Robben Island - History and Facts | History Hit

Robben Island

Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

Dutch for ‘seal island’, Robben Island is one of the world’s most famous prisons and is best known as the home to not one but three former South African presidents, Kgalema Motlanthe, Jacob Zuma and for 18 of his 27 years of incarceration, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

Amy Irvine

16 Jul 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Robben Island

Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town in South Africa was a notorious prison, best known for its internment of political prisoners during South African apartheid. Its most famous prisoner – prisoner 466/64 – was Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist who would later become the country’s president.

History of Robben Island

Robben Island was used as a prison as far back as the 17th century, when the Dutch settled on the mainland. Since then, it has been used as a World War Two military base to protect the city of Cape Town (resulting in the construction of artillery batteries, fortifications, and an airstrip) and a 19th century hospital for the seriously ill, such as patients with leprosy.

However, whatever its other uses, Robben Island was used as a prison in one measure or another until the 20th century. Even in its time as a hospital Robben Island was prison-like, its isolation ensuring that diseases could not be spread to the mainland. Furthermore, prisoners were kept here even whilst it housed the hospital.

From 1961, the South African government used Robben Island as a prison, housing many political prisoners.

In all, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for almost 27 years, many of them at Robben Island, together with many other anti-apartheid activists. Robben Island’s prison closed in 1996.

Robben Island today

Today, Robben Island is a UNESCO World Heritage historic site and a museum. A visit to Robben Island is by way of a standardised 3.5 hour guided tour (time includes two 30min ferry rides).

In addition to touring the maximum security prison buildings, the tour includes a 45 minute guided bus ride around the island and interaction with a former Robben Island prisoner. There is also a small penguin colony on the island. A visit to Robben Island provides a fascinating insight into the island’s history and that of South Africa. It is worth noting however that tours can get fairly crowded, so book ahead.

There are also exhibits at the Nelson Mandela Gateway museum, worth seeing, especially if you can’t make it to the Island.

Getting to Robben Island

Located 7.2 miles from the mainland (8.2 miles from Cape Town), the only way to get to Robben Island is by ferry. This departs from Nelson Mandela Gateway, Clock Tower Precinct at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town – visitors disembark and re-embark at Murray’s Bay Harbour situated on the east coast of the Island. The ferry is included in the price of the ticket.

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