Robben Island Tours ( With Photos ) - Best Rates and Prices 2020
6 minute read30 Apr 2020
YOUR GUIDE TO ROBBEN ISLAND TOURS
Robben Island is a South African National Heritage Site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The living museum serves as a reminder of the brutality, hostility, prejudice and injustices of the apartheid system that existed in South Africa in the 20th century, from 1948 until the early 1990s.
Our Robben Island Tours is a must-visit excursion when in Cape Town.
A tour of Robben Island can be somewhat depressing but it’s also highly educational and invaluable. It helps visitors gain a deeper understanding of South Africa and its struggle for freedom and equality. The tour guides are ex-prisoners and they bring an incredibly emotive angle to the humbling experience.
If you are visiting Cape Town, a tour of Robben Island is fascinating and worthwhile. The Robben Island Museum is a venerated symbol of the resilience and bravery of the men who suffered greatly for their right to freedom.
What is Robben Island?
Robben Island famously was where the great Nelson Mandela spent the first 18 years of his 27 years of imprisonment for crimes against the state. Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island along with over 3 000 political prisoners.
However, the political prison plays only a small part in the island’s rich multi-layered history. Robben is intimately shaped by its many different occupants and uses, dating back to about 800 million years.
Robben Island is located in Table Bay, almost equidistance from the famous Cape Town Harbour and Bloubergstrand on the west coast of Cape Town. The small island is 13 square kilometres (5 square miles) and is a flat, desolate flatland that barely protrudes out of the choppy seas.
The island is the summit of an ancient, now submerged mountain. The highest point is known as Minto’s Hill and stands no more than 24-metres above sea level. The lower strata of the island consists of Malmesbury shale which forms the rocky and inhospitable coastline. The upper strata is a thick layer of limestone and calcrete deposit which is covered by windblown sand and shell fragments.
On windless days, Robben Island has a mild, temperate Mediterranean climate. However, the exposed island is often buffeted by extremely strong winds and has punishing winter conditions that made life on the island for the prisoners unbearable.
Is it safe to visit Robben Island
Robben Island is perfectly safe to visit. Every year, over 50 000 tourists visit the historic heritage site without serious incident. Tours are operated by Robben Island Museum (RIM) who make the safety of tours an absolute priority. The ferry that you travel on from V&A Waterfront to the island and back is a state-of-the-art vessel.
There was one incident in 2017 where more than 60 passengers and crew were rescued from the Robben Island ferry, Thandi, when it started taking in water. All passengers and crew were safely returned to shore and since then Robben Island Museum has implemented several safety measures to ensure there are no further incidences with the ferries.
Two harbour masters have been appointed and training and safety drills are conducted on a regular basis. A preliminary report found that the Thandi ferry ran into trouble because the skipper was unaware of unfavourable weather conditions. In response, RIM has installed additional wind monitoring equipment on the island.
In addition, RIM has updated its systems and processes to improve the frequency and quality of weather monitoring reports, as well as interactions with harbour masters with regard to weather conditions.
Obviously, it’s important the visitors follow the rules and regulations that are in place to ensure the safety of its clients on the ferry trips. All passengers wear a lifesaving harness and have a full briefing on boat safety before leaving the V&A Waterfront.
The island itself is safe. Tourists can only tour Robben Island as part of a tour group and as long as you follow the guides instructions and don’t wander off on your own, you’ll be completely safe on the island. There are wild animals on Robben Island such as antelope, ostriches, Cape seals and penguins but there are no dangerous predators.
Robben Island is located in a malaria-free region in the Western Province. Tourists are not required to take anti-malaria tablets to visit the Cape.
Consult Centre for Disease Control and Prevention for information on vaccinations required to enter South Africa.
History of Robben Island
Robben Island was ‘discovered’ in 1488 by the famous Portuguese explorer, Bartolomeu Dias, when he anchored his ship in Table Bay. For many years, Dias directed the captains of his ships to stop at Robben Island to get fresh meat from the abundance of seals and penguins on the island. It was also a source of much-needed fresh water that was obtained from natural springs.
Bartolomeu Dias was a nobleman of the Portuguese royal household as well as an intrepid Portuguese explorer. In 1488, Dias was the first European to sail around the southernmost tip of Africa in 1488, later establishing the shipping route from Asia to Europe to Asia.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Robben Island was used as a stop-over for passing ships. It failed to take off as a human settlement so it became a Dutch and then a British penal colony, where criminals were sentenced to isolation and forced labour.
Muslim political prisoners were also imprisoned on Robben Island. You’ll find a Kramat (holy shrine) on the island that pays homage to the Prince of Madura who died there in 1754. Cakraningrat IV was a ruling prince (1718-1746) from West Madura, and a member of the Cakraningrat dynasty which was the subordinate ruler of the Mataram Sultanate.
Cakraningrat IV was the first chief Imam of the Cape. He was exiled to the island and spent 13 long and unpleasant years imprisoned on Robben Island (from 1780 to 1793).
Between 1846 and 1931, Robben Island housed a leper colony and inhabitants that had been judged as insane. It was also used for animal quarantine at the same time. Basically, the Dutch and British sent all their undesirables to the island who were mentally, physically and socially unfit to live on the mainland.
In 1864, during World War II, a lighthouse was installed on Robben Island as well as fortified buildings to house military personnel and navy seaman. At the time, the ports of Cape Town and Simon’s Town served as safe havens for the increasing shipping traffic.
