Robben Island: a small island with a big history

Mention Robben Island, and immediately Nelson Mandela’s 27 years incarcerated their as a political prisoner at the institution and his long walk to freedom comes to mind. This 5km2 island just off the coast of the city of Cape Town, and can easily be seen from the iconic Table Mountain.

This small rocky outcrop has seen many ships wrecked along its reefs over the centuries, and Jan van Riebeck, who led the Dutch colonisation of the Cape in 1652, was the first to light fires on Robben Island to warn incoming vessels of the danger. Today, a lighthouse lights the way from Minto Hill, the highest point on the island.

Robben Island has been many things since the Dutch arrived in the Cape in the 1600s. It served as an animal quarantine station, leper colony and a hospital for the mentally ill, and during World War 2 it was a military base, standing ready to defend Table Bay in the event of an attack. But Robben Island has always been used primarily as a prison.


In 1959 it was declared a maximum facility prison for political prisoners incarcerated under the Apartheid regime. It is said that during these years, conditions at the facility reached deteriorated steeply. Cells that usually housed 20 men were packed with sometimes as many as 60 prisoners.

Each morning the prisoners were woken at 5.30am and made to walk across the compound with no clothes on, and underwent a full cavity search. A cup of coffee and porridge was the standard breakfast, where the prisoners were not seated but were forced to eat while on their haunches.

After breakfast, hard labour was the order of the day – digging holes and moving mountains of rock and earth from one end of the island to another. Malnourished and exhausted, deaths were frequent. Even more frequent were the beatings dished out by the wardens and prison guards of Robben Island, resulting in more deaths.

It was under these conditions that prisoner 46664, Nelson Mandela, spent 18 of his 27 years as a political prisoner imprisoned on Robben Island. His memoirs “A Long Walk to Freedom” detail the daily trials endured by he and his fellow inmates.

Nelson Mandela was famously released from the maximum security facility on Robben Island on 11 February 1990, and the last political prisoner was released in 1991. Robben Island was declared a museum and a national monument in 1997.

These days the island’s most populous inhabitants are the rabbits which have overrun this small piece of land, burrowing beneath the historical sites and stripping Robben Island of its greenery. After trying many alternative methods, officials have had to resorting to culling the furry pests, a controversial move which has had animal activists up in arms.

Today you can catch a ferry from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront and go on a tour at Robben Island, which has been declared a World Heritage Site. Visit to book your ticket and find out more.

Previously incarcerated on Robben Island (to name a few): 

  • Nelson Mandela (former South African state president)
  • Kgalema Motlanthe (former South African state president, current deputy president)
  • Jacob Zuma (current South African state president)
  • Govan Mbeki (political leader and father of former South African state president Thabo Mbeki)
  • Robert Sobukwe (founding leader of the Pan Africanist Congress)
  • Walter Sisulu (former ANC activist)
  • Tokyo Sexwale (prominent businessman, current Minister of Human Settlements)
  • Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota (president of opposition party Congress of the People)
  • Amos Masondo (current mayor of the city of Johannesburg)