Robben Island, Cape Town
For nearly 400 years, Robben Island, 12 kilometres from Cape Town, was a place of banishment, exile, isolation and imprisonment. It was here at Robben Island that rulers sent those regarded as political troublemakers, social outcasts and the unwanted of society.
During the apartheid years Robben Island became internationally known for its institutional brutality. The duty of those who ran Robben Island and the Robben Island prison was to isolate opponents of apartheid and to crush their morale. Some freedom fighters spent more than a quarter of a century in prison on Robben Island for their beliefs. Those imprisoned on the Island succeeded on a psychological and political level in turning a prison 'hell-hole' into a symbol of freedom and personal liberation. Robben Island came to symbolise, not only for South Africa and the African continent, but also for the entire world, the triumph of the human spirit over enormous hardship and adversity.
People lived on Robben Island many thousands of years ago, when the sea channel between the Island and the Cape mainland was not covered with water. Since the Dutch settled at the Cape in the mid-1600s, Robben Island has been used primarily as a prison.
Today, however, Robben Island also tells us about victory over Apartheid and other human rights abuses: 'the indestructibility of the spirit of resistance against colonialism, injustice and oppression'. Overcoming opposition from the prison authorities, prisoners on Robben 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 our modern democracy. The image we have of Robben Island today is as a place of oppression, as well as a place of triumph.
During this time, political and common-law prisoners were still kept on Robben Island. As there was no cure and little effective treatment available for leprosy, mental illness and other chronic illnesses in the 1800s, Robben Island was a kind of prison for the hospital patients too. Since 1997 Robben Island has been a museum. The museum on the Island is a dynamic institution, which acts as a focal point of South African heritage. The Robben Island Museum runs educational programmes for schools, youths and adults, facilitates tourism development, conducts ongoing research related to Robben Island and fulfils an archiving function.
Additional Reading For a brief history and more photographs see our article at "Robben Island, a brief history".
Accommodation nearbyRelated Links
Attractions / Activities nearby
When the apartheid government swooped on District Six, Cape Town in 1965, forcibly removing its occupants and declaring the area a "whites-only" zone, the rich fabric of an impoverished but vibrant community was torn to shreds. Over 60 000 people were wrenched from their homes, livelihoods ... more information
One of Cape Town's biggest tourist attractions, the Waterfront evokes images of the early activities of the harbour. Much of its charm lies in the fact that this busy commercial harbour is set in the midst of a huge entertainment venue with pubs, restaurants, specialty shops, craft markets, theatres and movies ... more information