The 1928 Imperial Defense Commission erected a high-angle 9.2-inch gun battery on Robben Island. It served as a static battleship in place of the defunct HMS Erebus which was armed with a 15-inch gun battery.
Finally, in the early 1960s, Robben Island served as South Africa’s maximum security prison under the brutal rule of the apartheid government. The majority of inmates were Black men accused of political offenses.
The last political prisoner was released in 1996. Three former inmates went on to become President of South Africa. They were Nelson Mandela, Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma. The 15-odd Robben Island guides that take visitors on tours of the famous island are all ex-inmates.
In 1997, Robben Island was evacuated and turned into a living museum and declared a South African National Heritage Site. Robben Island was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
Robben Island Leper Colony
Robben Island was first used as an isolated asylum for the mentally ill in 1812. Later, in 1843, the island was set up as a colony for lepers, paupers, the mentally unfit and the chronically ill. The colony was established to remove people who deemed mentally, physically and socially unfit from the mainland.
From 1846 to 1931, Robben Island basically became the “island of the unwanted”. People who were too sick or too old to carry out hard manual labour were sent to Robben Island as well as prostitutes with sexually transmitted diseases.
The unfortunate island inhabitants endured unhealthy and inhumane treatment, even by the standards of that time. The living conditions on the Robben Island were awful for the people who were banished there. The water was brackish and undrinkable and the summer and winter climate ranged from unbearably hot to icy-cold and freezing.
The ‘inmates’ also suffered from severe isolation and loneliness. Often, they were men and women that had been ripped away from their families and children, never to return home. Many died from diseases like dysentery, an outbreak of leprosy or trying to escape by swimming across the treacherous seas to the mainland.
Robben Island came under international scrutiny after the constant complaints from progressive clergy and medical staff. Still, only some minor improvements were made to improve the lives of the people banished to the island.
Robben Island was finally closed down as a leper colony and asylum in 1931. All the ‘patients’ were sent to hospitals in the Cape and a military outpost was established in its place.
The army and officers facilities were built in anticipation of the impending World War II. Guns were stored in the hospital buildings and the government built roads, a power station, a new water supply and accommodation for the military personnel.
Robben Island under Dutch rule
In the mid-1600s, Robben Island was a hive of activity. Visiting ships preferred to stop at Robben Island rather than having dealings with the people on the mainland. They would stop at Robben Island to replenish their supplies of fresh water and meat.
At the time, Robben Island became a major hub for the exchange of mail. Letters from an outgoing ship would be left underneath an inscribed stone for collection and delivery by a vessel travelling back to their homelands.
When Jan van Riebeek (1619-1677) arrived, he formally set up Robben Island as a station for Dutch ships that were travelling from Europe to the East Indies. Jan van Riebeek was a Dutch navigator and colonial administrator who arrive in Cape Town in what was then the Dutch Cape Colony of the Dutch East India Company.
The Dutch East India Company was a megacorporation that was founded by a government-directed amalgamation of several rival Dutch trading companies in the early 17th century. The corporation was officially known as the United East India Company, or rather the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC).
Cape Town was founded by the Dutch East India Company in the early 1650s. Cape Town was set up as an outpost to supply VOC ships on their way to Asia with fresh fruits, vegetables and meat. The outpost also gave the weary sailors an opportunity to rest and recuperate from long months out at sea.
The VOC traded throughout Asia, mainly trading from Bengal. Ships that came into Batavia from the Netherlands carried supplies for VOC settlements in Asia. The main commodities traded were silver and copper from Japan which were traded with the world’s wealthiest empires. This included Mughal India and Qing China for silk, cotton, porcelain and textiles.
Robben Island was an ideal outpost for the passing VOC ships and Jan van Riebeek passed a directive for the VOC ships to stop there rather than the mainland. There was an abundance of seals, tortoises and penguins on the island for hunting. The island was also used as grazing grounds for sheep and cattle.
This was where the name Robben Island originated. Originally the Dutch version, Robbeneiland, the name roughly translates to Seal Island.
The first buildings on Robben Island were homes for the island inhabitants and large sheds built to shelter the sheep and cattle on the island. The populations of animals on the island thrived because the island was free of predators. The massive seal colony on the island also provided the inhabitants with seal skins and oil that was boiled and sold to passing ships.
Robben Island was first used as an isolated outpost for political prisoners under order of the Dutch East India Company. The prisoners were mostly high-profile political leaders charged with mutiny. This included political leaders in Indonesia and the leader of the mutiny of the slave ship, Meermin.
In the 1670s, the Dutch East India Companies (VOC) committed to establishing a permanent settlement in the Cape, which would become Cape Town. The influence of the British and the French was growing in the India Ocean which posed a danger to the VOC. The risk was that the British and the French would take over the Cape colony as a strategic shipping location.
The VOC finally declared itself the rightful owner of the Cape district in 1672when war broke out between the United Provinces of Netherlands against Britain and France, laying claim to Table Bay, Hout Bay and Saldanha Bay. The Dutch claimed they had bought the land from the leader of the indigenous Khoikhoi clan known as the Goringhaiqua. The land was traded for brandy, tobacco and bread.
In 1795 at a time when Britain was at war with France, the British invaded the Cape Peninsula from False Bay. After brutal squirmishes, they took over the Cape from the Dutch. This included Cape Town.
