October 11, 2010
When visiting Cape Town Robben Island should be on the top of everybody’s list. Robben Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is probably most famous for being the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 27 years, but has a long a sordid past way before Mandela even arrived. The prison shut down when apartheid ended and opened back up as a museum soon after. Tours are given by former political prisoners who were imprisoned on the Island. There are multiple tours during the day, but they still book up very fast because it is such a popular tour and they limit capacity to keep tour group sizes manageable. I would highly suggest buying your ticket online a few weeks before you go to ensure your spot, especially during peak tourism season. I would also suggest planning to go to Robben Island earlier on during your Cape Town stay because the boats are subject to the weather and will not go out if there is strong wind or rain so it is best to leave time in case you need to reschedule and just hope that there will still be tickets left on another day for you to go.
The boat ride to RI is quite nice and if the weather is good I suggest sitting outside so you can take pictures from the boat. As you pull away from the V&A Waterfront you get a wonderful view of the whole city of Cape Town with Table Mountain looming in the background. The boat ride itself is only 20 minutes or so, which makes the prison all the more crueler for the political prisoners that were held there as they were so close yet so far from freedom.
The island has been in use since the 17th Century when the Dutch arrived on the Cape. It was used first as a prison, then in the 19th Century as a leper colony. The leper graveyard still stands on the island and can be seen on the tour. The island was fortified and armed to defend Cape Town during WWII, but it was not used and in fact the canon that was put on the island for protection wasn’t even completed until WWII had ended (our guide joked that the builders were on African time).
During apartheid the island became very famous for holding many key freedom fighters who became political prisoners including Robert Sobukwe (founder of the PAC), Nelson Mandela (First president of post-apartheid SA), Murphy Morobe of the Soweto uprising, and Jacob Zuma (the current president of South Africa). The prison was a tough life where the prisoners were forced to do hard and meaningless labor. Many of the prisoners earned various degrees studying science, philosophy, history, math, politics and more while on the island. There is a limestone quarry where the prisoners were forced to work moving stone from one mine to another just to keep them busy for 13 years. Nelson Mandela has permanent eye damage from the sun reflecting off the bright white of the limestone. During the tour you are taken to Nelson Mandela’s cell and you can see the tiny space to which he was confined to for so many years. You also get to see the house in which Robert Sobukwe was imprisoned and kept in solitary confinement. The trip overall reminded me of touring Terezin, a concentration camp outside of Prague. It is a very sobering experience, and being taken around by guides who actually experienced the injustice of a wrongful justice system makes the experience very powerful.