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South Africa: Cape Town – Robben Island

Robben Island was used at various times between the 17th and 20th centuries as a prison, a hospital for socially unacceptable groups and a military base. Its buildings, particularly those of the late 20th century such as the maximum security prison for political prisoners.

I had booked us on to the first crossing of the morning to Robben Island, which supposedly left from the V&A Waterfront at 9:00 am. We were one of the first people to arrive, only to discover things were delayed by an hour, so we had time to spend reading some of the materials around the building about the history of Robben Island.

Sitting 7km off of Cape Town, Robben Island is most associated in most people’s minds with Nelson Mandela the anti-apartheid activist and former President of South Africa who was held there for 18 years. Yet Robben Island’s history extends much further than that. The island was first used as a political prison in the mid-1600s; Dutch settlers sent slaves, convicts and indigenous Khoikhoi people who refused to bend to colonial rule. In 1846 the island was turned into a leper colony. From 1961 to 1991, a maximum-security prison here held enemies of apartheid. In 1997, three years after apartheid fell, the prison was turned into the Robben Island Museum. In 1999, Robben Island was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Its buildings, particularly those of the late 20th century such as the maximum-security prison for political prisoners, witness the triumph of democracy and freedom over oppression and racism. Nelson Mandela was just one of over 3,000 political prisoners who were held there by the apartheid government of South Africa. The prison was closed in 1996, and in the same year, Robben Island was declared a National Monument of South Africa.

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison for his anti-apartheid activism. In the mid-1940s, Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC), an organization fighting racial discrimination with nonviolent means. As the apartheid system hardened under white National Party rule, the ANC became increasingly militant. It was banned in 1960. In 1962, Mandela was arrested for inciting a workers’ strike, which eventually led to a life sentence at the maximum security prison on Robben Island from 1964 to 1982. Nelson Mandela was not the only profile prisoner held at Robben Island, others included prominent anti-apartheid activists, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and Jacob Zuma.

In 1994, Nelson Mandela revisited his prison cell, and he stood looking out the barred window for a widely published photograph. Other visitors to the prison, including Barack Obama, have stood in the window trying to imagine Mandela’s life here.

In the waiting area before boarding the ferry - Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa
In the waiting area before boarding the ferry
The ferries to Robben Island are fast and modern - Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa
The ferries to Robben Island are fast and modern

The journey across to Robben Island only takes about 20 minutes on the high-speed ferry, which brings you into the Robben Island harbour. Here we got off the ferry and climbed onto a coach, passing through the famous prison gate on the island. The Robben Island prison gate was constructed by political prisoners using stone from one of two quarries on the island where prisoners were required to labour in harsh conditions. The grey slate was taken from the blue quarry. The message on the gate reads “We Serve With Pride” and appears in two languages: English and Afrikaans. It is framed on the left by the coat of arms and on the right, a shield decorated with a lily, the symbol of Robben Island.

The entrance to the Robben Island - Capetown, South Africa
The entrance to the Robben Island

For the next 30 minutes, we were driven around the island visiting various places, such as the graveyard of people who died from Leprosy, the Lime Quarry, Robert Sobukwe’s house, the Bluestone Quarry, and the army and navy bunkers. There was a break on the tour on the shore of the island facing Cape Town, which was a great place for a pee, grabbing some coffee and taking photos of Cape Town in the distance with the backdrop of Table Mountain.

After our short break, we all climbed back on the bus and headed for the final stop of the tour, the Maximum-Security Prison. This part of the tour is done on foot. We were divided into smaller groups of 20 and entered the gate which opened onto the vast prison yard, which would’ve been manned constantly. Other prison security structures included 5 watchtowers and 3-meter-high walls separating sections.