The Cape was a British Colony until 1803 when it was handed back to the Dutch. When war between Britain and France broke out again in 1806, the British reclaimed the Cape and occupied it as the British Cape Colony.
Robben Island under British rule
The Cape was occupied by the British as the Cape Colony between the 1600s and 1795. The British largely confined themselves to the shores of the Cape and used Table Bay as a halfway stop, originally set up by the Dutch East India Company.
When the British reclaimed the Cape from the Dutch in 1806, they continued to use Robben Island in the same way the Dutch did. It was the perfect station for British ships to replenish supplies of fresh water and food and the addition of a whaling station made the island a veritable food larder for passing ships.
The island’s remoteness and isolation also appealed to the British and they too used it as a dumping ground for mostly political prisoners as well as those deemed unfit to live on the mainland. Between the Dutch and the British, Robben Island has seen the likes of kings, princes and religious leaders pass through its prison gates.
In 1615, John Cross famously dispatched ten condemned prisoners brought from England to Robben Island. Between 1632 and 1640, a number of Khoikhoi leaders under the command of Autshumato were incarcerated on Robben Island.
The British had viewed its occupation of the Cape as a temporary arrangement that was meant to last until the Empire defeated France. After the signing of the Treaty of Amiens in 1803, the British handed back the Cape to the newly-installed Dutch Batavian government.
However, they would return in 1806 and take back the Cape when the Napoleonic War broke out in Europe. At the Treaty of Vienna in 1814, the British took permanent occupancy of the Cape, paying the Dutch a princely sum of six million pounds to avoid further conflict.
The Cape became a Crown Colony and a civilian governor was installed in Cape Town. The original name of the city, Riebeekstad (Riebeek’s Town, named in honour of Jan van Riebeek, was formerly renamed Cape Town.
English was adopted as the official language of the Cape as the British colony expanded with a steady influx of British immigrants. The Dutch garrison at the Castle of Good Hope was replaced by British soldiers. Young men with their families arrive in the Cape in the hope of a new life and in search of fortunes.
Britain’s stronghold on the Cape experienced its first resistance in the late 1880s. The discovery of a wealth of diamonds and gold in South Africa between the 1860s and 1880s sparked a war between the British and the Afrikaner republics. It became known as the South African war.
The Afrikaners were an ethnic group that emerged in the Cape, as an fusion of descendants from the 17th century Dutch, German and French settlers in South Africa. The Afrikaners developed their own language and culture, adopting many of its linguistic nuances from contact with Africans and Asians. The word Afrikaners comes from the Dutch word for Africans.
At the end of the South African war in 1902, the four old colonies became the provinces of the Union, namely the Cape Province, the Orange Free State, the Transvaal and Natal. By 1961, the Union of South Africa was declared independent of Britain and the Crown Colony of the Cape was abolished.
Robben Island under apartheid rule
Robben Island continued to be used as a political prison by the Union of South Africa. It was officially turned into a maximum security prison in 1961 by the government of the Transvaal Republic and operated as one until it was closed down in 1991. Some 3 000 political prisoners were incarcerated on Robben Island under the brutal apartheid system.
The apartheid system was instituted in 1948 by the White-ruled National Park in South Africa. It was a harsh, institutionalised system of racial segregation that saw the non-White population living under extreme control of the nationalist government. It came to an end in the early 1990s in a series of events that led to the formation of a democratic ANC-led government in 1994.
The majority of prisoners on Robben Island were Black men who were charged with political offenses against the state. A few were convicted criminals who were kept in a section set aside as a medium security prison.
The maximum security prison on Robben Island was also used for prisoners from outside of South Africa, mostly Namibia. Namibia was a German colony until World War I. When Germany was defeated in the war, Namibia (known then as South West Africa) was administered by South Africa as a de facto cross-border province of South Africa. Any political agitation in Namibia was punished under the laws of South Africa.
When South Africa got its independence and became a democratic country in 1994, Robben Island’s days as a prison island were over. The maximum security prison for political prisoners had been closed in 1991. The last criminal prisoners in the medium security prison were released five years later in 196.
Robben Island was declared a South African National Heritage Site and tourists from around the world were finally allowed onto the island to visit what now operates as a living museum. In 1999, Robben Island was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its importance to South Africa’s political history and development of a democratic society.
Every year, close to 50 000 tourists take the Robben Island ferry from the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town for a tour of the historic island. The majority of the tour guides are former prisoners. The island is owned by the nation of South Africa, with the exception of the church.
Robben Island is now an official suburb of the City of Cape Town and administered by the City of Cape Town Metropolitan Municipality. All island activities and tours are managed by Robben Island Museum (RIM).
Robben Island Museum is a public entity responsible for managing, maintaining, presenting, developing and marketing Robben Island as a national estate and World Heritage Site. RIM was established by the Department of Arts and Culture in 1997.
Famous prisoners on Robben Island
Chief Autshumato, named 'Herrie the Strandloper' by the Dutch, became the first postmaster on Robben Island and could communicate in English, French, Portuguese and Dutch. He first assisted and then resisted the Dutch when Commander Jan van Riebeek established the Dutch settlement in 1652 at Table Bay.
