Visiting history: Robben Island

It is one of the must-do’s of any visit to Cape Town: a visit of Robben Island and the prison facilities where Nelson Mandela was held for over 18 of his 27 years in prison.

The island, named after the seals on its shores, is a flat isle in the middle of Table Bay, some 7 kilometers from Cape Town.

We took the ferry on a somewhat misty day, for a boat ride that took about an hour.

Early booking

It was really hard to get tickets.

As Cape Town is overrun with tourists during the holiday season, the seats on the boat and the museum tour sell out quickly.

Two years ago, we went there around the 20th of December, but the first tickets available were for January 7th.

So we didn’t go.

This time, I tried to book them online in mid-November, but unfortunately the online tickets were already gone.

A friend of mine went personally and got us tickets in person, one of the few that were left.

So we boarded our boat and enjoyed a 1-hour ride over to the island, with fantastic views of Cape Town, the skyline and – of course – towering Table Mountain in the back, the Lion’s Head and Signal Hill, the stadium….

As it was a bit misty, the city and the mountain slowly disappeared in the moist air, while the flat island came closer.

At one point, the whole of Cape Town and the mountain disappeared, as we drove through one of the foggy clouds that floated over the bay.

The Prison Tour

On the island we were quickly whisked into the waiting buses that took us on a first quick bus tour of the prison facilities, unfortunately without leaving the bus.

We learned about the basics of the prison. The island had been used as a prison, and a leper colony, for centuries.

From 1961, Robben Island was used by the South African government as a prison for political prisoners (and also for convicted criminals).

Robben Island is the most famous prison, for his famous inmate, however it wasn’t the only one: there were several others for white political prisoners and women, across the country.

The bus took us around the island, from the guards housing areas, to the quarry where the prisoners had to work under harsh conditions.

The main attraction though is visiting the prison itself.

Guided by an ex-prisoner

Most tour guides there are actually political prisoners themselves.

Today, they walk visitors through the rooms that they were incarcerated in, where they worked, in the kitchen for example, or where they were tortured.

Our guide was one of the prisoners, unfortunately I did not recall his name.

He was imprisoned for several years, for being an ANC collaborator and smuggling materials in and out of South Africa and into Simbabwe.

He had worked mostly in the kitchen – which unfortunately we could not visit due to renovations.


Our guide talked to us in that casual way tourist guides can do their tours, having told the stories a thousand times, and knowing at what time his group will laugh or pause, and look.

But it also got deeply personal.

It was touching as he talked about the man who tortured him, without going into details; how he gave in and told what he knew; the hunger strikes they held for better conditions in the prison – which might have meant blankets in the winter, or, finally, the introduction of beds.

He actually went through all this, for the fight of equality he believed in.

And, in the end, he won.

He described the changes, the new South Africa, where race segregation has ended and he can now be a neighbor to anyone, and send his kids to any school in the country.

His psychologist, he said, thinks he’s doing a good thing, confronting himself with the prison and his past, talking, explaining, forgiving, and maybe chasing away the ghosts that – surely – haunt him.

In the end of the tour, we were guided through the main attraction, the part of the prison with Nelson Mandela’s cell for 18 years.

A standard issue cell, number 4 in a long row of tiny cells, of a few square meters, with a small wooden table, and a blanket on the floor.


After that, the tour was over, and our guide showed us the way back to our ferry.

Then he walked away, a free man now, walking just outside those very walls that kept him locked up for years, going to tell his story to his next group.

Walking, a free man