Robben Island – South Africa’s Best-Known Heritage Site
Located roughly seven kilometers off the coast of Cape Town, Robben Island is readily associated with its most famous former prisoner, Nelson Rohihlahla Mandela - a man who went on to become South Africa’s first black president in the country’s first democratic election in 1994, marking the end of the country’s infamous apartheid era. Robben Island no longer serves as a prison, but has been designated as a Heritage Site and has become a symbol of courage, triumph, freedom and hope to millions of people.
While there is evidence that the island was occupied many thousands of years ago when it was most likely still linked to the mainland, from the mid-1600s when the Dutch settled in the Cape, Robben Island was used as a place of incarceration where many suffered, often unjustly, at the hands of the authorities at the time. From 1846 through to 1931 Robben Island served as a hospital for people with leprosy and other chronic or communicable diseases, as well as for mentally ill patients, thereby isolating them from the general public. During World War II (1939-1945), Robben Island was used as a training and defense station.
Robben Island was elevated to prominence in South African history when it became the place to which anti-apartheid activists were banished during the country’s apartheid era. The world watched as Nelson Mandela was released from prison on 11 February 1990, having spent 27 years as a prisoner, the majority of which were spent on Robben Island. In 1997 the island became a museum and heritage site in honor of those who struggled for political freedom and has become a major attraction, both for local and foreign tourists. In addition to the immense historical value of Robben Island, conservation of the flora and fauna, as well as the marine and bird life associated with the island is of primary importance.
A tour of Robben Island includes a ferry ride to and from the island, a visit to the Maximum Security Prison and a bus ride around the island with a guide providing fascinating insight into all aspects of the island – from a historical and ecological viewpoint. Educational tours and youth camps are held on Robben Island with the emphasis on encouraging the youth of today to overcome obstacles such as racism and xenophobia and to look to the future with hope and confidence. Certainly Robben Island has much to offer and should be on the itinerary of all who have the good fortune to visit the Mother City of South Africa.