Massavana and Koessij
The earliest recorded prisoners held on Robben Island were two Malagasy men called Massavana and Koessij. The two led a mutiny on the slave ship Meermin in 1766 as they were being forcibly transported from Madagascar to be enslaved in the Cape Colony of South Africa. Many of the slaves imported to the Cape to build the city came from Madagascar.
The Meermin was shipwrecked as a result of the mutiny and Massavana and Koessij were banished to Robben Island for ‘observation’. Massavana died three years later and Koessij survived for 20 more years.
Born in 1798, Maqoma was the Right Hand Son of Ngqika, King of the Rharhabe division of the Xhosa nation. Cold-heartedly opposed to his father’s ceding of the land between the Fish and Keiskamma Rivers to the Cape Colony, Maqoma became committed to regaining his ancestral home. Maqoma used his skills as general and tactician to lead a guerrilla campaign in the forested mountains and valleys of the Waterkloof that frustrated the most skilled British officers.
Imprisoned on Robben Island for 12 years by British Colony authorities, Maqoma was paroled in 1869. However, when Maqoma attempted to resettle on his stolen land, he was re-banished to the infamous island prison, where he died under mysterious circumstances in 1873.
Hand Christoffel Snijman
In 1667, Hans Christoffel Snijman was convicted of leaving his post as sentry at the fort “te slapen sijn ten wooonplaets an sekere bekende swarte meijt” (to sleep at the living place of a certain well known black servant girl). Snijman was sentenced to live on Robben Island for two years and forfeit two months’ salary.
Nxele was an African leader who served life imprisonment on Robben Island. He was arrested by British colonial authorities in 1819 during a failed uprising at Grahamstown, the fifth of the Xhosa Wars. Nxele drowned in Table Bay while attempting to escape.
Andimba Toivo ya Toivo
Toivo served a 20-year sentence on Robben Island. He was a founding member of the Ovamboland People’s Congress in South West Africa (now Namibia). He was arrested in 1966 by the South African authorities as the leader of a political party campaigning for the country’s independence.
After his release, Toivo became secretary-general of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (Swap) and later became Minister of Mines and Energy in independent Namibia as well as ironically Minister of Prisons.
John ya Otto Nankudhu
John ya Otto Nankudhu was commander of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Namibia. Nankudhu received military training in Egypt and the Soviet Union and set up a training camp for militants in Tanzania. He was captured and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. Nankudhu spent 17 years on the island until he was released in 1985.
Another Swapo ‘dissident’ that was arrested and imprisoned on Robben Island was Gaus Shikomba. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island in 1967 but released twenty years later in 1984.
Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada, sometimes known by the nickname "Kathy", was a South African politician, political prisoner and anti-apartheid activist.
Kathrada's involvement in the anti-apartheid activities of the African National Congress (ANC) led him to his long-term imprisonment following the Rivonia Trial, in which he was held at Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison. Following his release in 1990, he was elected to serve as a member of parliament, representing the ANC.
Mosiuoa Gerard Patrick Lekota is a South African politician, who currently serves as the President and Leader of the Congress of the People since 16 December 2008.
Lekota became a permanent organiser for SASO in 1974 but was imprisoned at Robben Island Prison for "conspiring to commit acts endangering the maintenance of law and order" during the same year. He had organised victory rallies to celebrate the independence of Mozambique. He was released from prison in 1982.
After his release, Lekota was elected publicity secretary of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983. In 1985, Lekota was detained and later sentenced in the Delmas Treason Trial. Lekota was later released in 1989 after the Appeal Court reviewed the sentence.
Sathyandranath Ragunanan "Mac" Maharaj is a South African politician affiliated with the African National Congress (ANC), academic and businessman of Indian origin. He is the former official spokesperson of the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma.
Maharaj was a political activist and member of the South African Communist Party who worked in a clandestine manner on anti-apartheid activities with Nelson Mandela. In July 1964, Maharaj was arrested in Johannesburg, charged and convicted with four others on charges of sabotage in the Little Rivonia trial. He was imprisoned on Robben Island with Mandela.
In prison, Maharaj secretly transcribed Mandela's memoir Long Walk to Freedom and smuggled it out of the prison when he was released in 1976.
Robben Island’s most famous prisoner, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. Mandela was the country's first black head of state and the first elected in the country’s first fully-represented democratic election.
Mandela received a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in dismantling the legacy of apartheid by tackling institutionalised racism and fostering racial reconciliation. Ideologically an African nationalist and socialist, Mandela served as the president of the African National Congress (ANC) party from 1991 to 1997.
Mandela served 18 of his 27 years imprisonment on Robben Island. Under intense international pressure and with fears of a racial civil war, President FW de Kerk release Mandela from prison in 1990.
Govan Archibald Mvuyelwa Mbeki was a South African politician and son of Chief Sikelewu Mbeki and Johanna Mahala and also the father of the former South African president Thabo Mbeki and political economist Moeletsi Mbeki. He was a leader of the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress.
Govan was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1963. He was released from Robben Island in 1987 by then-president PW Botha.
Billy Nair was a South African politician, a member of the National Assembly of South Africa, an anti-apartheid activist and a political prisoner in Robben Island. Nair was a long-serving political prisoner on Robben Island along with Nelson Mandela in the 'B' Block for political prisoners.MD Naidoo
Jafta ‘Bra Jeff’ Masemola
Jafta Kgalabi Masemola, also known as The Tiger of Azania and Bra Jeff was a South African anti-apartheid activist, teacher, and founder of the armed wing of the Pan Africanist Congress. Masemola was the first prisoner sentenced to life imprisonment in the apartheid era.
