Robben Island is situated about 12km into the sea in the middle of Table Bay. Separated from the Cape mainland by a narrow channel of seawater, the island is a remote place, considered inaccessible for centuries. The author Lawrence Green described Robben Island as "The Island of Exiles", an appropriate title, given that the island has been used primarily as a prison ever since the Dutch settled at the Cape in the mid-16th century.
For 400 years, Robben Island served as a place of exile, beginning as a leper colony. From 1846-1931, the island harboured a hospital for leprosy patients, and the mentally and chronically ill. During this time, political and common-law prisoners were still kept on the island, and the island was as much a prison to them as to the patients, for whose ailing there was no cure and little effective treatment available.
During World War II (1939-1945) the Island was a training and defence station, and in 1961 it was converted to a maximum-security prison. African and Muslim leaders, Dutch and British soldiers and civilians, and even women were all imprisoned on the island. South Africa's first democratic President, Nelson Mandela and the founding leader of the Pan African Congress, Robert Sobukwe, are among the more well known political figures who served their prison sentence on Robben Island during the Apartheid era. The last political prisoner was released in 1991.
Robben Island not only holds historical remnants of an era considered to be one of the most important learning curves of South Africa; it also tells us about 'the indestructibility of the spirit of resistance against colonialism, injustice and oppression'. Overcoming opposition from the prison authorities, prisoners on the Island after the 1960s were able to organise sporting events, political debates and educational programmes. By asserting their right to be treated as human beings, with dignity and equality, these prisoners contributed to establishing the foundations of South Africa's modern democracy.
Much has been done to restore the island's ecological haven to what it used to be before the intervention of man. In 1991 Robben Island was included in the SA natural heritage program and the northern part of the island was declared a bird sanctuary. Springbuck, ostrich, rabbits, Jackass penguins and Cape Fur seals are among the wildlife found on the island. In 1997 the Robben Island National Museum was established. The Museum is a dynamic institution and runs educational programs for schools, youths and adults. It facilitates tourism development, conducts ongoing research related to the island and is responsible for the safekeeping of various archives. On December 1st, 1999, Robben Island was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Today the island has a thriving population that lives in a quaint village with a bank, post office, museum and grocery store. On the road to the village visitors pass a square-towered church, old Sailboat cannons and old cars that sputter along the narrow tar roads. Most of the buildings date back to World War II, a historical background supported by the evidence of bunkers and 9.2-inch guns. These armaments were erected during the war to protect Cape Town from her enemies.
The island generates its own electricity and the inhabitants get their water from nine boreholes. Practically everything else, from milk to building materials, has to be ferried over from Cape Town Harbour.
Ferries sail daily from the V&A Waterfront jetty, taking visitors to the island. The entire trip lasts about 3½ hours, including the guided tours. Former political prisoners lead these tours around the cells and it is an emotional experience for many involved. For many South Africans, Robben Island is a place synonymous with leaders, and the struggle for freedom in this beautiful country.