At times a leper colony, mental hospital and defence training base, the Robben Island World Heritage Site is more famed as the prison to which anti-apartheid activists, among them former president Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, were banished. A ‘university of the struggle’, its graduates went on to lead South Africa into democracy.

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Robben Island was once connected to the mainland by a strip of land.

Perhaps the most impressionable aspect of a visit to Cape Town is a boat trip out to the former prison at Robben Island, a South African World Heritage Site that represents a critical chapter in the country's path towards democracy. It gives a unique glimpse into the immense sacrifice made by former president Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and his comrades.

Visitors to the island are able to see the cell in which Mandela, the world's most famous prisoner, as he was known for many years, spent 18 years of his 27-year incarceration. It is this drawcard that has seen the likes of former US president Bill Clinton and current US president Barack Obama visit here to pay homage to the great man.

On The Island, as it became known, the leaders of the Struggle against racial oppression forged their political thinking and the relationships that would be a feature of post-apartheid South Africa. It was also here that Mandela emerged as a leader of the African National Congress and the colossus that he was to become around the world.

But when Mandela arrived on the island in the winter of 1964, he encountered harsh conditions.

Prisoners were confined to small cells with only a sleeping mat and bucket toilet. Each morning they were roused at 5.30am to empty their buckets and face a day of hard labour. Black prisoners received an inferior diet to their white and coloured counterparts. Even more cruelly, they were deprived of contact with their loved ones, and limited to a half-hour visit a year from a family member, and only two letters.

These conditions notwithstanding, The Island became an informal 'university' where the prisoners who were to become the next generation of political leaders in South Africa spent many hours in debate and discussion.

Isolated from family and friends, Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Ahmed Kathrada, among others, proved themselves to be men of steel, never wavering in their hope of a new dispensation.

It was for this reason that UNESCO's World Heritage Committee chose to mark this location for its 'triumph of the human spirit'.

Today, visitors can take a ferry ride to see what is now the Robben Island Museum. The standard tour starts at the Nelson Mandela Gateway at Cape Town's V&A Waterfront and takes around 3.5 hours in total (the boat ride is half-an-hour one way).

Tours of the former maximum-security jail are often led by former political prisoners, who draw a vivid picture of life in incarceration. The history of Robben Island is also sketched in a 45-minute bus tour. The island also has interesting bird and marine life.

As one of the world's great cultural heritage destinations, Robben Island is memorable for both its tragedy and exultation, and its testimony to faith and spirit in the most humiliating of conditions. It is an excursion that cannot fail to stir the soul.

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