Masemola spent over 26 years on Robben Island and other prisons. He was released on 15 October 1989. In 2003, President Thabo Mbeki conferred the Order of Luthuli in Silver, posthumously, on Masemola for dedicating his life to the struggle against apartheid and standing for the ideals of a free, just and democratic South Africa.
Murphy Morobe is an historical figure from South Africa's anti-apartheid movement. In 1972 Morobe became part of the South African Student’s Movement (SASM). Later he was one of the student leaders of the Soweto Uprising in June 1976. Due to his alleged role in the uprising, he spent three years in prison on Robben Island.
After being released from prison, he returned to politics, involving himself with several groups, including: Congress of South African Students (COSAS), General and Allied Worker’s Union and he helped to form the United Democratic Front (South Africa) (UDF) in 1983. He was later appointed the spokesman for former South African President Thabo Mbeki.
John Nyathi Pokela
John ‘Poks’ Pokela was a South African political activist and Chairman of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). In 1966, he was sentenced to 13 years in prion on Robben Island on charges of sabotage related to the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA), a militant wing of the PAC. Pokela was released from Robben Island in 1980 and was appointed to succeed the head of the Tanzanian-backed faction of the PAC.
Wetshotsile Joseph "Joe" Seremane is a former South African politician and federal chairperson of the country's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA).
He was a political prisoner on Robben Island from 1963 to 1969, before being deported by the apartheid government to the then black homeland of Bophuthatswana. He was further detained without trial from 1976 to 1978, and several times between 1982 and 1984.
Mosima Gabriel "Tokyo" Sexwale is a South African businessman, politician, anti-apartheid activist. He was imprisoned on Robben Island for his anti-apartheid activities.
Sexwale was captured after a skirmish with the South African security forces and, along with 11 others, was charged and later convicted of terrorism and conspiracy to overthrow the government after an almost two-year-long trial in the Supreme Court of South Africa in Pretoria.
Sexwale was sent to the Robben Island’s maximum-security prison to serve an 18-year sentence. While imprisoned at Robben Island, he studied for a BCom degree at the University of South Africa.
Sexwale was released in June 1990 under the terms of the Groote Schuur Agreement between the National Party government and the African National Congress. He had spent 13 years in prison. After the general election in 1994, Sexwale became the Premier of Gauteng Province. He served in the government of South Africa as Minister of Human Settlements from 2009 to 2013.
Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu was a South African anti-apartheid activist and member of the African National Congress (ANC). He served time as Secretary-General and Deputy President of the organisation. Sisulu was incarcerated at Robben Island, where he served more than 25 years' imprisonment.
Sisulu was released from Robben Island in October 1989. In July 1991, he was elected ANC deputy president at the ANC's first national conference after its unbanning the year before. He remained in the position until after South Africa's first democratic election in 1994.
Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma is a South African politician who served as the fourth President of South Africa from the 2009 general election until his resignation on 14 February 2018.
Zuma began engaging in politics at an early age and joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1959. He became an active member of Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1962, following the South African government's banning of the ANC the previous year. In the same year, Zuma was arrested and convicted of conspiring to overthrow the apartheid government. He was sentenced to 10 years in jail which he served at Robben Island’s maximum security position.
After his release from prison in 1973, Zuma was instrumental in the re-establishing of the ANC underground structures in the Natal province. During this time, he joined the African National Congress' Department of Intelligence where he later became the departments Head of Intelligence.
Robben Island’s famous football team
In 1966, the prisoners on Robben Island formed a football league among themselves that they called the Makana Football Association. The prison island’s team adhered strictly to FIFA’s laws of the game, which came from one of the few books in the prison library. The football league was named after a 19th century Xhosa prophet who was a former prisoner on Robben Island.
Makana Football Association was a multi-team, two-division league that was run with fanatical attention to detail. The football club operated with a strict written constitutions and a formal committee that imposed discipline, offered referee training and kept a formal log of results.
High profile prisoners who played for the Robben Island football league included Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Steve Tswete and Ahmed Kathrada. Former president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, was captain of the Makana club, a sturdy defender as well as a referee. Ironically, Steve Tswete who was an avid football player and league player, became the country’s first post-apartheid Minister of Sports.
ROBBEN ISLAND : UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE
UNESCO declared Robben Island in the Western Cape a World Heritage Site in 1999. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites are places of importance to the cultural or natural heritage of a country.
Robben Island was declared as a World Heritage Site (WHS) under criteria (iii) and (vi) of the ‘World Heritage Convention’s Operational Guidelines’.
- Criterion (iii) requires that a site bears unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or has disappeared.
- Criterion (vi) requires that sites should be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance.
Robben Island’s lighthouse
Due to its location in the middle of Table Bay, Robben Island was a natural hazard for passing ships. During Dutch occupation, Jan van Riebeek ordered the inhabitants to light up the night sky with huge bonfires on the top of what became known as Fire Hill. This was the highest point on the island, now called Minto Hill. The massive bonfires warned VOC ships that they were approaching the small island.
In 1865, a lighthouse was erected on Minto Hill to replace the bonfires. The cylindrical masonry tower rises 18 metres high with a lantern gallery on top. The lightkeeper’s house is attached at its base.
