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AAs you make your way through the corridors of the prison on Robben Island, you get transported to a painful time in South African history. Standing in the jail cell that housed Nelson Mandela for so many years makes the emotional story of the South African struggle for democracy and equality hit home.
A trip to Robben Island is a bittersweet experience, but it is highly recommended to anyone visiting Cape Town.
The island has been reinvented many times over the years: by turns a leper colony, a colonial prison, a whaling station, an animal quarantine area and a defensive military base, this World Heritage Site’s most famous incarnation was as a political prison for anti-apartheid activists like late former president Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
When you set foot on the island, you’re able to see the cell in which Mandela, the world's most famous prisoner, was held for 18 of the 27 years he was incarcerated. It’s a place many have come to be humbled and to pay homage to the father of South African democracy, including the likes of former US presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
On ‘the island’, as it became known among anti-apartheid stalwarts, the leaders of ‘the Struggle’ forged their political thinking and the relationships that would become a feature of post-apartheid South Africa. It was also here that Mandela emerged as a leader of the African National Congress.
But when Mandela arrived on the island in the winter of 1964, the conditions he encountered were harsh.
Prisoners were confined to small cells with only a sleeping mat and bucket toilet. Each morning they were woken at 5.30am to empty their buckets and start another day of hard labour. Black prisoners received an inferior diet compared to their white and coloured counterparts. Even more cruelly, they were deprived of contact with their loved ones: limited to a half-hour visit once a year from a family member and only two letters.
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 South Africa.
It was for this reason that Unesco’s World Heritage Committee chose to mark this location for its ‘triumph of the human spirit’.
Today, you can catch a ferry ride to what is now called the Robben Island Museum. The standard tour starts at the Nelson Mandela Gateway at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront and takes around 3 and a half hours in total (the boat ride is 30 minutes each way).
To add to the immersive experience, tours are often led by former political prisoners who draw a vivid picture of life in prison. The history of Robben Island is also sketched in a 45-minute bus tour.
It’s one of the world’s greatest cultural heritage destinations, both for its tragedy and its triumph. It is a testimony to the true spirit of the South African people and gives an important perspective on our history.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Robben Island Museum
Tel: +27 (0)21 409 5100
Nelson Mandela Gateway
Tel: +27 (0)21 413 4200
How to get here
By ferry, from the Nelson Mandela Gateway on the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. Boarding gates close 10 minutes ahead of departure.
Best time to visit
In the spring and summer months (September to March). During Western Cape’s windy, rainy winter, the seas can be rough.
Around the area
Take a day trip around the Cape Peninsula – see the listed Cape Point Route website for details.
Tours to do
The Robben Island tour includes a return boat trip across Table Bay, a visit to the prison led by a former political prisoner, a 45-minute bus ride with commentary, and the opportunity to explore the Murray’s Bay Harbour attractions, such as the Moturu Kramat and the museum shop.
On the conducted tour you will be moved around the island by coach.
What will it cost?
Prices are subject to change, but as of May 2019 the Robben Island Museum Tour costs R360 per adult and R200 per child under the age of 18.
Length of stay
The standard tour to Robben Island is 3.5 hours long, including 30-minute ferry rides each way.
What to pack
Take walking shoes, a camera, a hat and don’t forget that sunblock. Rain gear is also a good idea if you’re visiting between April and September.
Where to stay
The V&A Waterfront has lots of great accommodation – check the listed Cape Town Travel website for options.
What to eat
Seafood delights at the various V&A Waterfront restaurants.
- Robben Island Tours
- United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco)
- Cape Town Tourism
- Cape Point Route
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