For nearly 400 years, Robben Island, about 12 kilometres from
Cape Town, was a place of exile and imprisonment where rulers
sent those they regarded as outcasts and troublemakers.
Since 1997 Robben Island has been a museum acting as a focal
point of South African heritage. Daily tours of about 4 hours
long, including the two half-hour ferry rides are offered (weather
permitting) from the V & A Waterfront in Cape Town. In 1999
the island was declared a World Heritage Site.
During the apartheid years Robben Island was used to isolate
opponents of apartheid and to crush their morale. Freedom fighters,
like Nelson Mandela, spent more than a quarter of a century in
prison for their beliefs.
Overcoming opposition from the prison authorities, prisoners
on the Island after the 1960s were able to organise sporting events,
political debates and educational programmes, and to assert their
right to be treated as human beings, with dignity and equality.
They were able to help the country establish the foundations of
a modern democracy.
Robben Island was used at various times between the 17th and
20th centuries as a prison, a hospital for socially unacceptable
groups and a military base. Its buildings, particularly those
of the late 20th century such as the maximum security prison for
political prisoners, witness the triumph of democracy and freedom
over oppression and racism.
On the road to the village you'll pass a square-towered church
and old Sailboat cannons. Most of the buildings today, date back
to the Second World War with 9.2 inch guns and bunkers bearing
testimony to the armaments erected to defend Cape Town.
The main centre of Robben Island is located in a small village
and mostly everything from milk to building materials had
to be ferried over from Cape Town Harbour. Robben Island generate
it's own electricity and obtains its water from nine boreholes.
Much has been done to restore the Robben Island's ecological
haven to what it used to be centuries ago. In 1991 Robben Island
was included in the SA natural heritage program and the northern
parts of the island was declared a bird sanctuary. Buck, ostrich,
and rabbits are also to be found on the island.
The author Lawrence Green described Robben Island as "The
Island of Exiles". For centuries it was a remote inaccessible
place. It was said that the Portuguese has put prisoners here
in as early as 1525, but to date, no evidence has pointed to this
There has never been a case recorded of anyone swimming to freedom,
yet it is possible as Robben Island is a starting point for many
long distance swimmers today. Of the few escape attempts made,
Harry (or Herry) a leading trader, managed to escape to Saldanha
in a leaky sailboat.
Oliver Tambo, leader of the ANC, once said:
"The tragedy of Africa, in racial and political terms [has
been] concentrated in the southern tip of the continent - in South
Africa, Namibia, and, in a special sense, Robben Island."
How to get there
Tickets are sold at R150 for adults and R75.00 for children aged
4-17 years. Children under 4 come free, but must be included in
The three and a half hour tour includes a return trip across
Table Bay, a visit to the Maximum Security Prison, interaction
with an ex-political prisoner and a 45 minute bus tour with a
guide providing commentary.
To book, contact:
Cape Town Tourism Information Office:
Tel: (021) 405 4500
Fax: (021) 405 4524