Robben Island’s famous lighthouse uses a flashing lantern instead of a revolving lamp. It shines for a duration of 5 seconds every seven seconds. The 46 000 candela beam flashes white light away from Table Bay.
The lighthouse is visible up to 24 nautical miles (28 miles/ 44 kms). A secondary red light acts as a navigation aid for vessels sailing south-southeast of Table Bay.
Fauna and flora on Robben Island
The island is desolate and bleak for the most part but it does have an interesting fauna and flora profile. Unfortunately, the island suffers from irreversible ecological damage.
Vegetation on the island is dominated by alien species which includes gums, pine and rooikrans (indigenous shrubs). A small portion on the western side represents a shadow of the indigenous flora that once grew abundantly on the island.
Robben Island gets its name from the Dutch word for “seals”. The island had a bountiful population of seals until they were hunted to low numbers by the Dutch and British settlers. Today, the island is renowned for its rich bird and marine life. It’s a safe haven for about 132 recorded bird species, including a few endangered species.
Species such as the crowned cormorant and black crowned night herons breed on Robben Island in large colonies. Many of the other birds on the island use it as seasonal breeding and roosting grounds. One of the exciting birds to see is the Chuker Partridge, a Palearctic gamebird that’s part of the pheasant family.
More importantly, Robben Island is home to over 8 500 breeding pairs of African penguins. It’s the second-largest breeding colony in the world of this vulnerable species.
A tour of Robben Island is also an opportunity to see a wide array of seabirds and mammals such as cape fur seals, Southern Right whales and dusky and heaviside dolphins.
Ferry tour to Robben Island
Tours to Robben Island are operated by the Robben Island Museum (RIM). Visitors catch a ferry from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront. The trip across Table Bay to the island takes between 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the weather conditions.
Note: If you are prone to seasickness, take a seasick tablet at least one hour before the ferry departs.
Visitors disembark at Murray’s Bay Harbour which is located on the east side of Robben Island. The first sight you see is an exhibition of photos that portrays the history of the island. The short walk past the photo exhibition takes you to your tour bus.
Murray’s Bay Harbour is named after the Scottish whaler, John Murray. He opened a whaling station in 1806 at a sheltered bay on the north-eastern shore of Robben Island. Murray’s Bay lies adjacent to the site of the present-day harbour that’s named in his honour. The original harbour on Robben Island was constructed between 1939 and 1940.
The bus takes visitors to the main buildings where family and lawyers were allowed to see the prisoners. Your tour guide then takes you on a tour of the island.
You’ll pass through the iconic Robben Island prison gate that was built by political prisoners using stone from a quarry on the island. The grey slate used for the prison gate comes from the Blue Quarry.
You’ll also see a number of towering guard towers that were manned 24/7. Security was vigilante even though it was virtually impossible to escape from the island. The only way off Robben Island was by boat or a cold 9-kilometre swim through icy, shark-infested waters.
For a visual tour of Robben Island, click here.
Places you’ll visit on a Robben Island tour
A tour of Robben Island includes a visit of the following historic sites:
Robben Island Leper Graveyard
The Leper Graveyard on Robben Island contains thousands of graves of inhabitants that died from leprosy. It also contains the graves of political prisoners who died while incarcerated on the island.
The graveyard is only a small portion of the leper graves that have been maintained over the years. Many of them are unmarked or marked with simple headstones without any inscriptions. Graves can also be found on vacant land to the south of the prison.
Robert Sobukwe’s house
This house was where Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe (1924-1978) was kept in solitary confinement during his incarceration as a political prisoner on Robben Island. Sobukwe was a teacher and a prominent political dissident who founded the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) that opposed the apartheid system in South Africa.
Sobukwe was arrested and convicted of incitement and sentenced to three years in prison. After serving his sentence, Sobukwe was interned on Robben Island. Under the General Law Amendment Act, his imprisonment was renewed annually at the discretion of the Minister of Justice. It became known as the Sobukwe Clause.
It is thought that Sobukwe was placed in solitary confinement and isolated from the other prisoners because he was regarded as a dangerous influence and troublemaker. He was permitted certain privileges such as reading books, newspapers, civilian clothes and extra food rations. The only contact he had with other prisoners was through his secret hand signals when they were exercising.
Despite his isolation, Sobukwe was able to give his approval to the external PAC to adopt a Maoist political programme. During his years of imprisonment, Sobukwe studied for and received a degree in economics from the University of London.
Limestone and Blue Stone Quarry
The Blue Stone Quarry on Robben Island is a disused stone quarry that is protected from the sea by a dry stone and rubble wall. It’s famous as the site where political prisoners were put to backbreaking work, toiling for hours in blazing heat and icy winds to remove rock from the quarry.
The infamous Lime Quarry is located at the center of the island while the Blue Stone Quarry is located on the northwest coast.
The Robben Island Limestone Quarry dates back to the mid-17th century. It was first used to supply dressed stone for the foundations of the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town.
During the time that Nelson Mandela and the 3 000-strong group of political prisoners were on the island, there was really no use for the white limestone rocks that were extracted from the quarry. The so-called mining was just to keep the prisoners busy.
The prisoners would be made to break up the limestone rocks and carry it to the end of the quarry. The next day, they would return and made to move it back to the other side. Nelson Mandela suffered from eye problems late in his life which was caused by the glare off the white limestone and the acrid dust that he and the other prisoners would be covered with at the end of a brutal, hard day in the limestone quarry.
