Visiting Robben Island

It was absolutely imperative for me to visit Robben Island on our trip to Cape Town. There were other cultural and historical excursions that we didn’t do: a tour of a township, the District Six Museum, etc. But I wouldn’t have felt I had really visited South Africa without at least seeing this prison.

It’s the only activity we reserved before leaving France, because the tours fill up a few days ahead of time. But tickets are really easy to buy online and then print out or keep on your smartphone.

The trip starts with a ferry ride out of the V&A Waterfront after passing through security detectors. The ride itself is nice and allows a sea view of Cape Town and its ridiculous gigantic mountain in the middle of the city.

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Table Mountain and Cape Town from the bay

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The stadium (built for the World Cup in 2010) from the bay

Besides the ferry ride, the tour includes a tour of the prison with a former prisoner and a bus tour of the island with a professional guide.

Our prison guide was a man who was arrested in the student movement of the late 70s after having left the country to get military training in Angola and other places (which in itself was illegal). He was 24 when he was arrested and sent to Robben Island after a period of detention before trial during which, like all the other prisoners, he was tortured and unsure whether he’d make it to trial alive.

He showed us a group cell for forty men, explaining the different rules for the different “races”, an effort by the prison to divide the prisoners.

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Group cell for forty men (obviously there were no longer forty beds in here)

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An example of an ID card with the prisoner’s number

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The different meals according to the prisoner’s race

We then moved on to the individual cells which we saw from the outside before passing in front of Nelson Mandela’s cell from the inside.

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The yard outside the individual cells

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Nelson Mandela’s cell (pre-bed)

I learned a lot from this part of the tour about the functioning of the prison, including the different meals and uniforms according to race, the absence of beds until 1969, the limitations on visitors and the censoring of letters (all letters and visits had to be in Afrikaans or English).

The guide was actually quite difficult to understand and I had to concentrate to catch as much as possible, and then try to quickly interpret for J. There were a lot of foreign visitors on this tour and I think a lot of them probably didn’t understand much. To be honest the group felt too big for such a heavily historical place with a guide who wasn’t professional but rather someone directly concerned by what he was telling us. It felt like some of the other tourists were more in a “consumerist” tourist mode and some of the respect for the place was lost. But at the end a lot of people thanked this guide personally so I think it was a visit that counted for a lot of people too. There’s so much demand that I don’t know if they could make the groups smaller, but I felt it would have been more appropriate.

As for the bus tour around the island, we learned a bit more about the prison and the stories of the island, which served as a prison as early as the 1600s and also as a leper colony. We got a good review of how the Pass Laws worked and some of the other important prisoners on the island. We also saw some turtles.

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On the walkway from the boat to the prison

I’d be interested to know if anyone out there has visited any comparable historical sites. This part of South Africa’s history is so, so recent and had so much impact on its current culture that as a tourist “attraction” Robben Island feels exceptional to me.

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5 thoughts on “Visiting Robben Island

  1. South Africa has been on my list for a long time and I’ve loved reading your posts and seeing pictures. I’m hoping to save some money to get there next summer– we will see. Robben Island is a must. Thanks for sharing Eileen

    • Glad you’ve enjoyed it! It was a fascinating place, and took me a little out of my comfort zone while still being developed enough to visit easily. It was a big budget but mostly for the plane ticket, and there were cheaper tickets than the ones we bought. Accommodation and car rental were very cheap.

      • that’s good to know! I’m only used to doing “cheap Euro trips” so SA would be a big jump. But I’m looking forward to it!

  2. Having someone who actually lived through experiences at the prisons must have made the visit that much more interesting (and heartbreaking) even if some people were just being “tourists”.

    I kind of felt weird when visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. So many people were busy taking photos and other super touristy things, and I just wanted to break into tears thinking about what happened there and not all that far in the past either.

    • That’s very interesting about Auschwitz. I didn’t visit Auschwitz when I was in Poland since I had visited Dachau with my parents when I was 13 and felt that it had impressed me enough for life. Maybe some day I’ll visit another one. I remember the atmosphere at Dachau being very somber, but I was with a big group of my parents’ colleagues, so maybe that made a difference. Also it’s probably less visited than Auschwitz.

      At Robben Island one guy took a selfie of himself behind a barred door smiling… I was like … whaaaat?

      The guide seemed unphased by anyone’s behavior and had a few jokes in his routine as well so I guess none of it bothered him. Plus, like I said, a lot of people did thank him personally at the end.

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