Home......World......Africa......South Africa......Murals......E-mail


Maximum security section

Our prison guide

Mandela's cell

The quarry

Postcard view of the island

ROBBEN ISLAND  .........   I had to visit Robben Island.  In the heat of the tourist season, the lines could take four hours.  Well, it wasn’t tourist season.  I walked up to the ticket office, bought my ticket, and had just enough time to go buy a pullover hat before getting on the boat. 

If you never heard of Robben Island, I wouldn’t expect you to admit to that.  This island, about a 45-minute ride from Capetown, had a varied history over the past 500 years.  Early explorers used it as a grocery stop.  They were afraid of the mainland people, so they stopped on the island to kill seals and penguins.  At one point, the island was estimated to have had one million penguins.  I saw several penguins but no seals.  Interestingly enough, the name of the island came from the Dutch word for seal.

The place was used as a leper colony, a military base in World War II, but it was most noted as the island prison for those who opposed Apartheid.  Nelson Mandela’s cell was the main attraction.  But, there were other prisoners who lived there up to twenty-seven years. 

What was so amazing was how inspiring the place was.  Yes, the government permitted horrible things to be done to the prisoners.  We were told of hard labor in the quarries, starvation, cold, humiliation, rape, and isolation.  But, the prisoners overcame all of that.  And, their story was the final victory in the chapter of Robben Island’s prison history. 

Our guide was himself a prisoner of Robben Island for seven years.  He spoke of how the government planned to let the prisoners kill themselves.  They put every group, faction, and tribe thrown together in one compound.  Instead of killing each other, these men learned to listen.  They debated, argued, but eventually came to respect one another.  Then, they worked together to help everyone, including the prison guards, better themselves.  Nelson Mandela said that Robben Island should become a university.  Prisoners who arrived not being able to read were tutored.  Some prisoners earned college degrees while there.  The seeds for democracy, understanding, and tolerance were planted in the most unlikely soil.  Like I said, it was quite an inspirational experience.

Copyright 2010 by Phillip Martin All rights reserved.