The Blue Stone Quarry is now filled with sea water and home to a large breeding colony of African penguins.
Army and navy bunkers
The army and navy bunkers on Robben Island housed military personnel during World War II. The island was vacated of its “undesirable” occupants who were moved to the mainland, and converted into a strategic military base. It served as a military training and defense station between 1939 and 1945.
The Robben Island military station formed the nucleus of the South African coastal defense system in the Cape Peninsula. When General Smuts took over the defense portfolio in 1939, Cape Town was already recognised as potentially significant for the war effort. The Suez Canal was vulnerable to attack and the navy shipping traffic subsequently increased.
On 25 October 1939, Smuts announced that a South African Navy would be established. Shore stations were set up in Robben Island, Simon's Town, Port Elizabeth, East London and Durban. Robben Island was a military station from 1936 to 1960, serving to protect the mainland from an anticipated invasion by the Germans.
Robben Island Maximum Security Prison
Robben Island was officially turned into a maximum security prison in 1961 by the government of the Transvaal Republic. Under the brutal apartheid system, more than 3 000 political prisoners were incarcerated on the island between 1961 and 1991, the most famous being Nelson Mandela.
You’ll visit the courtyard of Section B which is where Nelson Mandela was held. He and fellow prisoners ate breakfast, exercised and did manual labour tasks like chiseling rock in the outside courtyard. Mandela also gardened a small plot there and secretly began writing his famous autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
Prisoners were generally discouraged from mixing but they did meet up for meals and activities in the recreational hall. From time to time, they were allowed to watch a movie. When granted time outdoors, the prisoners played football, tennis and table tennis.
The maximum security prison for political prisoners was closed in 1991. The medium security prison for criminal prisoners was closed in 1996. In 1997, three years after the apartheid system was abolished, the maximum security prison was turned into the Robben Island Museum.
Nelson Mandela’s cell
Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in a 2x2 meter cell in Section B, which housed mostly political prisoners. Mandela was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against the state during the apartheid era. After being found guilty and sentenced to life in 1962 in the infamous Rivonia Trial, Mandela was dispatched to Robben Island.
On a tour of his very small cell, you’ll see his bedding which was basically a straw mat with a thin bed roll. Mandela would roll up and unroll his bed mat each day. The tiny cell is taken up by Mandela’s desk and bookshelves, which was built by a fellow prisoner. Mandela was a prolific reader and his bookshelves were filled with a collection of books and personal papers.
Nelson Mandela was an iconic struggle veteran who was instrumental in bringing an end to the apartheid era. He was elected as the first Black president in South Africa after South Africa had its first democratic elections in 1994. Mandela was President from 10 May 1994 to 14 June 1999.
After Mandela retired from active politics, he got involved in a number of philanthropic activities. Mandela died at the age of 95 after suffering from a prolonged respiratory infection.
Accommodation on Robben Island
There is no tourist accommodation on Robben Island. The island is a designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and only the people that work on the island are allowed to live there.
There has been some talk of offering overnight accommodation on Robben Island for tourists but nothing has come of the proposed plans.
On rare occasions, journalists and international media agents are invited to spend a night on Robben Island in the Governor’s House but this is purely for marketing purposes. Scholars on the RIM youth camps are also accommodated overnight on Robben Island.
Robben Island weather
The weather on Robben Island is variable. It can range from blistering hot on windless summer days to icy-cold with gale force winds in mid-winter. Robben Island has a Mediterranean climate but unlike Cape Town that’s a mere 9 kilometres away, it experiences stronger winds and higher extremes in temperature.
It’s recommended you take a warm jacket and wear closed shoes on a tour of Robben Island because you never know when the weather is going to change for the worst. You can leave Cape Town in warm, pleasant weather and arrive on Robben Island with a cold, cutting wind.
Robben Island is located in Table Bay in the Atlantic Ocean, off the mainland of Cape Town. Even on warm, sunny days, the ocean water is icy cold.
Robben Island education programmes
Source: Robben Island Museum
Robben Island Museum (RIM) places an emphasis on educating visitors and exposing people of all ages to South Africa’s rich cultural heritage. Robben Island’s multi-layered history showcases the island’s often tragic and cruel history and gives you a deeper understanding of and commitment to the country’s human rights and development.
RIM offers school tours, learning camps for scholars and adults as well as Nation Building Youth Camps.
- The Robben Island school tour programme is aimed at creating an exciting and stimulating learning experience for children and young people. For most school children, this is a once in the lifetime experience.
- The Robben Island independent camps are theme-driven camps organised by national and international organisations and implemented on Robben Island. The themes and content of the camps address issues of human rights and development and reflect the spirit of RIM’s Vision and Mission as stipulated in the ICMP.
An organisation applies to use the Multi-Purpose Learning Centre (MPLC) facilities and accommodation on Robben Island.
- The National Building Youth Camps are themed on a culture of human rights and responsibilities. The camps are designed to develop a sense of citizenship in young people and they blend practice and theory.
The youth camps offer participants the opportunity to develop leadership skills through their first-hand experiences on the Island and participation in the various activities during the camp.
- What they call Adult Camps is based on a programme that provides specially crafted adult heritage education programmes for audiences of diverse learning environments and backgrounds. The camps are designed to expose adults to South Africa’s heritage and assists with the national mandate of providing education and training services to adults to ensure life-long learning.
