Just 11km off the coast of Cape Town and well within sight of the city lies Robben Island, the stark setting for the infamous prison that once held some of South Africa’s most remarkable political figures – including Nelson Mandela.
For around 500 years Robben Island was the place where Cape Town’s authorities housed its unloved, unwanted and undesirables. From lepers, the mentally ill and common criminals to political prisoners and freedom fighters, the island was a dumping ground for people both living on the margins of society and for those seeking to redefine it.
Nelson Mandela spent 18 years locked away on the island under successive apartheid governments, only to return in 1997 as President of South Africa for the opening of the Robben Island Museum and famously declaring: “(Robben) Island – a place of pain and banishment for centuries, and now a triumph. A symbol of the victory of the human spirit over political oppression; and of reconciliation over enforced division”.
The tour begins worlds away at the ever-popular V&A Waterfront – head for the Clock Tower and the gateway to Robben Island. During the 30-minute ferry trip, imposing Table Mountain slowly slides away into a classic postcard-sized image but to capture this iconic view of Cape Town we recommend you get in line for the ferry early and grab one of the limited seats on the upper deck. Keep a look out for penguins and seals in the icy Atlantic waters as you ride across Table Bay.
Once safely on dry land, you board a bus for a 45-minute guided tour of the island. After stopping at places of interest, including the lepers’ graveyard and a blindingly-bright limestone quarry where political prisoners were once put to work, you then arrive at the heart of the tour: the maximum security prison.
You’ll then be shown around the prison by a political ex-prisoner who actually served time on Robben Island. Each provides a frank and moving account of the hardships of everyday life in the prison and the political climate during those dark days of apartheid. You are welcome to ask questions and engage in dialogue.
All in all, the Robben Island tour lasts three and a half hours and while there’s no question that many people find the experience deeply moving, we wouldn’t recommend it for everyone: young children are likely to get bored and fidgety for example. Nevertheless, we find the trip to this World Heritage Site a powerful and gritty reminder of the high price many South Africans paid for their country’s hard-won democracy.
Departure Point: Tours to Robben Island leave from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the Clock Tower section of the V&A Waterfront.
Departure Times: Ferries depart daily at 9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm – weather permitting.