Robben Island History
South Africa’s history is complex and no other place exemplifies this more than Robben Island. Located just off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, Robben Island is now a monument to South Africa’s tumultuous past.
From the years of 1948 to 1994, South Africa had ‘apartheid’ which was a legal and systematic way of oppressing people based on their races- more specifically, their skin color. It began in 1948 with legislation by the DA, a historically white political party. It eventually culminated in forced removals of the majority, all non-whites, in the 1960’s. I could get into the complexities of Apartheid, but rather I urge you to do research and get educated on something outside of the usual curriculum.
During this time, there was serious resistance from these racial groups that were being discriminating against. Political activism became the norm and many people got involved. Nelson Mandela was the face of this movement, though he had support of many brilliant people behind him. The resistance was matched with push back from the government that handed out jail/prison sentences liberally. If you were deemed a political prisoner, you were sent to Robben Island. This is where Nelson Mandela and his colleagues were held- Mandela for a total of 27 years. After Mandela was released from prison, South Africa became a democracy and in their first democratic elections, Mandela became President.
Robben Island is where he wrote a significant portion of his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.” If you are interested in Mandela, South Africa, or social movements- I cannot recommend it enough.
How to get to Robben Island
Because Robben Island is an island, there is only one way to get there- by boat! The Robben Island museum is located at the V & A Waterfront in Cape Town, South Africa. This is the gateway to get to the island. There are 4 round trip ferries daily that go between the Waterfront and the island. Book your tickets ahead of time as they often sell out weeks in advance. In the summer, book your tickets at least a month in advance.
The Robben Island Tour
In order to visit Robben Island, you must go through the Robben Island Museum. The island is not accessible any other way and you are not allowed to roam the island free. Included in your ferry ticket price: the round trip ferry ride, a bus tour of the island, and a prison tour.
The ferry ride is anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour long, depending on weather. They often have to cancel trips, so if the weather is particularly windy or rainy, call ahead to make sure the tour is still on. If you get motion sickness, I would recommend taking some medicine or making sure to sit on the upper deck in the open air. Watching the horizon and have a breeze on you makes a difference.
Once you are to the island, they break the group up into two smaller groups. Depending on which group you are in, you will take either the bus tour or prison tour first. On the bus tour, you drive around parts of the island and learn about Robben Island as a whole. There will be someone narrating along the way ad they are well informed so don’t hesitate to ask questions! Be sure to get out at the lookout point- this Is arguably the best view of Cape Town in the city. Which added insult to injury while the island was still housing prisoners.
The prison tour is lead by an ex-political prisoner that stayed on Robben Island. This is important to remember throughout the tour because the gravity of a former prisoner showing you the place they were imprisoned is the definition of maturity and growth. Listen to their stories and ask them questions. They love sharing the history and their personal history of their tenure. You will get a change to walk around the prison grounds and also visit Nelson Mandela’s personal, solitary confinement, cell. Be sure to take pictures, but in a respectful manner.
Best time to visit Robben Island
The best time to visit Robben Island is in the summer. Unfortunately, this is the busy season, which is why it is essential to book your tickets ahead of time. The ferry ride will serve as a bonus, beautiful, boat ride for you while in Cape Town.
Tours in the winter months are more likely to be canceled to due weather. But you would probably have the flexibility to get other tickets for any other time because of it being the off-season.
Overall Thoughts on the Robben Island Tour
Coming from a social work background, I was thoroughly taken aback by the Robben Island experience. I had previously read Long Walk to Freedom so I was itching to visit this historic site. Much of my graduate degree was shaped by my love of South Africa and this was one of the pillars of it. The former prisoner that gave my tour stayed with Mandela for 6 years, which was completely overwhelming to me. I had read about this social movement, political activism, and people’s bravery in a book and now it was shaking my hand.
I have heard from several South Africans that they would prefer if Robben Island was no longer popular and eventually shut down. Though rates of tourism for this site have dropped, it is still one of the things that is on a person’s to-do list when in Cape Town. I understand that South Africa is trying to move forward and forget about the oppressive history. I can also understand not wanting to be a country of monuments to the past rather than taking action in the present. But Apartheid, the movement surrounding it, and Mandela are simply too world wide to be forgotten about.
With all of the social unrest and injustice that is sprouting up, sometimes it is healthy and beneficial to look to our past to confirm mistakes that we do not want to make in our future. This is something that is universal.
Be informed and be present.