The island’s most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela, has turned this institute of brutality into a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over enormous hardship.
Once “home” to some of South Africa’s most famous political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, Robben Island is one of South Africa’s most visited tourist attractions, and rightly so. Do not leave Cape Town without visiting the island – it is likely to be one of the highlights of your trip.
Robben Island is situated some 9km (5.5mi) offshore from Cape Town. Dubbed “Robben” (“the place of seals”) by Dutch settlers, the island was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999, and over the centuries has been used as a prison, a hospital, a mental institution, and a military base. It is most famous for being a political prison during apartheid, an era of racial segregation in South Africa, when many of South Africa’s most prominent freedom fighters spent time here. Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of the 27 years he was imprisoned here.
A tour of the Robben Island Museum begins at the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V & A Waterfront (+27 (0)21 408 7600), where you can look through multimedia exhibitions, visit the museum shop and enjoy a meal at the restaurant while you wait for your ferry.
Ferries depart regularly from the gateway, and each tour takes approximately 3.5 hours. You will be guided around the island by a former political prisoner who will relay the history of the island, together with firsthand accounts of prison life, ensuring a personal and poignant tour. The tour takes you to the maximum security prison, and to Mandela’s cell in particular, which has been left in its original state.
A bus takes you to the lime quarry where Mandela and his fellow prisoners did hard labour. Additional stopovers include the Kramat (shrine) of Tuan Guru (a Muslim leader), the Lepers’ Graveyard and the house where Robert Sobukwe lived in solitary confinement for nine years.
Robben Island also has an interesting mix of flora and fauna and Murray Bay, the island’s small harbour, is home to 140 000 African penguins.
Cape Town Tourism keeps a list of operators who specialise in tours to Robben Island.