Home » Africa » Robben Island. Capetown, South Africa

Robben Island. Capetown, South Africa

Any visit to Cape Town should include an excursion to Robben Island. Made famous, or infamous, because it is where the Apartheid government of South Africa past imprisoned Nelson Mandela for 18 of the 27 years he spent behind bars. Of course you all know that he was elected President of South Africa after the end of Apartheid. You may not know that the next two Presidents were also imprisoned on the island.

Our trip was cancelled on the day we first wanted to go. Reason being, the passage from the mainland to the island is across what is called the table channel, and that is a notoriously rough 6.9 miles. We returned a few days later and the trip was on. The boat is a large, modern and comfortable catamaran. Even on this “calm” day we felt like we were on a ride in an amusement park. Barf bags were in every seat, luckily no one needed them.

so close yet too far

This is the view back to Cape Town from the island. No one ever escaped. So near yet so far.

Gate of Robben Island Prison

Even though you know you are on a tour for a mere few hours, entering through these gates is imposing.

Prison wire

The prison is very much as it was.



The trip is highly organized. Your entire boat load is shuffled off into busses for the tour of the island. I had read many reviews, some great, some bad, about this tour. Even though the bus was crowded it was amazingly informative.

bus on Robben Island

There were at least a half dozen of these busses. They drove us around for like an hour. We saw important places on the island.

arrival of prisoners to Robben Island

When I compared our situation to the photographs of prisoners arriving on the island, I realized I had nothing to complain about. I just thanked my lucky stars and muttered “there but for the grace of God”

rock memorial on Robben Island

Being sentenced to hard labor on the island, as Mandela was, meant chipping away at a lime quarry day after day. The combination of the lime dust and the sun reflecting off the white stones truly hurt his eyes and vision.  Years after his freedom when he returned to the island with a large group of former prisoners, he casually took one rock and moved it a hundred feet, set it down. Every other prisoner followed suit, and soon this rock pile was formed. It remains today.

After an interesting tour we finally got to the prison.  There our bus guide said good bye and turned us over to this gentleman.

Prison guide

I apologize for not remembering this gentleman’s name.He was a prisoner on the island for many years. He was convicted of sabotage. Even this irreverent blogger could not bring myself to asking “sabotage of what?” or “were you gulty?”He now lives on the island and serves as a tour guide.

He gave us a lecture on life on Robben Island. One tourist asked him if he ever met Mandela. He lit up like a Christmas tree and said, yes a couple of times. Another tourist asked if there were differences in the way Bantus, coloreds or Orientals were treated. His response was simply this. “At the time, there were only two classes of people in South Africa, the oppressed and the oppressors.”

Robben Island Prison

He led us on a tour of the cell blocks. I am sur+e these are in better shape than they were “in the day”.


Mandela's cell

Of course everyone wanted to see the cell Mandela was kept in for 18 years. Here it is. Enough said.

robben island prisoner/guide

I am sorry this photo did not come out better, but this is me and the prisoner/guide. I thanked him for his fight.

Robben Island is sometimes called Robben Island University, or even Mandela U. After Apartheid became an international embarrassment for South Africa. the UN Human Rights Commission and the International Red Cross inspected the prisons and demanded reforms. One of the reforms put in place was communication with the outside world. Many prisoners used the opportunity to take correspondence classes, mostly from the UK. This is how Mandela got his law degree. There was also a lot of free discussion among prisoners. The ANC debated with the communists about the future of their country. What came of it was that there could only be one front for freedom, and it would be the ANC.

Freedom for Robben Island prisoners

Robben Island was finally closed, and prisoners brought back to the mainland. I cannot imagine the joy and relief on their minds at the time.

We bounced and rolled back to Cape Town feeling a little different than when we left. I have visited Alcatraz, and it has nothing nearly as evocative of emotion as Robben Island.

I hope you enjoyed this post. I ask you to share it on FB. I will again beg for comments.

Mandela in a hoodie

Thanks for reading.






Tags: , , , , ,

One Response so far.

  1. JC Corley says:

    Twice, in ’83 and ’95-’96, I hitchhiked around southern Africa, totalling 8 months, and around 15,000 miles.

    In my humble opinion, he should have been imprisioned, and was. He supported terrorism, and paid the price of that.

%d bloggers like this: