Robben Island… from tourist guide to tourist!

The name Robben Island is Dutch for “seal island.”

South Africa celebrated the 2017 International Touist Guides’ Day Celebrations on 2-3 March with the theme being “Peace and Development through Guiding”.

Over 200 tourist guides descended on the island from all corners of South Africa where we attended a workshop hosted by the Department of Tourism. The opportunity allowed us guides to network with each other, make new friends and rub shoulders with dignitaries from the Dept. of Tourism, Robben Island Museum and a few former inmates who have now also become Tourist Guides sharing valuable and interesting stories about their time on the island.

Former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela was imprisoned there for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid. To date, three of the former inmates of Robben Island have gone on to become President of South Africa: Nelson Mandela, Kgalema Motlanthe, and current President Jacob Zuma.

Robben Island is both a South African National Heritage Site as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Day One:

Day one also included a guided bus tour around the island where we stopped off at various places like Sobukwe House, the limestone quarry and the leper graveyard. The bus tour was proceeded by a walking, guided tour by former inmate Themba Msomi (prisoner 28/0703) where we got to see places like the courtyard, football field, guards’ tower, kitchen and prisoner cells, including that of former inmate Nelson Mandela.

There were one or two moments when I found myself standing in a cell on my own and the silence was somewhat eerie. It was then that reality began to set in and my thoughs of the hardships the prisoners had to endure under the hands of the former apartheid regime. Some of the cells were tiny, hardly big enough to swing a cat in. They were allowed two visits and two letters a year. Letters were censored before inmates could receive them which also reminded me of my time in the military where our letters were censored to eliminate important dates and names of places, etc. 

We departed the island late afternoon and attended a gala dinner at the Cape Sun Hotel attended by special guests like Minister of Tourism, Derek Hanekom, Mr Dennis Goldberg and Mr Andrew Mlangeni (Rivonia Trialists).

Day two:

Day two we returned to the island for a half day workshop. There were some great motivational speeches but two in particular stood out for me. Sidney Mikosi (Marakele National Park) is a Lilizela Winner, Nature Category, and is known by his guests as the ‘Jungle encyclopedia of SA’. To date he has scooped up 14 awards in the Tourism Sector. He is an inspiration to others.

Ms Fikile Hlatswayo is the author of Blacks Do Caravan. She was very demostrative and displayed a sense of humour that brought a huge roar of laughter and a standing ovation from her fellow peers.

After the Keynote Address from Ms Tokozile Xasa, Deputy Minister of Tourism and Vote of Thanks by Ms Morongoe Ramphele, Deputy Director-General we hastily departed to the mainland to catch the Metrorail sponsored train ride to Khayelitsha for an excursion through the township.

I thank the Ministry of Tourism for the opportunity to meet my fellow peers and enlightening me to a part of our history that I didn’t pay much attention to… until now. The Robben Island tour is one I will highly recommend to anybody who asks whether it’s worth doing and I will definately be doing it again in the very near future.

Robert Sobukwe

Sobukwe was considered to be so dangerous by the apartheid government. After leaving the ANC he joined the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), and was elected its first President in 1959. He was kept in solitary confinement but permitted certain privileges including books, newspapers, civilian clothes, bread, etc. He lived in a separate area on the island where he was strictly prohibited from contact with other prisoners. His only contacts with them were through his secret hand signals while outside for exercise. Despite this, he succeeded in giving his approval to the external PAC to adopt a Maoist political program. He studied during this time and received (among others) a degree in economics from the University of London.

It is speculated that Sobukwe was subjected to this special treatment because the South African government had profiled him as a more radical and difficult opponent than the regular ANC prisoners.

Limestone Quarry

The Robben Island Limestone Quarry is one of the earliest features of human occupation on the island. It dates back to the mid-17th century. The quarry supplied the dressed stone for the foundations of the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town.

The prisoners who worked at the quarry over the centuries included Nelson Mandela. He worked there for 13 years. There was no real need for the island’s limestone during the time of Mandela. Prisoners would break up the stone and carry it to one end of the quarry one day and then back the next – the work was really just to keep them busy. As a result of working with the white limestone every day, Mandela suffered from eye problems.

