Robben Island before the coast of Cape Town

Robben Island

Robben Island impressive prison island with a grim history

One of South Africa’s most impressive places is Robben Island. The notorious prison island off the coast of Cape Town. There are guided tours by ex-prisoners that paint a vivid picture of prison life and you can take a look at the former cells. The Robben Island is an absolute must visit that you should not skip during your visit to Cape Town.

Robben Island

Robben Island has a grim history as a prison island. For nearly 400 years, political prisoners were imprisoned in this place. Including anti-apartheid fighters such as Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe. It may not be the most cheerful, but it is the most impressive trip you can make from Cape Town. You get a penetrating glimpse into the history of South Africa.


Robben Island has a bloody history. Beginning in the seventeenth century. When the 1990s East India Company, led by Jan van Riebeeck, turned it into a penal colony. First for rebel Khoikhoi, later for prisoners from the Dutch East Indies. Due to its desolate location and icy water. There were few escape options and the VOC made grateful use of this.

In the history of Robben Island, only three prisoners have managed to reach the other side in one piece. After the Dutch. The English took over the rule in 1795 from 1836 to 1931 the island was used as a leper colony. Where the sick were isolated from the rest of the population.

Political prison

In 1936 Robben Island came into the hands of the South African Weather Force. From 1961 the island will serve as a prison. For opponents of the apartheid regime and champions of democracy. Anti-apartheid fighters Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe, among others. Are imprisoned and put to work on Robben Island. It took until 1991 until the last political prisoners are released. In 1996 the prison on Robben Island was officially closed and in 1999 it was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.


A visit to Robben Island gives a special insight into the recent and not so beautiful history of South Africa. On a tour, you’ll visit various spots on the island, and during a bus tour. Ex-prisoners will tell compelling stories about their time in prison, the island’s history, and the apartheid regime.

After the ferry is docked on the east side of the island you can switch to a bus that passes the various sights. Along the way, you’ll pass buildings and places with their own stories. Including the leprosy colony-era cemetery. The little hut where Robert Sobukwe was locked up alone for nine years. And the limestone quarry where prisoners were put to work. The tour ends with a visit to the maximum-security prison area where thousands of freedom fighters have been locked up for years.

Section B

At the time of apartheid, the prison on Robben Island was divided into four sections: A, B, C and D. Section B was reserved for the political prisoners and the stories the former inmates tell you on a tour are terrible. Prisoners were locked in small cubicles with smashed windows and had to perform forced labour in the lime mine.

They were both mentally and physically abused and were allowed to have almost no contact with the outside world. And here, too, a distinction was made in origin: the diet of the prisoners was based on their skin color.

Nelson Mandela

The most famous prisoner of Section B. was Nelson Mandela, the ANC leader who would later become the president of South Africa. He was imprisoned on the island from 1964 to 1982. During your visit to the island you can take a look at his former cell, number 46664.

A small, bare loft of barely two by two meters, with only a thin mat to sleep on. Mandela, like the others, was imprisoned at work in the lime mine on the island. Where he suffered permanent damage to his cornea due to the dust and the reflection of the bright sunlight.

It is certainly recommended to read the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, which he wrote partly and secretly on Robben Island. Before your visit. Because with all the details in mind, this place is really going to live.

Robben Island: How do you get there?

Robben Island is about 13 kilometres off the coast northwest of Cape Town and you should take at least half a day to visit. The ferries depart four times a day from the Nelson Mandela gate of the Victoria & Albert Waterfront. Because the first boat departs at 9 am, the last at 3 pm,. After which you will be picked up by the bus on the island. The total tour takes 3.5 to four hours, including sailing time.

Please note that a visit to Robben Island is one of Cape Town’s most popular excursions and tours are usually full. Because therefore, book online tickets at least 7 days in advance to make sure you can join you on the desired tour.

On a guided grand tour we will take you there. Learn more

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