Robben Island is situated about 12km into the sea in the middle
of Table Bay. Separated from the Cape mainland by a narrow channel
of seawater, the island is a remote place, considered inaccessible
for centuries. The author Lawrence Green described Robben Island
as "The Island of Exiles", an appropriate title, given
that the island has been used primarily as a prison ever since
the Dutch settled at the Cape in the mid-16th century.
For 400 years, Robben Island served as a place
of exile, beginning as a leper colony. From 1846-1931, the island
harboured a hospital for leprosy patients, and the mentally and
chronically ill. During this time, political and common-law prisoners
were still kept on the island, and the island was as much a prison
to them as to the patients, for whose ailing there was no cure and
little effective treatment available.
During World War II (1939-1945) the Island was
a training and defence station, and in 1961 it was converted to
a maximum-security prison. African and Muslim leaders, Dutch and
British soldiers and civilians, and even women were all imprisoned
on the island. South Africa's first democratic President, Nelson
Mandela and the founding leader of the Pan African Congress, Robert
Sobukwe, are among the more well known political figures who served
their prison sentence on Robben Island during the Apartheid era.
The last political prisoner was released in 1991
and today the prison houses around 700 medium-security inmates.
Robben Island not only holds historical remnants
of an era considered to be one of the most important learning curves
of South Africa; it also tells us about 'the indestructibility of
the spirit of resistance against colonialism, injustice and oppression'.
Overcoming opposition from the prison authorities, prisoners on
the Island after the 1960s were able to organise sporting events,
political debates and educational programmes. By asserting their
right to be treated as human beings, with dignity and equality,
these prisoners contributed to establishing the foundations of South
Africa's modern democracy.
Much has been done to restore the island's ecological
haven to what it used to be before the intervention of man. In 1991
Robben Island was included in the SA natural heritage program and
the northern part of the island was declared a bird sanctuary. Springbuck,
ostrich, rabbits, Jackass penguins and Cape Fur seals are among
the wildlife found on the island. In 1997 the Robben Island National
Museum was established. The Museum is a dynamic institution and
runs educational programs for schools, youths and adults. It facilitates
tourism development, conducts ongoing research related to the island
and is responsible for the safekeeping of various archives. On December
1st, 1999, Robben Island was listed as a World Heritage Site by
Today the island has a thriving population that lives in a quaint
village with a bank, post office, museum and grocery store. On the
road to the village visitors pass a square-towered church, old Sailboat
cannons and old cars that sputter along the narrow tar roads. Most
of the buildings date back to World War II, a historical background
supported by the evidence of bunkers and 9.2-inch guns. These armaments
were erected during the war to protect Cape Town from her enemies.
The island generates its own electricity and the
inhabitants get their water from nine boreholes. Practically everything
else, from milk to building materials, has to be ferried over from
Cape Town Harbour.
Ferries sail daily from the V&A Waterfront jetty, taking visitors
to the island. The entire trip lasts about 3½ hours, including
the guided tours. Former political prisoners lead these tours around
the cells and it is an emotional experience for many involved. For
many South Africans, Robben Island is a place synonymous with leaders,
and the struggle for freedom in this beautiful country.