The quarry where prisoners such as Nelson Mandela did hard labour - Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa
The quarry where prisoners such as Nelson Mandela did hard labour
The tempting view of Table Mountain from Robben Island - Cape Town, South Africa
The tempting view of Table Mountain from Robben Island

We entered through the gate and stood by a large sign that gave some history of the prison on Robben Island. Our guide for this part of the tour introduced himself, and like all the guides for the Maximum-Security prison, he was a former prisoner. He spoke of the history of the conflict against apartheid and what life was like inside. From the prison yard, we went inside to where the prisoners were held. There were no individual cells for most prisoners, they were largely kept in larger cells with up to 53 other prisoners.

Originally, the prisoners slept on blankets on the floor, and later bunks were introduced. Robben Island’s location meant it was freezing cold in the winter and extremely hot in the summer. Our guide explained the daily routines of the prisoners and how they were treated – in general horribly, especially after they were captured and before they were interred in the prison (on remand!)

Under South Africa’s Apartheid system, South Africans were categorised as either Bantu (all Black Africans), Coloured (those of mixed race), or white. A fourth category—Asian (Indian and Pakistani)—was later added. At Robben Island the prisoners we segregated by their ethnicity (there was a small number of white prisoners held on Robben Island) according to their Apartheid category. Their treatment, including food rationing, was governed by their classification – whites got the best treatment, and the Bantu the worst. Inmates endured regular beatings and extreme torture at the hands of sadistic guards whose tactics went largely unchecked.

All prisoner letters – received and sent – were strictly controlled by the Censor’s Office. The prison censors would cut or black out any content that was deemed undesirable. In the 1960s, prisoners could only read and receive letters written in the official languages recognized by the state – either Afrikaans or English. Communication in Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and other languages was forbidden at first.

The exercise field in the maximum security prision - Robben Island, South Africa
The exercise field in the maximum security prision
One of the prision blocks on Robben Island - Cape Town South Africa
One of the prision blocks on Robben Island
One of the prision blocks on Robben Island
The cells in the main part of maximum security prison were communal - Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa
The cells in the main part of maximum security prison were communal
The tour guides at Robben Island are former inmates - Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa
The tour guides at Robben Island are former inmates
The tour guides at Robben Island are former inmates

After spending time in ‘C’ block, to ‘B’ block where all the high-profile prisoners were held, including Nelson Mandela. Here all the prisoners had their own tiny cells. Mandela’s cell was a 7-by-9-foot room where a bulb burned day and night over his head for the 18 years he was jailed here, beginning in 1964. As Mandela recalled in Long Walk to Freedom, “I could walk the length of my cell in three paces. When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other side.” Beyond the cells is an exercise area where the prisoners could meet, exercise and socialise. There was even a small garden, which Nelson Mandela took joy in working on.

The 'B' Block exercise area at Robben Island - Cape Town South Adfica
The 'B' Block exercise area at Robben Island
Photographs taken during the Apartheid era at Robben Island - Cape Town, South Africa
Photographs taken during the Apartheid era at Robben Island
Nelson Mandela's small cell in 'B'' Block - Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa
Nelson Mandela's small cell in 'B'' Block

The tour was done. It was only a short walk back to the jetty, where we caught the boat back to Cape Town. This was time to reflect on what we had witnessed and think back on the oppression and humiliation inflicted on the majority population of South Africa during the Apartheid era.

In a reflective mood - Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa
In a reflective mood

Planning your visit to Robben Island

The ferry departs from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V & A Waterfront. Arrive at least 30 minutes before departure as the queues are normally quite long and there’s a security checkpoint too.

The ferry is included in the price of the ticket. During peak seasons the tours can get booked up so you should consider booking your tickets 2 to 3 days ahead of your preferred day of visit.

The ferry ride takes around 30 to 40 minutes in each direction. The seas off Cape Town can be very rough so beware of this if you tend to suffer from seasickness. 

Allow for around 3.5-4 hours for the entire duration of your visit.

Hours:Tours leave every single day, at 9 am 11 am and 3 pm.

Current pricing for non-South Africans is R600 for adults and R310 for children.

