Robben Island

For nearly 400 years, Robben Island, 12 kilometres from Cape Town, was a place of banishment, exile, isolation and imprisonment...

Western Cape Tourist AttractionsRobben Island

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.

Where? Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa

When? Daily tours depart from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.

How? Call +27 (0)21 409-5100

Overnight? See Cape Town accommodation, in Western Cape

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.

Indigenous African leaders, Muslim leaders from the East Indies, Dutch and British settler soldiers and civilians, women, and anti-apartheid activists, including South Africa's first democratic President, Nelson Rohihlahla Mandela and the founding leader of the Pan Africanist Congress, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, were all imprisoned on Robben Island.

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.

Robben Island has not only been used as a prison. It was a training and defence station in World War II (1939-1945) and a hospital for leprosy patients, and the mentally and chronically ill (1846-1931). In the 1840s, Robben Island was chosen for a hospital because it was both secure (isolating dangerous cases) and healthy (providing a good environment for cure).

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.

Popular Attractions & Activities on Robben Island

Tour of Robben Island

Declared a World Heritage Site a tour of Robben Island takes 3 and a half hours and lasts a lifetime in your mind. The ferry ride approaching Robben Island and returning to V&A Waterfront across Table Bay displays a spectacular view...

More info and contact details: Tour of Robben Island

Robben Island Penguin Colony

Few people know of this colony's existence. When the Dutch originally arrived in the Cape, penguins dominated Robben Island. But by 1800 they were all gone - killed to add variety to the rabbits introduced in 1685 as a source of meat for...

More info and contact details: Robben Island Penguin Colony

See the Light on Robben Island

This cylindrical masonry tower in a coat of white is accessible for close inspection on a Robben Island Museum tour and visible from far (focal plane height of 47 meters above high water) on a boat cruise. The island location of this light...

More info and contact details: Robben Island Lighthouse

Did you know?

The most famous political prisoners that spent time on Robben Island include former president Nelson Mandela, Tokyo Sexwale, Jacob Zuma, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki.

Daily tours depart from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.

Accessed by ferry, one of Robben Islandís ex-political prisoners will take you on a tour to learn the significance of the prison and its inmates in shaping the history of South Africa.

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