Explore Robben Island in Cape Town

Ask anybody what there is to do on Robben Island and they will tell you about the prison. But take a trip to the iconic island and you will find that there is so much more.

The world at large knows the island for the now-defunct prison that has stood there since the 60’s (it was completed in 1964) and for the high-profile prisoners it was ‘home’ to, including former South African president Nelson Mandela.

The island was once linked to the Cape’s mainland with the Khoi the first humans to set foot on it in the 1400s. It has been used as a leper colony, an insane asylum and an army and naval base in a turbulent history that can be traced back to the 1300s.

It is now first and foremost a museum with the prison central to the visitor’s journey.

Robben island entrance gate cape town

The building is a good place to start as it is the most emotive place you will visit on the island, with the exception of the lime quarry and PAC founder Robert Zabukwe’s house, which in essence are part of the prison. Some of the most high-profile political prisoners in South Africa’s history were imprisoned here, including Mandela, former SA president Thabo Mbeki and current president Jacob Zuma.

As we walked through the prison halls, into the cells – single and communal – lingering over the tiny sleeping quarters and minimal creature comforts (a small stool, cup and bowl in most), our tour guide Toya shares the stories of the prison. Behind these walls is an untapped treasure trove of incredible tales of suffering, silent protest and ultimately an unwavering strength.

Spend some time inside and you quickly realise why it has become a symbol of a triumph over oppression and an unlikely birthplace of what is widely regarded as the world’s most progressive constitution. This is where Robben Island’s tour starts, but it doesn’t end here.

Inside a Cell in Robben Island

As you venture deeper into the interior of the island, you begin to realise how entrenched it is in the Mother City’s history. Yes, it is infamous as a prison, but before that it served a more positive purpose – as a fortified station for both the country’s army and navy operations. During World War II, it served to protect the interests of the Allies as a defensive barrier against German ships.

Two large guns still sit here. Thankfully they were never needed.

The island has also acted as an infirmary under British rule. It served three specific categories of sick people, namely leprosy, insanity and the chronically ill. The island has four cemeteries and graves dating back 500 years. The Kramat dates back to the era of colonisation while the Leprosarium, Staff and Garrison church cemeteries are linked to the infirmary period on the island.

Mandela Gateway to Robben Island

At times it is hard not to see the island as a dumping ground throughout its storied history.

Our tour comes to an end at the Lime Quarry. For me, this was the most emotional site on the island as it really brings home the punitive measures prisoners were forced to undertake. Even when lime was not needed for the old roads, they were transported from the prison to chisel away at the unrelenting rock for hours on end. It stands barren now, but the ghosts of the past are still there, a pile of rocks left to tell their story.

As we leave Robben Island on the ferry back to the V&A Waterfront I am already planning a trip back to continue the tour, because a couple of hours on the island are not nearly enough to gather all the stories of this incredible place. Perhaps a night on the island would do me good, allowing plenty of time to gather all the information stored on this iconic piece of land.

For more information: www.robben-island.org.za