Robben Island: our experience of the bus and prison tour off the coast of Cape Town
"We want Robben Island to reflect the triumph of freedom and human dignity over oppression and humiliation.”
- Ahmed Kathrada, Prisoner 466/64, Robben Island 1964-1982
Ahmed’s words encapsulate the experience of Robben Island. The essence of freedom, pride, and human dignity rein on this tour. From the lips of the guides, we began to understand the deep pain and evil, with the confidence of redemption and hope. This tour is raw and real, and it will remind you of just how recent this history is and just how strong and powerful the people are. I hope you enjoy joining along in such a moving experience!
We booked and paid for the tour a few days in advance on the Robben Island website. Tickets can also be purchased from their center at the waterfront and it is good to keep in mind that the tour is weather dependent. The experience took us 4 hours in total.
We arrived early to the V&A waterfront, as it was our first day in Cape Town, we enjoyed soaking in the new smells and sights and we stopped for a quick breakfast and coffee at Vagabond which was delicious! We also loved Vovo Telo coffee and fresh croissants.
Boat ride to the island at 9am
Bus tour of the island begins just before 10am
Stop with view, bathrooms & snacks 10:45am
Prison tour just after 11am
Finish tour just after 12pm
30min boat ride
Arrive back at 1pm
I went into this experience with no expectations, thinking we would just arrive at the prison and that would be the only building, see Nelson Mendela’s cell, hear some words, and then go back. But in reality, this is a two part tour where you get to learn a lot about the island, several buildings and different political leaders who spent time here, along with beautiful views of Cape Town! We were fortunate to have sunny, clear weather the whole day without too much wind and temperatures in the 70's F.
A glimpse at Robben Island
Today, there are 130 people living on the island - security guards, environmentalist, bus drivers, tour guides. Previous to Robben Island having a prison it, from 1846 to 1931 it was a leper colony and also housed people who were judged as mentally insane. When they were building South Africa’s maximum security prison, they had to remove graves of the lepers who were buried there. 1962 was when the first political prisoners arrived. The prisoners built the structures using stone that they had to mine, meaning that Robben Island was also a limestone mining site. Visits were limited to 30 minutes, every 6 months. Only 2 languages were allowed to be spoken, English and Afrikaans; if you did not speak those, you had to sit in silence. The last group of prisoners were there in 1991 and it became a museum in 1997.
Tour Part 1: The Bus Tour For the first bus portion, Kent was an absolutely fantastic tour guide and Allen was the driver. Tour guides really make or break an experience and we were very impressed with both the tour guides on the 2 sections of this experience. We drove around the island and stopped at several buildings to learn more about the history of the island before, during and after the prison was built.
One of the first stops on the bus tour was the Robert Sobukwe house. The tour guide took some time to explain more about his legacy because despite his importance in the fight to freedom, he is not as well known internationally.
Robert Sobukwe was the first black south african to lecture at a white university, although they did not recognize him for this at the time. After years of advocating for freedom, he was declared the number 1 enemy of the state. When they brought him to Robben Island prison, there was a “Sobukwe clause” to keep him in solitary confinement in this fenced area, indefinitely. As we looked closer at this area of solitary confinement that he experienced, it was evident that this was not built for humans.
These german shepard dog kennels were built for security. Apartheid authorities had previously introduced young prisoners from Soweto, Johannesburg who physically fought back, which caused them to bring dogs onto the island. However, this caught attention of Red Cross and they helped to close the labor and torture. When the kennels became vacant, it later became the solitary confinement area for one person only: Robert Sobukwe.
No speaking at all to him was allowed, prisoners would walk past and wave at him. He would pick up a fistful of sand and raise it in the air to represent we are the sons of Africa. He gave us much more information about his life experience including how his family was taken care of after his death by the international community and national holidays that are celebrated since then.
