living there. The settlers soon expanded and spread, dispossessing the indigenous Khoikhoi inhabitants of their land and livelihood. By the late 1600s, the Khoikhoi had lost their land to the settlers and were forced to work for them. These workers had to carry ‘permission documents’ from their employers allowing them to leave the farms they worked on.
In June 1918, a secret, exclusively male and Afrikaner organisation called the Afrikaner Broederbond (AB) was formed. The AB’s main aim was to further Afrikaner nationalism in South Africa – to maintain Afrikaner culture, develop an Afrikaner economy and to gain control of the South African government. It was largely influential in South Africa and later its members designed and implemented the apartheid system.
On the island is a limestone quarry that dates back to the 17th century. Both those imprisoned here by the Dutch and those imprisoned here in the 1900s worked in the quarry, including Nelson Mandela. The work was back-breaking and exhausting as prisoners would spend long hours breaking limestone into rocks and carrying them to the end of the quarry. Nelson Mandela usde a small cave in the quarry to deliver lessons to other prisoners, who were otherwise deprived of the opportunity to study or learn. The prisoners began to learn from books of literature, history, politics and philosophy (which Mandela acquired through the International Red Cross), as well as from each other. This became known as the ‘University of Robben Island’.
Our bus passes some small houses and a village school. Forty-five permanent residents call Robben Island home. These residents work on the island, many being former political prisoners who now work as guides.
We stop at a view point which offers panoramic views of Table Bay, Cape Town and Table Mountain. On the shores of Robben Island we can see flocks of penguins. The island is home to the world’s second largest colony of African penguins, with around 15,000 individuals. It is also an important place for other seabirds, including rare black cormorants and African black oystercatchers.
Our last stop on the island is the prison itself. We meet our guide who leads us into a large room with two sets of bunk beds and a blanket on the floor. We listen to his own story about how he became a prisoner on Robben Island due to his being a member of the African National Congress and hear about the conditions of prison at that time. Initially, prisoners were given only a blanket to sleep on and we learn about the different diets given to ‘coloureds’ or ‘asiaties’ and ‘bantus’.
We continue into a long corridor, lined with cells and stop at the cell in which Nelson Mandela lived during his 18 years on the island.
Mandela joined the African National Congress in 1944 when he helped to form the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). Following the Treason Trial, a marathon trial in which men and women of all races found themselves in the dock after a countrywide police swoop, and the Sharpeville massacre, in which 69 unarmed people were killed by police during a protest against the pass laws, Mandela began planning a national strike. In 1961 he was asked to lead the armed struggle and helped to establish Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation), which launched with a series of explosions.
In 1962 Mandela secretly left the country under an adopted name to gain support for the armed struggle. Upon his return he was arrested and charged with leaving the country without a permit and inciting workers to strike. He was sentenced to five years, however within a month police had raided Lilisleaf, a secret hideout in Rivonia used by ANC and Communist Party activists and several of his comrades were arrested. He joined 10 others on trial for sabotage. On the 11th of June 1964 he, along with seven others, was sentenced to life imprisonment and was transferred to Robben Island. Throughout his imprisonment he rejected at least three conditional offers of release and was finally released in December 1988, nine days after the unbanning of the ANC and the PAC.
TOP TIP: Ensure to book your tickets to Robben Island well in advance – only the official Robben Island Museum tickets will allow you to disembark on the island and they usually sell out quickly.