Touring Robben Island - A Day "with" Nelson Mandela
Updated: Oct 27
If you know next to nothing about South Africa, you’ve still likely heard two intimately linked names: Nelson Mandela and apartheid. The former was one of the greatest men to walk the earth, the latter one of the most horrific policies implemented in recent history, a policy Mandela played a central role in toppling.
Off the shore of Cape Town, you see a tangible legacy of both: Robben Island. Home to the apartheid-era political prison that held Mandela from 1964 to 1982, touring Robben Island is a must for visitors to Cape Town.
The Background of Robben Island as a Political Prison
Robben Island, named after the Dutch word for seals due to their prevalence on the island’s shores, has been used on and off as a prison since the 17th century - first by the Dutch, then the Brits, and, eventually, by the apartheid government in South Africa.
Located in Table Bay a little over 10 kilometers north of Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, the Dutch and British used the island to hold political prisoners from the 17th through early 20th centuries - generally African chiefs who rose up against their European colonizers. In 1961, the South African government reopened the prison.
In the 1960s, the apartheid government held two types of prisoners on Robben Island: 1) convicted criminals, and 2) political prisoners, mostly members of the anti-apartheid African National Congress, or ANC. As the latter category certainly didn’t qualify as hardened criminals, this initial situation created a prison within the prison. Guards would use the ruthless criminal gangs to torment the political prisoners - a particularly cruel form of the common colonial tactic of pitting one group against another to maintain overall control.
By the 1970s, the political prisoners had won some reforms on Robben Island. While the place remained an awful destination, the government gradually phased out the practice of mixing convicted criminals with the political ones. In the 1970s and 1980s, Robben Island primarily housed political prisoners, alleviating the dual punishment of A) imprisonment, and B) guard-sanctioned beatings, rape, and general toture by gang members.
In 1991, the South African government closed the political prison on Robben Island. Following the end of apartheid, it became a museum, drawing thousands of visitors every year to see the prison and the rest of the island. In 1999, the UN formally declared Robben Island a World Heritage Site due to the prison’s central role in South Africa’s history and, ultimately, democratic development.
Currently, the Robben Island Museum organization manages the site and embraces the following vision: To preserve and promote Robben Island as an inspirational national treasure and World Heritage Site that symbolises the triumph of the human spirit over extreme adversity and injustice.
The Logistics of Getting to Robben Island
Due to the whole island aspect of Robben Island, you can’t just show up there. Instead, you buy tickets - definitely in advance to reserve your spot - for a ferry trip from the Nelson Mandela Gateway to the island itself.
In addition to serving as a literal gateway to access Robben Island, the Nelson Mandela Gateway provides visitors a great historical overview of apartheid, resistance against the South African regime, and the key players in that resistance movement. Located in a beautiful glass, stone and steel structure in the V&A Waterfront, visitors wind their way through this museum on their way to the ferry, giving you the opportunity to read and see all of the associated exhibits.
For us - with limited knowledge of the ins and outs of the anti-apartheid movement - the 30 minutes or so we spent here helped a ton with gaining a more thorough understanding of apartheid’s broader historical context. In other words, the Nelson Mandela Gateway does a great job laying the foundation for a trip to one of the apartheid era’s most notorious prisons.
And, if you choose not to read the information in the awesome Gateway exhibits, you’re still going to get some solid background. Leaving the building, you walk down a pier and board the ferry to Robben Island (and pass some seals on the way). For the 30ish-minute ride across Table Bay, the ferry TV screens plan an extremely well-done film on the history of Robben Island - from historic times all the way through its conversion to a museum.
Touring the Island and Apartheid Priorities
The actual tour of the island takes about three hours, and it’s broken into two parts: a guided bus ride around the island, and then a walking tour of the actual maximum security prison. From the first portion, two things, in particular, jumped out to us.
First, we saw the prison’s kennels, where the guards kept their German shepherds. In a distorted sense of priorities under the apartheid regime, the individual kennel for each dog was larger than the cell where Mandela would spend 18 years of his life.
