Robben Island, Western Cape
Did you know?
Robben Island was once a leper colony and a quarantine station.
Once a symbol of oppression, Robben Island is now a cultural and conservation showcase for the new South African democracy, an international icon of the triumph of good over evil.
Declared a World Heritage Site in 1999 and housing a world-class museum, it is here that Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists were incarcerated.
This bean-shaped island is situated in Table Bay with superb views over Cape Town. Its high point is only 30m above sea level at Minto Hill, atop which is the oldest lighthouse in the southern hemisphere.
The first recorded landing on Robben Island was in 1498 when Vasco da Gama's support fleet took temporary refuge in its waters. Its situation also made it ideal as a place of quarantine and during much of the British colonial period it was used as a leper colony.
But it is as a place of banishment and exile that this Robben Island prison is notorious. Miscreant sailors were offloaded here, as were Muslim activists fighting Dutch colonisation in the Far East. The British, after taking permanent command at the beginning of the 19th century, continued this tradition by banishing troublesome traditional leaders opposing settler incursion into the interior.
In 1960 the apartheid government used the newly constructed maximum security section as a political prison. Those incarcerated here were subject to brutality, but few were broken and the epic tale of their experiences is today symbolic of the triumph of ordinary people over an extraordinary crime against humanity.
Robben Island prison is now a living museum and tours leave from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. These include a boat trip across Table Bay, a visit to the maximum security prison and a 45-minute bus tour of the island.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Robben Island Prison Museum
Tel: +27 (0) 21 409 5169
Nelson Mandela Gateway (from where the ferry leaves)
Tel: +27 (0) 21 413 4270/1