by Kevin Bluer
Robben Island Tour: Enjoy a Unique South African Cultural Safari
Robben Island has in the past few years changed from being an infamous incarceration centre to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located 12 km from Cape Town in the West Cape Province of South Africa, Robben Island was for more than three centuries used as a place for banishment and imprisonment. It was here that political and human rights activists were incarcerated by the rulers of the day to thwart their quest for liberalization.
Robben Island was also previously used as a military base during the second world war (1939-1945), and as a hospital center for people with diseases that require isolation e.g. lepers, the chronically ill and other outcasts (1846-1931).
Despite having been around for long, Robben Island gained international notoriety during the apartheid years, especially in the late 20th century. It was during this era that many South Africa freedom fighters were incarcerated here, among them Nelson Mandela (former South Africa president), and Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe (founder of the Pan Africanist Congress). Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in Robben Island in 1963. Mandela served his jail term in this 6 sq km island for 27 years.
Robben Island’s political detainees shared the facility with common-law prisoners. The prisoners were allowed to send and receive two letters a year, this being their only contact with the outside world. In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released, followed by the remaining political prisoners in 1991. The common law prisoners were later in 1996 transferred to mainland South Africa.
In 1997 Robben Island was transformed into a museum. The Robben Island Museum, which acts as a focal point of South African heritage, runs educational programmes for schools, youths and adults, facilitates tourism development, conducts ongoing research related to Robben Island and fulfills an archiving function. In 1999, Robben Island was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
According to UNESCO, the declaration of Robben Island as a world heritage site symbolizes the triumph of the human spirit, freedom, and democracy over oppression. South Africa has seven other world heritage sites including the Swartkrans, Sterkfontein, and Kromdraai environs, often known as “the cradle of humanity” due to the discovery of the famous Taung Skull fossil here in 1924.
Robben Island constitutes one of the most important breeding ground for bank cormorants, crowned cormorants, and Hartlaub’s gulls. In addition, it hosts an increasing population of African black oystercatchers, which forms about 5% of the species’ global population.
You can get to Robben Island via the ferries that operate from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A waterfront, Cape Town. There are daily ferry departures at 9am, 10am,12pm, 1pm, and 3pm. Once on the island, you can undertake a tour of the former prison to get a glimpse of the life that the political detainees of the 1960’s to 90’s led there. The prison tours are conducted by some of the former prisoners. A typical Robben Island tour lasts for three and a half hours, including the two rides to and from the island each lasting half an hour.