Mandela and his fellow prisoners used their time in the quarry to educate themselves in everything from literature, philosophy, history and current events.

A small cave in the limestone cliff afforded the only shelter from the elements and we were told it also acted as their ‘parliament’ where important issues were discussed whilst on lunch and tea breaks.

Some time after the fall of apartheid in South Africa and the release of the political prisoners, a reunion visit was arranged back to Robben Island. When visiting the quarry, Nelson Mandela placed a stone in the center of the quarry and each former prisoner followed suit. The cairn of stones remains — an impromptu memorial to 18 years of hard labor on Robben Island.

Leper Graveyard

The Leper Graveyard is a site where inhabitants of the island, who died isolated from their next of kin and homes on the mainland were laid to rest.

The graveyard is only a small portion of the leper graves that was maintained over the years. Most of these graves are easily identifiable and have formal headstones.

The larger leper cemetery contains thousands of graves. The vast majority of these graves are unmarked while many others are marked with simple shale headstones without any inscriptions. It has been shown to occupy a large portion of land between the logistics offices extending as far as the prison and possibly as far as the Kramat. Outlier graves have also been found in the vacant land to the south of the prison.

The sequence and patterns of burials are poorly understood. It is quite possible that the original VOC burial ground was the starting point of the lepers’ cemetery, which grew very rapidly during the 19th and early 20th centuries.


Since the end of the 17th century, Robben Island has been used for the isolation of mainly political prisoners. The Dutch settlers were the first to use Robben Island as a prison. Its first prisoner was probably Autshumato in the mid-17th century. Among its early permanent inhabitants were political leaders from various Dutch colonies, including Indonesia, and the leader of the mutiny on the slave ship Meermin.

After the British Royal Navy captured several Dutch East Indiamen at the battle of Saldanha Bay in 1781, a boat rowed out to meet the British warships. On board were the “kings of Ternate and Tidore, and the princes of the respective families”. The Dutch had long held them on “Isle Robin”, but then had moved them to Saldanha Bay.

In 1806 the Scottish whaler John Murray opened a whaling station at a sheltered bay on the north-eastern shore of the island which became known as Murray’s Bay, adjacent to the site of the present-day harbour named Murray’s Bay Harbour which was constructed in 1939–40.

After a failed uprising at Grahamstown in 1819, the fifth of the Xhosa Wars, the British colonial government sentenced African leader Makanda Nxele to life imprisonment on the island.He drowned on the shores of Table Bay after escaping the prison.

The island was also used as a leper colony and animal quarantine station. Starting in 1845 lepers from the Hemel-en-Aarde (heaven and earth) leper colony near Caledon were moved to Robben Island when Hemel-en-Aarde was found unsuitable as a leper colony. Initially this was done on a voluntary basis and the lepers were free to leave the island if they so wished. In April 1891 the cornerstones for 11 new buildings to house lepers were laid. After the introduction of the Leprosy Repression Act in May 1892 admission was no longer voluntary and the movement of the lepers was restricted. Prior to 1892 an average of about 25 lepers a year were admitted to Robben Island, but in 1892 that number rose to 338, and in 1893 a further 250 were admitted.

During the Second World War the island was fortified and BL 9.2-inch guns and 6-inch guns were installed as part of the defences for Cape Town.

From 1961, Robben Island was used by the South African government as prison for political prisoners and convicted criminals from 1961. In 1969 the Moturu Kramat, which is now a sacred site for Muslim pilgrimage on Robben Island, was built to commemorate Sayed Abdurahman Moturu, the Prince of Madura. Moturu, who was one of Cape Town’s first imams, was exiled to the island in the mid-1740s. He died there in 1754. Muslim political prisoners would pay homage at the shrine before leaving the island.

The maximum security prison for political prisoners closed in 1991. The medium security prison for criminal prisoners was closed five years later. 

With the end of apartheid, the island has become a popular destination with global tourists. It is managed by Robben Island Museum (RIM); which operates the site as a living museum. In 1999 the island was declared a World Heritage Site. Every year thousands of visitors take the ferry from the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town for tours of the island and its former prison. Many of the guides are former prisoners. All land on the island is owned by the state of South Africa with the exception of the island church. It is open all year around, weather permitting.