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Robben Island Prison Tour Review - Things To Do In Cape Town

Updated on May 8, 2014
Nelson mandela the most famous guest on Robben Island
Nelson mandela the most famous guest on Robben Island

Robben Island

As far as your Cape Town tour goes, Robben Island is a must see. For R150 it is very much worth a visit and was one of the highlights of our Cape Town Holiday.

Robben Island is most famously known for being the prison where former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for nearly 20 years. Robben Island was a prison island that also housed many hundreds of anti-apartheid political activists that were deemed troublemakers by the government. There are many stories of men who committed very minor crimes, but were sentenced to many years in Robben Island. The idea was to lock all of the leaders of the anti apartheid movement away, however the prison had the opposite effect and became a symbol of the oppression of the apartheid government and became an international focal point for resistance to the regime. Robben Island is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has become a symbol of freedom and of how much South Africa has changed.

The prison on Robben Island
The prison on Robben Island
We serve with pride, Robben Island motto
We serve with pride, Robben Island motto

Some history

The prison was built in 1961 and it’s most famous guest, nelson mandela, arrived a few years later in 1963. It was a tough regime with any form of contact with the outside world limited to 2 letters a year and beatings and back breaking labour in the quarry being an everyday occurrence. Solitary confinement and starvation punishment were also readily used punishments. Hunger strikes brought international exposure to the prison and led to international pressure to improve the barbaric conditions of the prison. All political prisoners were released in 1991, with all other prisoners being transferred away by 1996. Robben Island has been a South African heritage museum since 1997. Many other high profile prisoners were kept on Robben Island including current president Jacob Zuma, Walter Sisulu Robert Sobukwe and Tokyo Sexwale. Interestingly some hard-line politicians in South Africa advocate using Robben island as a prison to house a new generation of young criminals, so far this has met with a very mixed reaction.

How to get there

The prison is situated in Table Bay about 12 kilometres out from Cape Town and is accessible only by boat. There is actually the option of staying overnight as there are a few cottages however most people do a day trip by ferry.

There are several daily tours to Robben Island which leave from the Nelson Mandela gateway on the V&A waterfront at 9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm. The ferry takes about 30 minutes each way and the tour lasts for about 3 and a half hours.

If you get claustrophobic you might want to think twice about the 30 minute ferry to the island, it is tight, hot and very stuffy. That said, I quite enjoyed the views of Cape Town that you are presented with and it’s a part of the experience as they say.

Table Mountain from Robben Island
Table Mountain from Robben Island | Source

The Tour

When you first set foot on Robben Island you are quickly shuffled onto a bus for a tour of the island. You see sights such as the lepers graveyard, the lighthouse, the church that was designed by Sir Herbert baker and the quarry where the prisoners spent their days hacking away at limestone. Our guide was very good, he spoke many languages and got the whole bus involved, remember to leave a tip.

About halfway around the island you stop for the opportunity to take some photos of the famous table mountain; this is well worth the visit alone as it is probably the best spot in all of Cape Town to see a full view of the mountain.

Nelson mandela's prison cell of 20 years
Nelson mandela's prison cell of 20 years | Source
Shower Room
Shower Room | Source
The toilets
The toilets | Source
Cells on B Wing
Cells on B Wing | Source

Robben Island Prison

What I found most interesting about the Robben Island tour is that all of the guides are ex-inmates of the prison. This gives them all a unique approach and my guide certainly had many interesting and shocking stories to tell. I won’t spoil these for you now, but it is definitely worth, making the most of the question and answer session at the end of the tour as our guide was extremely open with his answers. They take you through the prison and show you the cells, the showers, the exercise yard and other notable areas, explaining the significance of each.

The cells were fascinating, each cell had the story of the people who had been imprisoned within it and you could really see how basic their existence must have been. My only complaint here was that we weren’t given enough time to read all of the stories and I felt a bit hurried through.

That said you get to read some great and some very touching tales of prison life, I just felt slightly aggrieved that there were so many that I didn’t get the chance to read. Another highlight was seeing the famous cell of Nelson Mandela in B wing (see photo).

At the end of the prison tour you are given the chance to ask questions to your guide, our guide was incredibly knowledgeable about the prison (having been an inmate himself) and had many stories about life there. This was definitely one of the highlights of the tour.

Around the site there are photographs taken by prisoners who somehow managed to smuggle cameras inside, these photos really show their community that had developed within the prison and showed real solidarity between the prisoners.

Robben Island hosts a huge penguin colony
Robben Island hosts a huge penguin colony | Source

Penguins

As you are about to leave the island you are given the opportunity to check out the colony of penguins on the island, this was well worth a quick visit, but be very careful with your time as we had to run for the ferry in the end. I’m not sure if they would have left without us but I wouldn’t have wanted to be the latest prisoner on Robben Island…

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    • dommcg profile image
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      dommcg 23 months ago

      That's a fascinating story ccsonian. Robben island really is an amazing please with a huge amount of history. Thanks for sharing.

    • ccsonian profile image

      ccsonian 23 months ago

      My husband's dad was a lighthouse keeper on Robben Island. The prisoners used to bring my husband home when he would wander off. Robben Island is an interesting place and well worth the trip.

    • dommcg profile image
      Author

      dommcg 4 years ago

      Apparently noone has ever escaped from the Robben Island Prison as we know it. The only man ever to escape from the island did so in the 17th century. his name Autshumao and he escaped by rowing to the mainland in a small boat. It's 18 miles of the coast of Cape Town so would be a stretch even if you were the strongest swimmer. I bet many people tried and drowned though.

      Being a leper in any age would be awful, but in the olden days they would literally just throw you in with all the other lepers. It seems that lepers were very often dropped on to any small island that could be found. I remember a small island in the forth of firth in Edinburgh that was also a lepers colony. I imagine a few errorswere made over the years and healthy people mistakenly dropped in with the lepers. Now that would be hellish!

    • Rain Defence profile image

      Rain Defence 4 years ago from UK

      What is it with these old prison islands that had leper sections? I remember reading Papillon, which obviously was in a totally different part of the world, but a prison island all the same, reading about the leper part which was separate from the rest of the inmates, with all of the lepers together. Must have been awful, your body falling apart on a prison island, with the rest of the lepers who are also falling apart around you. I don't know much about leprosy but the idea of it is pretty hellish and if this island also had a leper graveyard, then it must have been fairly common back then.

      Having a prison on an island must have meant it was really hard to escape. Did the guides mention whether anyone had ever escaped from this prison?

    • dommcg profile image
      Author

      dommcg 4 years ago

      Thanks YogaKat, it really is a very interesting place to visit. it is very moving to think of how badly the prisoners were treated and yet how ready they are to forgive. It really shows how far the country has progressed in the last few decades. Thanks for the comments.

    • YogaKat profile image

      YogaKat 4 years ago from Oahu Hawaii

      Awesome and interesting hub. This prison is new info for me. How extraordinary that former prisoners are tour guides . . . now that's justice. Great photos!