During the early days of white settlement at the Cape, Robben Island, which is 500 ha in size and 12 kilometres off the coast, was used as prison colony. The so-called 'deliquents' that were brought here, were mainly rebellious Khoikhoi. With very few exceptions, attempted escapes, failed and most of the escapees drowned during the long swim to the coast.
In 1961, South Africa's most notorious prison was established on Robben Island. Political prisoners of the anti-apartheid movement were kept here together with hardened criminals. The most prominent inmate was Nelson Mandela, who later became the first President of the new democratic South Africa. Here Mandela spent 27 years of his life in a tiny cell of 5 square metres.
The living conditions were, particularly in the early years, extremely bad. Prisoners had to labour in the quarry, were not dressed sufficiently and had to sleep on a thin strawmatt on the stonefloor. Through strikes and endless protests, in 1971 the prisoners achieved the implementation of more humane conditions and were also allowed to study. Mandela himself describes his 27 years on Robben Island very impressively in his autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom".
Robben Island is nowadays a national memorial and a museum. The fast catamaran ferries leave every day hourly from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the Waterfront's Clock Tower. The boat trip takes about 30 minutes and the guided tour of the island about two hours. A former inmate acts as tour guide around the prison and will show one Mandela's cell. There is a bus one can take to the lime quarry, where the prisoners had to labour in the blinding sun without protection.
Transfer and tour cost 150 Rand per person. Children pay half. Tel 021-4111006. eMail. Robben Island Museum has an informative website.
Top: Nelson Mandela. Below: Prison. Top right: Robben Island. Centre: Mandela's cell. Below: Island ferry.