Robben Island Dispatch

Robben Island is located about seven km off the coast of Cape Town. It is flat and only a few metres above sea level. The island served as a leper colony in the 19th century and was later used as a maximum security prison for political prisoners and convicted criminals from 1961 until 1991. Nobel Laureate and former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela was imprisoned there for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars. To date, three of the former inmates of Robben Island have gone on to become President of South Africa: Nelson Mandela, Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma.

We’re now in Cape Town. We arrived two days ago after a 28-hour journey from Bombay. We’re in a two bedroom flat in the city centre, about two blocks away from Parliament. Our visit coincides with that of a friend, Anton Simanowitz, who’s here with his wife, kids, brother and parents. We spent a memorable day together yesterday and visited Robben Island. 


The view of Cape Town from the direction of the island is breathtaking.  


We took a bus from the ferry docks to the prison, stopping along the way to learn about the history of the island and its residents. 

This was on the side of our bus:

We were then given a tour of the maximum security wing where Mandela was imprisoned. Derek Basson (below), a former political prisoner in the 1980s, explained how the prison worked.



The courtyard outside Mandela’s cell:


Mandela’s cell:


It was a really powerful experience for all of us. The prison, the racist policies, the leper colony’s graveyard, the quarry where political prisoners laboured.

We caught the last return ferry to the city and on the way whales swam alongside our boat, as if escorting us part of the way back.

We’re starting to settle in here and are finding our way around. We’ll be in Cape Town for almost three weeks and look forward to learning more about the city and writing about our experiences.

3 thoughts on “Robben Island Dispatch

  1. Sounds fascinating, Nig. We did not get out to Robbin Is when we were in Capetown. Sally and I visited Alcatraz when we were in San Francisco about 20 yrs ago and I still remember the visit vividly. We had an audio tour so I remember the sound of opening cell doors, the huge clatter one time when the inmates erupted and threw their chairs and plates in the dining room. It felt like we were “really” there. Have fun. hugs, Mp

    Mary Pat Armstrong 95A Roxborough St. E. Toronto, ON, M4W 1V9 416-922-4812


    1. Powerful is the only word to describe it as you stated Nigel.
      Also remembered the quarry cave aka “the university” where the prisoners sometimes hid from the guards to get away from the everlasting sun which constantly reflected off the limestone in the quarry damaging the eyesight of many of the prisoners, but also where they exchanged all sorts of knowledge with each other.


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