Along with Robben Island being full of leper graves, there were also human remains discovered from time of Dutch rule 1600-1700s. Slavery period, originally excavated by slaves and then later opened for prisoners. The prisoners were forced to work in the Limestone quarry under inhuman conditions and later most prisoners died of lung disease and cancer, with eye sights affected as well, just as in the case of Nelson Mandela. If you look closely on the 100 rand note/bill, Nelson Mandela’s photograph in front of this limestone quarry. There is also a heap of stones which stands here today as a monument of remembrance of what the prisoners went through working here.
An interesting fact about the nature of this island is there were no trees originally, so eucalyptus trees from Australia were introduced to help maintain infrastructure. Robben Island runs independently from mainland by solar farm and generators. There is a beautiful primary school building which closed in 2011 and Church of the Good Shepard as pictured below.
There is also white washed eastern orthodox style church which was built in 1841. To this day on Valentine’s Day, it is a popular wedding venue with up to 13 couples getting married in one day, all expenses covered by the government. This church stands as the oldest building on the island. The lighthouse below was built by British 1864/1865.
The last stop on the bus tour was at the penguin point where there are african penguins (we did not see any) and an amazing view of Cape Town. There is another picturesque frame here and the lighthouse is also visible on the highest point of the island here. There is a small food stop with picnic tables and restrooms. This is a nice point to refuel, ask questions and dive deep with the tour guide, reflect or simply enjoy the views before the next part of the tour.
We pulled up to the prison and our first tour guide released us to the next portion of the tour. He said a few last words and I noticed the words on this poster with this photo that really encompassed so much of what we were learning. It was hard in some ways to process and believe it, but with the words and experience that would come from our next tour guide it would be come evident through his life.
Tour Part 2: The prison
We stood outside the prison and as our tour guide spoke, I fell into shock. He was using phrases like “When I was here...I remember the day...We were forced..." For a second I thought, is he just doing a reenactment of what it would have been like to be a prisoner? But soon enough, I let his words soak in and realised just how personal this is. Our tour guide (unfortunately I did not write down his name) was telling us about his own experience of being imprisoned at Robben island. He served prison time here from 1983-1990 for “high treason.”
“Every Saturday, we played soccer rugby and tennis courts, but this was not allowed for the leaders who were separated from the rest of the prisoners” he proclaimed as he pointed to the run down fields set just outside the prison building.
He took us indoors to a room where he and other many other inmates slept in a crowded place. He looked at the bunk bed and said, “most of us didn't have beds, those only came later…before the bunk beds, we slept on the ground, side to side.”
He talked about the different ways they were treated based on their ethnicity and race, broken up into 2 categories of either south african/bantu or indian/coloured (mixed race). Indian and coloured prisoners in the 1960s received better food and more clothing. We were there in April (autumn time) wearing long pants, sweatshirts and jackets…I can only imagine at the dead of winter needing a very warm coat to be comfortable. Yet if you were black south african, you received no shoes and no sweatshirt ever. Only indian and coloured inmates received those. All prisons in South Africa, during apartheid, were not equal under the law.
He explained how the political prisoners continued their fight for freedom and connected with the outside world. The only way prisoners began to get more privileges was through hunger strikes, one that he talked about lasted for 11 days. There were divisions of prisoners based on their race, ethnicity, time and behaviour, which determined if some could study and buy newspapers - anything political was cut out completely. Prisoners in division A were allowed contact visits and this is where they would smuggle information out to the main land to other freedom fighters.
"1994 was the first time as a South African that I was finally allowed to vote."
One of the most touching and well known parts of the tour is going to see the cell of Nelson Mandela. He was imprisoned for 27 years and he spent 18 years in this very same cell. When my husband went here as a child in the late 90’s soon after it opened as a museum, they saw the plant that Nelson Mandela grew still in the cell, imagine how fresh everything was then. But even 20 years after that, it still felt recent as our tour guide spoke with all personal experience.
He told us that the first time he came back to Robben Island he tried to give a tour. He stood there in silence. He didn’t know what to say or what to think, and he felt a heavy burden. Slowly, people began asking him questions and he began to open up about his own experience. He started to process and gained the human dignity and freedom that Ahmed spoke of. “I don’t feel that way anymore. I speak freely and proudly. I live here now with my family and I like my life here.”