A Touch of Mandela
Robben Island
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Nelson Mandela
Robben Island


Approximately 14 kilometres from the shores of Cape Town lies a small island. It appears flat and plain. This piece of land, however, has become one of the world's most powerful symbols of human freedom.

Since the discovery of Robben Island by Western explorers it has been a dumping ground for humans who did not fit into the world of those who had power in South Africa. As early as 1525 a Portuguese ship is said to have left prisoners on the island. The culmination of the containment of unwanted elements was between 1961 and 1991 during which over 3 000 black male activists were imprisoned on the island because of their resistance to the apartheid system.

The history of Robben Island suggests it largely represents the banishing of leaders from South Africa. Those sent to the island were usually different from their oppressors - generally because they confronted their oppressors with values that were different to their own.

To those with power in South Africa, Robben Island became the perfect dumping ground. A place where elements that became anxiety provoking could be pushed out of awareness. As importantly, it also became a place where impurities could be contained and punished. Not just perceived impurities with regards to race, but impurities to certain ideologies and beliefs.

Robben Island was a naval training base until 1959 when the apartheid government decided to build a maximum-security prison for black men. In 1964 Nelson Mandela began what would be an 18-year imprisonment on the island. During his incarceration his attitude towards prison was that it was a microcosm of the struggle as a whole. "We would fight inside as we had fought outside... [just] on different terms."

Prison authorities went to great lengths to ensure that political prisoners were confronted with a loss of personal control, disorientation and isolation, arbitrary punishments, discriminatory regulations and often-cruel prison authorities.

Prisoners' campaigns for better conditions and privileges, such as permission to study, did achieve some success with the help of outside pressure. Although there were generational and political tensions, the Robben Islanders were able to form personal and political ties, both among themselves and between their different political organisations. They turned the maximum-security prison into a university of the anti-apartheid struggle.

With the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the last of the political prisoners in 1991, Robben Island became a symbol of human freedom. With democracy in 1994 came calls for closure of the prison. In 1996 the last criminal prisoners were removed and the prison closed.

In December 1999 Robben Island became South Africa's first World Heritage Site.

Time Line

Date Period Activity
Before 1498


Unknown. Archaeological research in progress.

1498 - 1652

European ships pass via Cape to the East

Prison, refuge, pantry and post office.
1498: First recorded landing on Robben Island by Vasco da Gama's fleet.
c.1525: Portuguese convicts.
1615: English convicts.
1632 - 1640: Autshumato living on Robben Island.

1652 - 1795

Dutch East India Company period

Prison, pantry & quarantine station
c.1658 - 1795: Criminal and political prisoners
1682 - 1795: East Asian exiles
1771 - 1790: Quarantine station

1795 - 1802

First British occupation

Prison. Military & criminal prisoners.

1803 - 1806

Batavian period


1806 - 1910

British colonial period

Prison & Hospital.
1808 - 1846: Military, criminal and political prisoners.
1846 - 1931: Hospital for lepers (until 1931), lunatics (until 1921) and chronically sick (until 1891).
1855 - 1869: Xhosa political prisoners.
1874 - 1890: Prisoners from present-day Kwazulu Natal and Northern Cape regions.
1866 - 1921: Convict station.

1910 - 1961

Union of South Africa

Convict station, Hospital & Coastal Defence and Training Station.
1866 - 1921: Convict station.
1846 - 1931: Hospital for lepers (until 1931), and lunatics (until 1921).
1939 - 1959: Occupied by the Army and Navy for training and coastal defence.

1961 - 1994

Republic of South Africa (Apartheid)

1960 - 1991: Maximum security prison for political prisoners.
1960 - 1996: Medium security prison for criminal prisoners.

1994 to present

Republic of South Africa (Democratic)

Museum & Heritage Site.
1997: Museum, National Monument.
1999: World Heritage Site.