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 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.

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.

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

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.

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

… 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.

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.

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 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.