Robben Island lies a short ferry ride outside of Cape Town. Its position is close to the mainland, but because of the deep waters between the two, it led to it being used as a prison for many years. This has led to the island becoming a place of great historical significance.
Over the years Robben Island has been the site of prisons, a leper colony and a psychiatric hospital. Three former inmates went on to become South African presidents; Nelson Mandela, Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma all served time on the island.
It was chosen as a site for a hospital for both lepers and those with psychiatric problems for two reasons. The isolated location was seen as necessary for these patients who were deemed dangerous. The beauty of the place was also thought to be beneficial in helping to cure the patients. Initially, the residents were there voluntarily, but eventually, it became used as a place to house lepers who were forcibly removed from other locations.
The island was used for many different prisoners over the years. It was at one time used as a military prison by the British. But, it was most infamously used to house maximum security long term prisoners. Mostly they are anti-apartheid activists and members of the ANC.
1996 was the last year the island was used as a prison. The next year it became the site of a national museum and is well worth a visit today.
You can book tours of the island. The ferries leave from the V&A Waterfront and the Nelson Mandela Gateway. Trips depart at 9 am, 11 am, 1 pm or 3 pm. Tours run Monday to Saturday as long as the weather is favourable. Tickets are R550 for adults and R300 for under 18s. There are discounts for South African citizens.
The tour takes around 3.5 hours. You take the ferry to the island where you board tour buses. The guides will help you learn about the 500-year history of the island. You will get to see the different ways that the history of the island has left its mark on the place. The final stop on the tour is a visit to Nelson Mandela’s cell.Back to Blog Page