Postcards from Outcast Isle

Imagine standing here, looking across to the mainland, knowing that’s where your family and friends are – and where you might not set foot for 20 years or so.

View from Robben Island
View of Cape Town from Robben Island.

Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment here on Robben Island. However, although he is the island’s most famous inmate, there’s a much longer history here. A history of sequestering the socially undesirable.

Our guided tour begins with a bumpy bus ride along the island’s dirt roads. In the 19th century Robben Island served as home for those who suffered from Hansen’s disease, better known as leprosy. We drive past the buildings that once housed the hundred of lepers who were sent here – often against their will.

Robben Island

We stop at Sobukwe’s house, set quite a distance apart from other buildings on the island. Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe was a political dissident who after having served his sentence, was sent to solitary confinement on Robben Island. A new law allowed the Minister of Justice to renew his imprisonment year by year. This became known as the Sobukwe clause, as he was the only one ever to be subjected to the minister’s whimsy in this way.

Sobukwe letter, Robben Island

Further along is the lime quarry where prisoners had to slave away, rain or shine.

Lime quarry, Robben Island

At the island’s main prison, we’re met by a former inmate who is to be our guide. Charged with terrorism, he was incarcerated in Robben Island’s maximum security prison.

Robben Island - guide

His voice is sonorous and powerful, echoing off the walls in the now empty communal cell where he spent every night for 7 years…

Robben Island

… along with 59 other prisoners.

Each had three blankets: one served as sheet, one as pillow, and one as cover. Other than that, it was just the stone floor.

Robben Island - bedding

Blankets had to be folded just right every morning, and toilet buckets had to be carried out before work. Otherwise there would be repercussions. Microphones were installed as a measure to prevent political discussions.

Prison diet depended upon your skin colour.
Robben Island - diet

Nelson Mandela

Mandela spent his 18 years here in block B, cell no. 7. He was prisoner number 466-64. I’m leaving you with an unfiltered, unframed photo of his cell, left as it was.

Robben Island, cell 7 block B

Robben Island practicals:

A guided tour (your only option) of Robben Island costs 250 rand (120 rands for under 18s), including the return 30-min ferry ride from Cape Town. You can get tickets at V&A Waterfront, but it’s best to book online ( Ferries leave at 0900, 1100, 1300 and 1500, weather permitting. Count on spending 3.5 – 4 hours in total.

unesco logo

Robben Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.

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  1. Maria 1 November 2013 at 1651 - Reply

    Fascinating history lesson in this post. Thnx

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 23 November 2013 at 2112 - Reply

      Thank you.

  2. Muza-chan 4 November 2013 at 0905 - Reply

    Very interesting article, Sophie 🙂

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 23 November 2013 at 2113 - Reply


  3. Mette 5 November 2013 at 1914 - Reply

    That menu is scary.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 23 November 2013 at 2114 - Reply

      Isn’t it…

  4. Marcia 7 November 2013 at 1651 - Reply

    I visited a few years ago. It was difficult then and even now, I’m close tears reading your post and remembering.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 23 November 2013 at 2115 - Reply

      It was difficult but necessary to visit, I felt.

  5. Stefania Still Words 9 November 2013 at 2123 - Reply

    I visited a couple of years ago too, it was intense. Thanks for reminding me.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 23 November 2013 at 2127 - Reply

      Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Marisol 11 November 2013 at 2152 - Reply

    I know it’s not an easy place to visit, but I wish I was able to visit the island when I was in Cape Town. The waves were very choppy then and they suspended the ferry service. Just reading your post made me teary. I’m sure I would be a mess if I actually visit. I have not heard about the story of Sombukwe before. It’s so sad the kind of injustice he receive from that whiimsy judge. The photo of Mandela’s small, simple is very powerful. It speaks volume of what he had to endure and of what kind of man he was to endure them.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 November 2013 at 1018 - Reply

      Let’s hope for better sailing weather next time you’re in town. Robben Island is very much worth seeing.

  7. Mary {The World Is A Book} 13 November 2013 at 0120 - Reply

    What a powerful visit to a place rich in history. It’s so hard to read that menu and I’m sure even harder visiting it in person. BTW, LOVE the new header.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 November 2013 at 1019 - Reply

      One of the world’s must-see places.

  8. Gill Sieni 21 November 2013 at 1952 - Reply

    Strange how Nelson Mandela’s cell has had its bed removed? Think it may be due to the fact that removing it will create more sympathy? When I was there, I remember clearly that there was a bed, I think it was around 1994/5 when I went. Just saying…. We should remember that it was a prison, not a hotel

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 November 2013 at 1032 - Reply

      In addition to your comment, I’ve received a few emails pointing out that Mandela’s cell has been changed – suggesting visitors’ perceptions are manipulated, conditions made to seem worse than they were.

      On the other hand, other prisoners did sleep on the floor, e.g. in the communal cell. But sleeping on a floor or in a bed – it’s hardly the main point. Years of imprisonment for political opposition is.

  9. Mary @ Green Global Travel 24 November 2013 at 2053 - Reply

    You have offered such an incredible education in such a short article and with a few very powerful photos. It is incredible to think of the lives that have passed through this place and of those who not only survived the experienced but lived and thrived beyond their time here.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 November 2013 at 0720 - Reply

      So much history at this little island.

  10. Stephanie - The Travel Chica 27 November 2013 at 2309 - Reply

    Really interesting. I didn’t know the full history.

  11. Ronnie Mayer 2 December 2013 at 1357 - Reply

    I would like to make a photo album of the 50 Pictures of Cape Town, the email that is doing the rounds at the moment.

    I would like to have your consent to use your photograph/s before I do anything, as you may have copyright over them.

    Please would you let me have your consent or refusal ASAP by way of an email.

    Thanking you,

    Ronnie Mayer

  12. Fatima 16 June 2015 at 1012 - Reply

    lovely pictures! i wish i could have that talent!

  13. Rachel 7 February 2017 at 1251 - Reply

    We were just there. Great pictures you have here! thanks for sharing

  14. […] Mandela’s cell on Robben Island is a stark reminder of the adversity that once plagued South Africa. Everyone should visit Robben Island, if not to be humbled, then to be inspired by the islands history and the stories of the men who rose from obscurity to build a free and fair South Africa. Photo by Sophie’s World. […]

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