A trip to South Africa’s Cape Town is not complete without a visit to Robben Island. In my view, it is a Cape Town “must see” as a powerful piece of living history! The island, best known for Nelson Mandela, is the notorious place where he spent 18 years (of a total of 27) as a political prisoner (1964-82).
For almost 350 years, Robben Island had been used as a high security prison – most recently for Mandela and other anti-apartheid freedom fighters. It was closed in 1991 and reopened to the public in 1997 as the “Robben Island Museum.”
Visiting Robben Island really helps you understand South Africa’s horrific process of apartheid. This system of racial segregation was enforced – through legislation – by the white Afrikaners National Party, the governing party from 1948-1994.
Robben Island Tour
The 3.5-hour Robben Island tour begins from the Mandela Gateway office at the V&A Waterfront in central Cape Town. The island is located just 6 miles off Cape Town’s shore, so the scenic 30-minute ferry ride to the island is a real bonus. There are great views looking back towards Cape Town and Table Mountain.
When you first arrive, you board a bus for a 45-minute tour around the Island, which includes a stop at the Lime Quarry. Here is where Mandela and other prisoners were forced to do hard labor in the baking sun. We learned that Mandela worked in the quarry for 13 of his 18 years on the island.
The Prison Precinct
Next up was a fascinating walking tour of the Prison Precinct. Amazingly, on this part of the tour, all of the tour guides are former political prisoners! My wonderful guide came to Robben Island in 1984 at the age of 20 and served five years. He told us that being back on the island as a guide was a real sense of victory and has helped him to heal his heart.
We toured the Maximum Security Prison complex (completed in 1964) which held 800 prisoners. Our guide’s many stories about apartheid, prison life, and the power of forgiveness to heal post-apartheid South Africa were sobering and powerful.
Section B, which housed just 26 prisoners in single cells, was reserved for the top leaders. As you can imagine, a highlight for all of us was seeing Mandela’s small austere cell where he spent many long years. It was all quite mind-boggling!
Nelson Mandela – South Africa’s Beloved Hero & Leader
Nelson Mandela finally emerged from prison in 1990. And just four years later (April 1994), he became President of South Africa in the country’s first true democratic election. Plus, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (along with F. W. de Klerk) in 1993 for their success in dismantling apartheid.
Mandela remained beloved by the people of South Africa – black and white – and the rest of the world until his death (at age 95) on December 5, 2013. Here is a fun photo of me and my friend posing in the Johannesburg airport in January 2014 with a HUGE statue of Nelson Mandela (made of beads). He is truly one of my great heroes – and I imagine he might be one of yours too!
Click to read my post “Captivating Cape Town: This Beautiful City Will Steal Your Heart”
Comments: Have you been to Robben Island? Is this on your list if you visit Cape Town? Is Nelson Mandela a hero of yours like me?
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