Robben Island Resource Centre
The Robben Island Museum Resource Centre provides educational resources and specialised learning spaces for RIM staff, visitors, the African Programme in Museums and Heritage Studies (APMHS) students, visiting scholars, interns, youth and adult groups.
The Resource Centre also houses a very special collection of books donated by Jack and Ray Simons as well as Emeritus Archbishop Ndungane. The centre is located on at MPLC which is the old Medium B prison (medium security prison).
Protecting Robben Island’s rich heritage
Source: Robin Island Museum
Most of Robben Island’s rich archival resources are housed at the Mayibuye Archives at the University of Western Cape. Mayibuye’s collections include artefacts, historical documents, photographs, artwork and audio visual materials relating to the struggle for freedom and democracy, the island itself, imprisonment under apartheid and South African culture.
The Robben Island collection is one of the largest archives in the country that contains liberation struggle material. The historical papers section includes more than 350 collections of personal and organisational records of major political events and turning points that culminated in the unbanning of political organizations in the 1990s.
The Robben Island Political Prisoner’s General Recreation Committee records is also a collection of particular significance. It dates back to the 1960’s and serves as testimony to the capacity of the human spirit to survive great hardship.
The photographic archive at the University of the Western Cape contains over 30 000 negatives, 70 000 prints and 4 000 transparencies of images that document life under and resistance to Apartheid rule from the late 1940s until 1990.
The Robben Island photographic subjects include the history of colonialism, the history of apartheid, images of apartheid, liberation movements, forced removals and resettlements, repression, political prisoners, trials, labour and trade unions, women, culture, education and the armed struggle.
Important collections within this archive are the IDAF, Billy Paddock, South and Grassroots Collections. The images of two prominent photographers’ work represented in the collection are those of Eli Weinberg and Leon Levson.
Film and video archive
The Robben Island film and video archives contain valuable audio recordings, film and video. It houses footage of about 1 000 documentary productions and 6 000 unedited recordings. It includes interviews with exiles, political prisoners and the Radio Freedom collection.
The film and video recordings includes hundreds of hours of news footage, production rushes and stock footage from more than 200 film and video production projects. The core of the collection came from IDAF. Most of these films and videos were banned in South Africa prior to 1990.
Artefacts, art, poster and banner archives
This valuable collection includes artefacts that were used as forms of political protest during the anti-apartheid struggle. It comprises T-shirts, stickers, badges and jewellery, among other items. Ex-political prisoners from Robben Island also donated some personal items used by them during their imprisonment on the Island.
The art collection includes paintings, lithographs, etchings and sculptures that were acquired by the University of the Western Cape and the Mayibuye Archive over time. The art collection primarily serves as a visual record of resistance to the apartheid system and thus all of the works precede 1994.
RIM historical artefact archive
This collection includes more than 3 000 accessioned objects left on Robben Island by prison authorities. It includes prison clothing, items manufactured in the prison workshop, workshop tools, prison registers, a music collection of LP records, sporting equipment and furniture.
Due to the harsh environmental conditions prevalent on the Island, the historical artefact collection was moved from Robben Island to Mayibuye to better preserve it.
Robben Island nature conservation
According to the official website for Robben Island Museum, the island is a complex, sensitive eco-system and as such is protected by South African law as a nature conservation area. In addition, it is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and RIM has to balance stringent conservation requirements in line with world heritage specifications.
Robben Island’s ecosystem comprises protected birdlife, natural vegetation, marine and wildlife, geology and cultural conservation sites.
Information about popular Robben Island tours
General tours to Robben Island operate 7-days a week from Monday to Friday.
The tours depart every 2 hours: 9h00, 11h00, 13h00 and 15h00 (peak season only).
Passengers should arrive no later than 20 to 30 minutes prior to the scheduled times of departure, boarding gates close 10 minutes before departure time.
The standard tour to Robben Island is approximately 4 hours long from start to finish.
Departures are dependent on weather conditions. If a trip is cancelled due to severe weather conditions, the cost of the ticker will be refunded or you can join a tour on another day.
The price of the ticket includes access to Robben Island, ferry voyage to and from the Island, access to Jetty 1 and Nelson Mandela Gateway exhibitions.
Tour prices differ for South Africans and Non-South Africans.
When does the Robben Island ferry operate?
Monday to Sunday 08h00 to 17h00
Public Holidays 08h00 to 17h00
Family Day (26 December) 08h00 to 12h00
New Year's Day (01 January) 08h00 to 12h00
Days Robben Island is closed
Workers' Day (01 May)
Christmas Day (25 December)
BOOK A ROBBEN ISLAND TOUR WITH MOAFRIKA TOURS
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Your safety and well-being are our main priority. We are here to help any time, any day with booking extra activities, sorting out any problems, offering advice on making your trip extra special and just being there for you if you need to talk to someone.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Why is Robben Island so famous?
It is the place where iconic former South African President, Nelson Mandela was jailed for 18 of his 27 years.
Is Robben Island worth visiting?
Did anyone escape Robben Island?
There has only been a few escapes reported.
Do you need a passport for Robben Island?
You need proof of identification, that can include passport.
What makes Robben Island so special?
It has a lot of historic value being the place where political prisoners were jailed during the apartheid era in South Africa, including Nelson Mandela who later became president of the very same country.