Check here for current tour times, tour types and pricing.

Best time to visit Cape Town

The best times to visit Cape Town are from March to May and from September to November. These shoulder seasons boast enviable weather, fewer crowds, and lower prices. When planning your trip, it’s important to note that the seasons here are reversed: South Africa’s summer corresponds with America’s winter, and vice versa. That said, Cape Town’s summer is the most popular (and most expensive) time to visit. Hotels and attractions are usually overflowing with travellers. Meanwhile, the Mother City clears out between June and August when chilly weather and frequent rainfall put a damper on tourist activities.

Other places to visit while in Cape Town


Table Mountain Cape Town

Table Mountain is a flat-topped mountain forming a prominent landmark overlooking the city of Cape Town in South Africa. It is a significant tourist attraction, with many visitors using the cableway or hiking to the top.


The V&A Waterfront is an iconic 123-hectare neighbourhood which welcomes millions of people from all over the continent and world. We celebrate heritage & diversity, champion art & design, support entrepreneurship & innovation & drive positive social, economic & environmental.


The Bo-Kaap is an area of Cape Town, South Africa formerly known as the Malay Quarter. It is a former racially segregated area, situated on the slopes of Signal Hill above the city centre and is a historical centre of Cape Malay culture in Cape Town.


Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is acclaimed as one of the great botanic gardens of the world. Few gardens can match the sheer grandeur of the setting of Kirstenbosch, against the eastern slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain.

Where to stay Cape Town


Atlanticview Cape Town is a privately owned intimate 5-Star Boutique Hotel. It’s perfectly located close to all the main tourist attractions, nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and Table Mountain in Fashionable Camps Bay, “The South African Corniche”, packed with world-class restaurants, bars and beaches. The hotel is accessible to the Beaches (2 min), Table Mountain (5 min) Down Town or V+A Waterfront shopping Centre (10 min) and Cape Town International Airport (20 min). The Cape of Good Hope, Penguin Colony and Cape Winelands are less than an hour away.

The hotel has commanding 180-degree magnificent views sweeping from the top of Table Mountain and The Twelve Apostles range that disappears into the sea. It is truly the perfect place to holiday, honeymoon or simply take a break for a romantic weekend. This beautiful property is situated alongside a greenbelt/nature reserve in very quiet surroundings. It is far enough from the noisy crowds of the promenade but close enough to enjoy the beaches, bars and restaurants with spectacular views in all directions.


Anchor Bay Guest House is nestled on the slopes of Table Mountain within walking distance from the famous restaurants and nightlife of Sea Point. Less than 3.5 km away is the CBD of Cape Town, Cape Town Stadium, and of course, the extraordinary V&A Waterfront – a world-famous working harbour with many speciality restaurants, shops, boutiques, boat cruises, ferries to Robben Island, an aquarium and much more. 


The Mother City’s most original, convenient and fun place to stay! The luxurious Grand Daddy Boutique Hotel on Long Street bustles with energy.

As well as standard rooms the Grand Daddy has an airstream trailer park on its rooftop. The seven original Airstream trailers each have their own decor theme and collectively reflect a typical South African road trip. Authentic Airstream trailers are incredible works of craftsmanship and their classic shape is unforgettably iconic.


Accurately described as “The Soul of Long Street” (Lonely Planet, 2011), this famous hostel is the epicentre of action on Cape Town’s most vibrant street. There are literally hundreds of eating, drinking and entertainment options right on its doorstep.

Sleeping up to 80 guests, this hostel features a lush internal courtyard that’s perfect for braais, ping-pong, chilling, and meeting fellow travellers. The iconic brick building also boasts two large, sun-drenched balconies, with views of Long Street and Signal Hill. There are dormitory-style accommodations, as well as single, twin, and double private rooms, all with shared bathrooms. There is a TV room with satellite TV, a pool table, a well-stocked communal kitchen, and fibre-speed WIFI.

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