The prison on Robben Island is one of the best known reminders of the African apartheid regime. The island was made world famous by Nelson Mandela, who spent over eighteen years locked up here.
Robben Island (Robbeneiland, or Seal Island, in Dutch) is named after the many seals which the Dutch colonists observed there. As far back as 1652, the island was used by the VOC as a prison for unruly sailors. Robben Island was the perfect location for this due to the strong currents and the surrounding cold waters. In the almost 400 years that the island was in use as a prison, only three prisoners managed to escape and reach the mainland alive.
Robben Island was a leper colony from 1836 to 1931, then used as a military base during the Second World War. In 1959, it was refurbished to become the highest-security prison of the South African apartheid regime. Nelson Mandela arrived on Robben Island in 1964 after he was convicted of preparing for a guerrilla war against the government.
During his captivity, Mandela often had to work in the limestone quarry on the island. The bright blinding light and fine dust in the white limestone permanently damaged his eyes. The mine was also used by the prisoners to discuss politics and teach each other. Mandela wanted to stimulate his fellow prisoners to continue to develop intellectually, and secret lectures about various topics were regularly organised there. This is why the prison was also known as Robben Island University by the inmates, and later called Nelson Mandela University. In 1982, after eighteen years, Mandela was moved to Pollsmoore Prison in Cape Town.
Since 1997, Robben Island has been open to the public as a museum. Four times per day, a boat sails from the Nelson Mandela Gateway to the island. A special tour bus then drives along a fixed route connecting the most interesting spots on the island, while the history, residents and nature of the island are explained. The real attraction is, of course, the cell complex. Guided tours are given here by ex-prisoners, many of whom were held here at the same time as Mandela.
More information on: www.robben-island.org.za