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World Heritage Site

for World Heritage Travellers

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

Legend

  • Cultural

Visit January 2018

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).

January 2018

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.

January 2018

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.

January 2018

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.

Community Reviews


Michael Turtle Australia 14-Dec-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-Oct-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-Apr-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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Community Rating

Community Rating 2.36. Based on 7 votes.

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 

Locations

The site has 1 locations.

  • Robben Island

Connections

The site has 25 connections.

Architecture

  • Gothic Revival: The Anglican Church, built with convict labour in 1841, is an early example of Cape Gothic style, plastered and painted white on the exterior (AB ev)

Constructions

Ecology

Geography

History

  • Historical events
  • VOC: Via the Dutch East India Company "In 1652 Jan Van Riebeeck, working for the Dutch East India Company, saw in the island an important refueling site on the trading route between Western Europe and India. Sailors began to stop on the island in order hunt seals for fresh meat and to trade with locals for cattle and sheep. This refreshment of supplies was important in order to avoid such deadly diseases as scurvy and dysentery. Throughout the 1650?s and 60?s the island became more and more popular. Dutch sailors began to colonize the island, mining stone for buildings and lighting warning fires at night in order to keep boats from running ashore on the islands rocky coast. settlers. " Until 1795.
  • Slavery: The colonists began a vigorous policy of enslavement of the indigenous peoples and brought them there from other parts of Africa (AB ev)

Human Activity

Individual People

  • Vasco da Gama: The first Europeans to land there were probably members of Vasco de Gama’s fleet, who stopped there in 1498 in search of shelter and supplies. (AB ev)

Religion and Belief

  • Islamic pilgrimage sites: Just to the north of the maximum security prison is the Kramat, a monument built in 1967 on the site where Hadjie Mattarm, a Muslim holy man exiled by the VOC from the East Indies to Robben Island in 1744, was buried. He died in 1755 and his tomb became a place of pilgrimage for the Muslim community of the Cape. (AB ev)

Timeline

Trivia

  • Located in a Capital City: Cape Town (legislative capital of South Africa)
  • Cultural sites taking up an entire island
  • Built or owned by Dutch: Via the Dutch East India Company "In 1652 Jan Van Riebeeck, working for the Dutch East India Company, saw in the island an important refueling site on the trading route between Western Europe and India. Sailors began to stop on the island in order hunt seals for fresh meat and to trade with locals for cattle and sheep. This refreshment of supplies was important in order to avoid such deadly diseases as scurvy and dysentery. Throughout the 1650's and 60's the island became more and more popular. Dutch sailors began to colonize the island, mining stone for buildings and lighting warning fires at night in order to keep boats from running ashore on the islands rocky coast. settlers. " Until 1795.
  • Leprosy: 1836-1931 served as a Leper colony
  • Built or owned by British: Lighthouse etc
  • Location for a classic movie: Invictus (2009)
  • Viewable from another WHS: Can easily be seen from Cape Peninsular NP facing North (e.g from the top of Table Mountain or Signal Hill) within the Cape Floral Region.

World Heritage Process