Robben Island: A Legacy of the Anti-Apartheid Struggle

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series Heritage & Cultural Travel in Africa

Prison Islands occupy a particularly sordid place in the macabre history of crime and punishment. Thanks to the searing autobiography of French detainee Henri Charriere, entited Papillon, or the Butterfly, Devil’s Island has become one of these. The entire Australian continent also lays claim to a penal history. One supposes that the fact of confining dangerous prisoners to an island discourages any form of escape, and no doubt isolates the facility from any kind of investigation, which was certainly the case in the establishment in South Africa of the notorious Robben Island Prison

International Heritage Site

Robben Island, with its cell no: 46664, the 18 year home of iconic black nationalist Nelson Mandela, was granted International Heritage Site status in 1999, five years after the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, and largely thanks to the incarceration on the island of leading ANC activists of the anti-apartheid era. Since then it has been a museum, and home to a diminishing number of local residents, all in one way or another associated with the sites penal past, and all nowdays in one way or another associated with the cultural museum that has taken its place.

The History of Robben Island

Robben Island, meaning Seal Island in the Dutch, lies some 12km off the coast of the Cape Penninsular, and is currently accessible by ferry from Nelson Mandela’s Gateway on the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town. Its penal heritage corresponds more or less with the period of colonial interest and activity in the region, with its initial use in the late 17th century to isolate political activists and leaders of the Dutch Far East colonies. The Maturu Kramat shrine is featured on the Island in honor of imprisoned Musilim holy man Sayed Adurohman Moturu, who, when released, founded Islam among local slaves, and became the first Imam of the colony.

Throughout the 19th century a number of native chiefs were imprisoned on the island during the colonial wars of containment and occupation of that period, as were, of course, the activists and nationalists of the more modern period. Parallel to this the Island has been used alternately as a hospital, a leper colony and a training and defense station during WWII. Vestiges of all these functions remain to interest visitors to the site.

Conditions on Robben Island

During the latter half of the 20th century Robben Island was the home of a number of high profile political prisoners, and it has been this that has tended to define the legacy of the facility. When compared with prison systems elsewhere in Africa, not least Zimbabwe just a short drive north, Robben Island, along with most prisons during the Apartheid period, were hardly abusive, or deprived in terms of the standard of facilities. The regime tended, in the somewhat Teutonic mindset of white South Africa at the times, was ordered, clean, regiment and in many ways without a soul.

No prisoner serving a long term sentence could claim with any authenticity to have been beaten, tortured, starved or abused, but each can recall a confinement that offered very little liberty of spirit, and any moment free of the all encompassing gaze of the system. Nelson Mandela, the highest profile prisoner on Robben island, and later in other facilities on the mainland, had much to say about the humanity and care with which he was treated by individual guards. The overall system, however, was highly impersonal and frighteningly efficient. A brief visit to Robben Island tends to confirm this fact.

Robben Island Today

While recent press coverage in South Africa has highlighted the diminishing permanent population of the island, stagnating now, somewhat, since the passing of it’s primary functions, the South African Government nonetheless values the site as deeply symbolic of the attainment of political and social freedom. Until recently the regular ferry that crossed the choppy waters of the bay was the only link from the island to the outside, but a recent council purchase of a $3.5 million, 300 seater ferry named appropriately Sikhululekile (We are free), has eased the unpredictability of movement between the mainland and the island, and eased also the functionality of the museum. Recently the South African Finance Ministry set aside more than US$7 million for the maintenance and development of Robben Island Museum, for, as staked by then Finance Minister Trevor manuel, ‘conserving and promoting cultural heritage’.

Prison Tours of Robben island

A tour of the Island is, of course, a sombre experience during which one is confronted often by the clipped and ordered approach that the apartheid system in South Africa brought to legal confinement. The guides available to escort individuals or groups through the site are either ex-prison employees, or ex-prisoners themselves, and as might be expected the tour is conducted with both sensitivity and candour.

A ticket costs SAR150 for adults and SAR75 for minors. It is a guided tour that usually lasts for about three and half hours, and includes transport to and from the Island. There are aspects of interest on the Island other that it’s cultural heritage, and some features of its ecology, wildlife and geology are notable. Email bookings are available, or telephone (021) 413 4200

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