Robben Island,… and all its infamousness

I remember being a child and listening to my parents talk of their visit to South Africa. This was way before I got in touch with my historical and political side. I kept wondering why they went on and on about the fact that they went to this place called Robben Island and what was so important about seeing the prison cell of some man called Nelson Mandela. They would tell me (in a very animated and emotional way) what they saw on this former prison island and I would just look at them… puzzled, trying to understand what the fuss was all about.

Fast forward a decade plus later, I took myself to Robben Island. And I learnt what all that fuss was about.

When you get carried away thinking you’ll have the whole boat to yourself and you reach out for your glass to have a sip of something cool!

After the boat ride to the island, we were met by our tour guide who was a former prison inmate. Tom Mose was imprisoned at Robben Island between 1976 and 1985 for effectively being an active youth amongst one of the anti-apartheid political parties. He was 20 years old at the time, and he was the oldest amongst the batch of youths imprisoned with him. Boys as young as 12-14 years old were also imprisoned with him.

Our tour guide, Tom Mose

During the tour, we were taken through the different blocks and sections of the prison, and told of the treatment of the inmates during their period of incarceration. The torture they went through, the racial discrimination surrounding their everyday life as inmates (because of course black inmates were subject to worse conditions than other inmates, even down to their diet. Black inmates could only dream of having milk!). To be honest, the details are actually quite troubling for this blog. I could write about how toenails and teeth were pulled out, how the inmates were fed particular things to effectively sterilise to them, and how the ordeal they went through at Robben Island significantly scarred them for life and greatly hindered their ability to live a normal life in society after their release…. but that would be too much.

Me…. just moving from one block to another and wondering what more I could hear that wasn’t worse that what I had already heard

What took me aback going through Robben Island wasn’t actually the details of the gruesome treatment, but literally the fact that sooooooo many individuals fighting for the freedom of South Africa from apartheid in some shape or form were imprisoned here. For being members of political parties, or for being on the list of “terrorists” (i.e. freedom fighters) and randomly not having your pass book on you.  When it really sunk in that most of the men that used to be inmates had literally been robbed of many years of their life because they believed in and fought for justice and an end to oppression, it’s hard not to wonder how, or even whether they were repaid for their sacrifice.  Yes, some went on to lead the free South Africa, but others like Robert Sobukwe died in incarceration and many others…. well, I guess some of them are tour guides at Robben Island now.

The hardest thing post-incarceration has been trying to 100% forgive our captors and those who imprisoned us and the proponents of apartheid. What makes it so hard is the fact that if you look around South Africa today, those that are still at the top of society are the former perpetuators of apartheid or those that benefitted from it. And those that are still at the bottom of society are the victims of apartheid. It makes it hard to completely forgive when you don’t feel like real justice has been served. But Madiba (N. Mandela) got there and was able to forgive wholeheartedly, so we still keep trying because we can’t keep hating. If we keep hating, we will never truly be free and eventually, we will self-destruct.” – paraphrased words of Tom Mose, former political prisoner at Robben Island

Nelson Mandela’s cell and prison items (the red basin was his toilet)

We had to ask,… “was it was all bad?”. I mean, of course we knew that majority of it was bad, but we wondered if any good came out of it. Well, yes. Thankfully, some tiny bit of good came from it. A lot of the older well educated inmates were able to educate the younger ones,… albeit that they had to pretend to be using the “toilet” (i.e. a hole in the rocks) whilst toiling away under the harsh sun and getting skin cancers and damaging their eyesight on the lime quarry. There was also a strong sense of brotherhood and friendships that were formed.

And in that little hole in the rocks at the lime quary, older inmates educated the younger inmates. After their release, these former young inmates were awarded with degrees

The fascinating thing about Robben Island is the many different coats it has worn over the years. Initially when the first set of settlers came to Cape Town, the rebellious native leaders were imprisoned here. Then later, when the British colonised Cape Town, Robben Island became a dumping ground for lepers, poor and crazy people. Then it was used as a military base during the second world war,.. and then turned into the prison notorious for imprisoning those who were fighting for the freedom of South Africa and popularly became known as where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for about 18 years. Now, it’s a museum, a World Heritage Site and has a little community of people living there.

Lepers graveyard at Robben Island
Robben Island is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site


  • The boat ride to and from the island is 30minutes each way. If you suffer from sea or motion sickness, come prepared. It also can get a bit windy and chilly with the winds. A light scarf or sweater may be useful.
  • For most of your tour with the ex-inmate, you will be standing and walking and the sun will be blazing. Stay hydrated. Don’t think you are superwoman and insist on doing the tour when you have a full blown case of food poisoning – you will puke your guts out with that blazing sun and spend the rest of the holiday hoping that the spirits of Madiba and Sobukwe and the other freedom fighters wouldn’t haunt you for soiling their grounds.
  • Be patient. There will be other tourists with you, and some of them may have ill-disciplined kids who do not understand or appreciate the significance or importance of the place you’re in. They may think it’s a big playground and run around accordingly. Don’t shout at them. Don’t smack them. You are allowed to think of doing so, but just breathe in and out and try and ignore them. They don’t know better anyways.

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