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.
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.
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.
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.
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.