Robben Island, situated in Table Bay, is about 11 km off the main land from Cape Town and 7 km from the Bloubergstrand side. It is an oval piece of land measuring 5.4 km², it is very flat and only a few meters above sea level. The island is arid, with low scrubby vegetation and has no water courses, in fact a pipeline was laid from Cape Town to the island, on the bottom of the ocean to supply the couple of hundred people that still reside on the island.
Khoi Khoi people lived on Robben Island many thousands of years ago, when the sea channel between the Island and the Cape mainland was not covered with water. However, Robben Island has been used primarily as a prison since the Dutch settled at the Cape in 1652, the Dutch also gave the island its name Robben, which means “seals”, after the large colony of Cape Fur seals that lived on the Island. Today springbok, blesbok, ostrich, rabbits, dassies, African penguins and the Cape Fur seals can be found on the island.
The island was a training and defence station in World War II, a hospital for leprosy patients, and mentally and chronically ill patients from 1846-1931. It was chosen for a hospital because it was both secure enabling isolation of dangerous diseases and healthy, as it provided a good environment. During this time, political and common-law prisoners were also kept on the island.
Over the years African leaders, Muslim leaders from the East Indies, Dutch and British settler soldiers and civilians, anti-apartheid activists, including most of the top ANC leadership of the 1960’s, Robert Sobukwe, the founding leader of the Pan African Congress and South Africa’s first democratic President, Nelson Rohihlahla Mandela were all imprisoned on the Island.
This World Heritage site and museum has been acting as a focal point of South African heritage and has become a pivotal beacon in displaying the history of South Africa since it opened on 1 January 1997. It tells us about the victory over Apartheid and other human rights abuses: ‘the indestructibility of the spirit of resistance against colonialism, injustice and oppression’. The image we have of the island today is as a place of oppression, as well as a place of triumph.
Safaris to South Africa are never complete without a visit to the Mother City of Cape Town and a tour of Cape Town is never complete without a visit to the world renowned Robben Island. The tours depart daily from the V & A Waterfront at 9am, 10am, 12pm, 1pm, 2 pm and 3pm, weather permitting. These tours to Robben Island are 3.5 hours long, including the two half-hour ferry rides to and from the island and tours include:
- A return boat trip across Table Bay.
- A tour to the infamous Maximum Security Prison.
- Interaction with an ex-political prisoner.
- A 45-minute guided bus tour around the island.
- The opportunity to explore the Murray’s Bay Harbour precinct attractions, such as the Muslim shrine or kramat and the museum shop.