Robben Island

Robben Island

The island, once described by Nelson Mandela as "the harshest, most iron-fisted outpost in the South African penal system," acquired notoriety as a place where the pre-democratic authorities in South Africa banished their political opponents. Robben Island, which lies about 11 kilometres north of Cape Town, has over the years become synonymous with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. It was here that activists like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Robert Sobukwe and Neville Alexander, among many others, were imprisoned because of their opposition to apartheid.


The historical importance of Robben Island (meaning "Seal Island") can be gauged by its designation as a National Museum and cultural heritage site. Paradoxically, the Island symbolizes both the repressiveness of the Apartheid state and the resolve of those who opposed it. Daily tours to the Island depart from the V & A Waterfront.

The Robben Island Museum (RIM)

The Robben Island Museum was established as a National Monument and a National Museum by the Cabinet of the South African Government in September 1996. As of January 1997, the Island has been administered by the Department of Arts & Culture, and the public has been able to participate in tours to historic sites such as the cell where President Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. On 1 December 1999, Robben Island was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. RIM currently has departments including Media, Tours and Heritage, working to implement a long-term vision for the Museum.

Robben Island Museum operates as a site and living museum. It aims to develop the Island as a national and international heritage and conservation institution. In managing its resources and activities, RIM will strive to maintain the unique and universal symbolism of the Island, nurture creativity and innovation as well as to contribute to the socio-economic development and transformation of the South African society and enrich humanity.

A brief history of Robben Island

Robben Island, which lies about 11 kilometres north of Cape Town, has over the years become synonymous with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. It was here that activists like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Robert Sobukwe and Neville Alexander, among many others, were imprisoned because of their opposition to apartheid. The island, once described by Nelson Mandela as "the harshest, most iron-fisted outpost in the South African penal system," acquired notoriety as a place where the pre-democratic authorities in South Africa banished their political opponents.

The historical importance of Robben Island (meaning "Seal Island") can be gauged by its designation as a National Museum and cultural heritage site. Paradoxically, the Island symbolises both the repressiveness of the Apartheid state and the resolve of those who opposed it. While attention has focused mainly on the Island’s role as political prison and on the well-known prisoners held there, the 574 hectare area has been put to a variety of uses including as a pantry, hospital, mental asylum and military camp. Over the last four hundred years, prisoners and exiles have included slaves from Angola and West Africa, princes from the East, chiefs who resisted British colonial rule, lepers, the mentally disturbed and most recently, political opponents of the apartheid regime.

Robben Island Tours

Following the handover of Robben Island to the Department of Arts, Culture, Science & Technology, the newly established Robben Island Museum is conducting daily tours to the most symbolically significant site in South Africa.

Tours have been upgraded to accommodate 1000 visitors daily. The Robben Island Museum is aware of the need to make Robben Island accessible to the largest number of tourists and members of the general public as soon as possible. However, we must ask that patience is exercised in that regard, for it is an awesome challenge to make accessible a place that has been specifically chosen and designed for maximum inaccessibility. Without careful planning there is a very real danger that the unique cultural and natural ecology of Robben Island, protected by centuries of state-enforced isolation, could be destroyed in a single weekend of uncontrolled access.

Tickets are sold from the Embarkation Point on Jetty 1 at the V&A Waterfront, directly in front of the extension to the Victoria Wharf. The office is open from 07h30 - 17h00. For further information, please call (021) 419 1300 (Office hours). Ferries depart promptly at the times indicated. Please ensure that you arrive 30 minutes before departure.

Please Note:

  • Group tours to be accommodated by special arrangement.
  • Special rates are available on written request.
  • Physically challenged visitors should inform the booking office prior to their visit.

Escapes from Robben Island

In 1659 Autshumato escaped with a fellow Khoikhoi captive by rowing to the mainland in a stolen boat. In 1690, a convict, Jan Rykman escaped by swimming to the mainland in the first recorded swim from Robben Island.

In 1820 Prince Makana and 30 other convicts tried to escape by boat. The boat capsized and only four men including Khoikhoi leaders David Stuurman and Trompetter survived. They were both recaptured and sent to Australia.

References:

The Island - edited by Harriet Deacon, David Philip Publishers, 1996, Cape Town.
Dreaming of Freedom - The story of Robben Island by Penny Berens, Mayibuye Centre, et al, Sached Books/Mayibuye Books, 1995, Cape Town.
Cape Nature Conservation submission to the Future of Robben Island Committee, 1996.
**Extracted from: Sign of the Times Tourism and Public History at Cape Town’s Victoria and Alfred Waterfront by Nigel Worden and Elizabeth van Heyningen, 1996
Excursion to Robben Island by Robert Hill and Hannes Theron, Geology Society of South Africa, Council for Geoscience, Bellville.

NOTE THAT BOOKS & PUBLICATIONS ARE ON SALE AT THE FERRY EMBARKATION POINT
"While we will not forget the brutality of apartheid we will not want Robben Island to be a monument of our hardship and suffering. We would want it to be a monument reflecting the triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil; a triumph of freedom and human dignity over repression and humiliation; a triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness; a triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness; a triumph of non-racialism over bigotry and intolerance; a triumph of the new South Africa over the old."
- AHMED KATHRADA, CHAIRPERSON OF THE FUTURE OF ROBBEN ISLAND

Contact

Visiting address:
Nelson Mandela Gateway
PO Box 51806
V&A Waterfront
Cape Town 8002
Tel +27 21 413 4220/1 (Nelson Mandela Gateway)
Tel +27 21 409 5169 (Robben Island)
Fax: +27 (0)21 419 1057, +27 (0)21 4111 059
Email: inf...@robben-island.org.za (Nelson Mandela Gateway)
Email: inf...@robben-island.org.za (Robben Island)

Postal address:
Robben Island Museum
Private Bag
Robben Island
Cape Town 7400

Advance Bookings
The price of the ticket includes access to Robben Island, ferry voyage to and from the Island and access to Jetty 1 and Nelson Mandela Gateway exhibitions. The ticket sales office is located at the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront, Cape Town.
Tel +27 21 413 4263/4
Fax +27 21 418 3082
Email: rimb...@robben-island.org.za

Special Tours
The entire trip lasts three and a half hours and costs around R150.
Tel +27 21 411 1037
Email: spec...@robben-island.org.za
Robben Island on the web: http://www.robben-island.org.za/
Robben Island Museum (RIM)


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