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Robben Island

Robben Island
Photo by Adrian Lakomy

Robben Island has been used to isolate certain people since the end of the 17th century.

It is an island in Table Bay, 12 km off the coast from Cape Town. The name is Dutch for "island of seals". Robben Island is roughly oval and about a kilometer wide. It is flat and only a few metres above sealevel.

From 1836 to 1931 the island was used as a leper colony and in the 20th century it became infamous as a gaol for political prisoners under apartheid. Notable amongst these were Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Tokyo Sexwale, Govan Mbeki, Dennis Brutus and Robert Sobukwe.

During the time that the island was a prison, security was very tight and it was off limits to almost all civilians, including fishermen.

Map of Robben Island


  • Cultural

Community Reviews

Michael Turtle Australia 14.12.15

Robben Island by Michael Turtle

What a disappointing experience. I was really looking forward to visiting Robben Island because of the important part in history it plays - not just in South Africa but across the world. I had heard the tours were taken by former political prisoners and so was expecting to hear a lot of interesting information.

Unfortunately the problem lies not with the tour guide or the state of the island but with the tour organisers themselves. This is the only way you can visit the island - with the one tour company - and they do not provide a rewarding experience.

The first half of the tour is on a bus and you have to peer out the window as they point out different buildings. The information is quite good but you could have read that in a book. I would have preferred to have been walking around and seeing it for myself and getting a sense of the place.

The second half of the tour is inside the jail but you are still in a large group. You get ushered through from room to room and it can sometimes be hard to hear the guide, or he'll start before the last people have come in. Again, all I really wanted was to walk around myself and see the place.

This kind of tour might suit some people but it's a pity there isn't an option to do it another way. I think all the emotion and meaning of the island is lost.

Read more from Michael Turtle here.

Philipp Peterer Switzerland 30.10.15

Robben Island by Philipp Peterer

As an addition to the former reviews I can add, that the visit was not fully satisfying to me. During the whole visit you basically have no time to explore on your own. The mandatory bus tour to see the island starts right after you get off the boat. We could leave the bus 2 times: once at the quarry and once for 15mins on the southern point of the island at a snack bar. I literally ran back to the village we briefly crossed before by bus in order to make a few pictures, before the bus was departing again. When inside the bus, we spend most of the time standing in front of a building, while the guide explained this and that. The prison visit was not better. We spent around 40 of the 45min visit in the same room, where the ex-prisoner talked about live in the prison. We briefly translated to the yard, where he talked for a few more minutes and told us that we will pass the former cell of Nelson Mandela on our way out. When the tour ended we already had to hurry back to the boat, as you don’t get to choose at what time you can go back. It’s a group travel experience that does not fit my usual travel style.

Chris Nielsen, South Africa 30.04.09

I first visited Robben Island in 1994 and was impressed. However, re-visiting it last year (2008) I was bitterly disappointed with the amount of neglect and dereliction that had been allowed to occur there. Certainly the prison has been well-looked after and restored, but the rest of the island verges on the appalling. The guide we had on our tour did nothing but rattle on in her own dreadful version of Afro-glish about Robert Sobukhwe (about whom most of the foreigners on the bus knew nothing) and scarcely made mention of Mandela. We were taken to a rubbish dump from which there was a good view of Cape Town and told that we could take pictures. However, the fortifications and the penguins were utterly lacking from the itinerary and were never mentioned. It struck me that it was an awful pity that such an interesting place had been allowed to reach such a state of dereliction and scabbiness.

Adrian Lakomy Slovakia

Robben Island by Adrian Lakomy

First to say it was a fight to get there :) If you want to visit Robben Island (translation from Dutch - Seal island)they really recommend to make a reservation in advance - pls do it! I sent my reservation on Monday in order to visit the site on wednesday, but the answer was "We are fully booked till saturday". I was quite sad as next day was my last one in SAR. So i agreed with the cashier that if there would be any cancellation, I would take it. I had luck :)

The site consists of two locations - the Nelson Mandela Gateway (+ Jetty 1) which is on mainland. There is a museum and and a port. In the museum there is a small cinema where former prisoners are speaking and singing - it is very emotive. The boat trip to island takes about 30 minutes. If you step out on island you will see the main gate with sign "Robben island welcomes you - we serve with pride". Then you are taken by a bus trip around the island where you can see the village, school, temples, prison for criminals, some shipwrecks, lighthouse and a cannon battery. The guide in a bus was a very funny guy who at least made some humour in this sad place. We visited also the "University of Robben island". It is a small cave in lime quarry where the political prisoners were teaching one another. When the guardsmen caught them, they were punnished.

Next part was a visit of Maximum security jail - thats the part where the political prisoners were held. Ironic is the jail was built by the prisoners itself. All the sectors A-F are ground floor buildings. A-F were cells for one prisoner, D-F were big rooms for 80 prisoners. None of the sector was comfortable. Each guide here is a real polictical prisoner, so you get the info from first hand and its best for you in order to ask a lot of questions.

The place is not a beauty site - but you can feel all the bad what happened there - I had a lot of to think about when we finished. If I do recommend this site? - yes, for sure.

As a bonus: on the island is the second greatest African penguins colony in SAR.

Picture: Prison from outside with our political prisoner as guide

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Site Info

Full name: Robben Island

Unesco ID: 916

Inscribed: 1999

Type: Cultural

Criteria: 3   6  

Link: By Name By ID

Site History

  • 1999 - Inscribed 


The site has 1 locations.

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