Blog: WHS #653: Robben Island

Robben Island was the penitentiary island where the South African apartheid regime kept its political prisoners between 1962 and 1991. Almost all of the past and current elite of the ANC was imprisoned here, but the cells also held members from the more radical Pan Africanist Congress and the Namibian independence movement SWAPO. The island, which lies in viewing distance from Cape Town, has been in use since the times of the Dutch East India Company (mid-17th century).

A former prisoner explains

One nowadays can only visit Robben Island on a tightly organized tour. Beforehand I had heard and read a lot about those tours: not a minute of free time to walk around for yourself, unintelligible guides who tell muddled stories, even ferries that get into trouble on the short crossing (60 people had to be rescued from sea in September 2017). But my experience was entirely different: maybe they have taken improvement measures or I caught them on a good day, but the staff on the ferry was very polite, engaging and safety conscious. The personal story of the former prisoner that acted as our guide I found very moving and added value beyond just looking at a bunch of stone prison buildings.

The boat tours depart four times a day from the most touristic part of the port of Cape Town. There, between the expensive restaurants and shops of the V&A Waterfront, lies the ‘Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island’. It is an exhibition space (unfortunately closed when I visited), souvenir shop and mooring for ferries. In the store they really sell everything with the image of Mandela on it, even packets of rooibos tea.

Mandela's cell

The ferry ride takes only half an hour, and from the top deck (be early on board to secure a place there!) you have formidable views of Cape Town with the Table Mountains as its backdrop. We also saw two whales on our way across. Robben Island quickly came into view. I had expected it to be a fairly barren island, but it has a village of considerable size (where the staff of the museum lives), lots of greenery and many former prison buildings.

On arrival we were immediately divided over about five buses, each of which continued on its own route across the island. 'My' bus first went to the prison buildings. The special feature of Robben Island Museum is that former political prisoners who have been detained here have been hired to give the tours. They now live here again on Robben Island, but with their families. Our guide had been living in Johannesburg but could not find work, so he was happy that he had found a job here. I wonder if over the years they’ve filtered out the ones that did not fit the guiding requirements well, as public speaking isn’t for everyone.

Our guide delivered a good and personal story about how he came here and what he did in the 8 years he was imprisoned there (he worked in the kitchen). The only other prisoner who is mentioned over and over here is Nelson Mandela - he already had a special status at that time. Many of the other government leaders of the past 20 years, including the current president Jacob Zuma, have also been detained here. Zuma distinguished himself especially as a football referee. The regime was heavy in the 1960s and 1970s, with little food and ill-treatment. Later on, due to outside pressure the conditions improved and the prison developed into a kind of university for the ANC leadership.

Moturu Kramat

After the prison visit, we were directed back to the bus for a tour of the island. This goes very fast - if you are on the wrong side of the bus to take pictures, you are unlucky (sit on the right!). We see, among other things, the leper cemetery, the village buildings of the former guards, the tomb of a muslim holy man detained by the Dutch East India Company (Moturu Kramat) and the stone quarry where some of the prisoners worked. At the far end of the island we were allowed a break to stretch our legs, buy some drinks at a kiosk or watch penguins. The full tour including ferry crossing eventually took 3.5 hours.

Published 22 January 2018

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