Second, on a slightly more we’re-optimistic-about-human-nature-even-in-the-worst-of-circumstances note, we were struck by a story from the island’s limestone quarry. On a daily basis, political prisoners worked hard labor hours in this quarry, breaking and hauling rocks in Cape Town’s hot summer sun or cold winter winds. To make the most of this back-breaking, humiliating work, Mandela organized what he’d eventually refer to as the University of Robben Island.
Over time, through Red Cross requests and some smuggling, the inmates acquired a sizable library - history, politics, literature, philosophy. Individual prisoners were assigned texts, tasked not only with reading the given work, but also in preparing lectures and discussions related to the content. During long hours toiling in this limestone quarry, the prisoners taught each other - building their intellect while destroying their bodies. In this fashion, Mandela and his fellow prisoners emphasized that, even in the worst of times, education should take priority.
When you tour Robben Island, you see a pile of rocks just in front of the entrance, clearly positioned intentionally. When then President Mandela - the first president in post-apartheid South Africa - returned to the island with former prisoners, they each placed a single stone in this pile, representing both their humiliating labor and the power of the mind to overcome that humiliation and physical suffering.
In the Prison - with a Former Inmate
After the guided bus tour, we began our walking tour of the prison itself. In an absolutely fascinating example of the “living museum” concept, the museum organization has hired former Robben Island prisoners to serve as guides through the prison - basically walking encyclopedias. Geographically, this would be like touring Alcatraz with former inmates, people who intimately knew the nooks, crannies, and daily routines of that prison.
But, outside of the island parallel, the Alcatraz - Robben Island comparison falls apart, as the former existed for the sole purpose of holding the worst of the worst criminals (plus Sean Connery, if you’ve seen that documentary). Instead, the better analogy would be touring a Soviet gulag, with Solzhenitsyn or one of his fellow political prisoners as your guide.
Bottom line, it’s one thing to tour a prison. It’s quite another to tour a prison with a former inmate, someone who can point to his old cell and paint an intimate picture of daily life on Robben Island. Our guide was locked up from 1977 to 1982, and the insight he gave into time as a political prisoner was invaluable, something that won’t be replicated as these former inmates gradually pass away - more reason to visit South Africa sooner rather than later!
“Gardening” Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom
During our tour inside the prison walls, we saw another testament to the emphasis Mandela placed on the written word - in this instance, his own.
Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela’s autobiography from early childhood through the end of apartheid, was not written overnight. Mandela spent years compiling notes and drafting what would eventually become the published version. With 18 years of his life spent locked up on Robben Island, a significant amount of thought and work went into the autobiography while serving as an inmate there.
But, the guards certainly did not allow such a powerful voice against the apartheid regime to openly draft this sort of book. Instead, Mandela had to write in secret, surreptitiously burying the notes that would become Long Walk to Freedom in a garden tended to by the inmates - including Mandela, himself - within the prison’s walls. Dedication, to say the least.
Grand Africa Cafe and the Torture of Proximity
Following the walking tour of the prison, we hopped on the ferry for the trip back to the V&A Waterfront. In a transition from extremely heavy topics to taking in the pleasures of modern Cape Town, we opted for drinks and a bite to eat at an institution in the city - Grand Africa Cafe.
About a 15-minute walk from the Nelson Mandela Gateway, Grand Africa is an open-air beach bar and restaurant located on the tip of a peninsula jutting out into Table Bay. This location creates an odd dichotomy. On one hand, when you’re sitting at a table, feet in the sand and a table covered with drinks and delicious food, you’re living the Grand Africa Cafe life as it’s meant to be lived - one of the day drinking spots in Cape Town (and site of Jenna’s all-time favorite Caesar salad!).
On the other hand, sitting on the beach, you look out to see Robben Island in the distance. For a prisoner seeing things in reverse, that is, working hard labor on the shores of this prison island, it must’ve been soul crushing to see Cape Town on the horizon, knowing you were so close but so far away from freedom. It’s hard to say what’s better/worse: life as a political prisoner held a hop, skip, and a jump away from home, or a Soviet prisoner banished to the barren, secluded wilderness Siberian tundra?
As two people who’ve never been political prisoners, we can ask this question hypothetically. We can thank our lucky stars that we’ve never needed to experience either end of this spectrum.