During our trip to South Africa, we took a boat ride to Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town. This was no luxury cruise though, our goal was to tour the now-defunct prison on the island and learn more about its history.
Robben Island is perhaps most famous for being the prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 out of his 27 years behind bars after being arrested for conspiracy to overthrow the South African government.
Our tour guide, Zozo, was actually a former inmate at Robben Island. He was arrested on charges of terrorism in 1977, during the Soweto Uprising. Being taken through the prison with someone who had experienced life at Robben Island firsthand definitely made our tour more memorable. He told us about the daily beatings the prisoners faced, and the fact that they were only allowed one hour per day outside.
In order to breed unrest between prisoners, they were divided into two groups and given different meals and treatment depending on their group. In the card above, you can see that one group was allowed jam, extra sugar, and larger portions.
It’s pretty incredible that he took what was a very dark time in his life and has now dedicated his life to sharing the history of Robben Island with so many visitors.
The photo below shows, “Cell Number 5”, Mandela’s cell on Robben Island. It was about 6 x 7 feet and had only a thin sleeping pad, a stool, a bowl and plate, and a toilet bin.
In addition, we were able to see the corner of the outdoor common space that is called “Mandela’s Garden”. Nelson Mandela secretly wrote the first draft of his autobiography (later published as the acclaimed Long Walk to Freedom) while imprisoned on Robben Island. The pages of the manuscript were hidden here in tin containers and buried.
Political prisoners were released from Robben Island in 1991 and the prison was officially closed in 1996. Even though the prisons of Robben Island have been empty for two decades, there are still around 45 full time inhabitants. They maintain the facilities, give tours, run the post office and more and live on Robben Island with their families. There aren’t enough children on Robben Island to maintain a school, so the children travel back to the mainland by boat every day. In order to signal a birth on the island, a flag is raised on the church – pink for a girl and blue for a boy.
One of the most memorable things we saw on the tour was the limestone quarry where the prisoners worked. It was there that Mandela’s eyesight was severely damaged due to the sunlight reflecting off of the light-colored rocks. Because of this, Mandela actually forbade flash photography at press conferences later in his career.
Our guide talked about Nelson Mandela visiting the quarry many years after his release as a part of a prisoner reunion. He placed a stone in the center of the quarry, and the other attendees followed suit. The cairn of stones remains there to this day.
In addition to the prison, Robben Island is one of the few places that the African penguin still lives. The bus stopped briefly at the rocky beach where then penguins live so we could observe them from a distance. This is a picture we took of an African penguin at the nature reserve in Cape Town, but you get the idea!
Tour Tips – There is only one group that offers tours on Robben Island, and that is the Robben Island Museum. All other ‘tours’ are only boat-rides around the island. Don’t be confused! Booking tours in advance is essential as they often sell out.
Robben Island Museum & Tour
PO Box 51806
Cape Town 8002
+27 (0)21 413 4200
Website & Tickets
Thanks so much for reading A Side of Sweet! For more Sweet in your life, you can find me on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, YouTube, Bloglovin‘, Snapchat (@asideofsweet), or Twitter. You can also subscribe to receive a weekly email with new posts and random musings from me.
P.S. – Here are a few more posts from our Cape Town adventure!