A worldwide beacon for human rights
There’s more to Robben Island Museum than the story of Nelson Mandela and anti-apartheid activists.
Robben Island Museum narrates a tale of incarceration that goes back 350 years. The first prisoner, the wily Autshumato, was the only one to escape.
Robben Island’s place in South Africa’s conflicted past begins with the very start of colonialism as the first Dutch settler, Jan van Riebeeck, clashed with local Khoekhoe leader, Autshumato. Today its lessons are a heritage that belongs to all mankind. They can be learned at the Robben Island Prison Museum.
Robben Island Museum goes way beyond the telling of history; it has symbolic significance not only for South African society with its great diversity of cultures, but for the world. Over and above its emotional story stretching back to the mid-1600s, it is a symbol of justice, human rights and self-sacrifice.
While the anti-apartheid activists of the 1900s have assumed centre stage in this tale, few people realise that Robben Island Prison Museum's history as a place of incarceration began 350 years ago with Autshumato, a member of the Khoekhoe, an indigenous group of people - now vanished. The first Dutch settler to arrive in the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck, depended on Autshumato as an interpreter, particularly in the cattle trade that supported the colonial settlement. Cultural misunderstanding resulted in the interpreter's banishment to Robben Island, but he escaped - the only Robben Island prisoner ever to do so.
A 3.5 hour-long tour of the museum on Robben Island begins at the Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, where you can view various exhibitions on the island. After a half-hour ferry ride, visitors are guided through the maximum security prison, often by a former political prisoner who has personal experience of the prison. A 45-minute bus ride around the island details its history as a mental hospital, military base and leper colony. There is also an opportunity to explore Murray's Bay harbour with its Muslim shrine and museum shop.
Over and above its history, the fauna and flora of Robben Island are extremely interesting, and their conservation is another goal of the museum. There are 132 bird species on the island, some of them endangered, as well as small herds of antelope.
Robben Island Museum has World Heritage status and is a South African National Heritage Site.
Robben Island Prison Museum is serviced by ferries that depart the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town 4 times a day. The ferry ride takes a half hour each way.
It is best to book the Robben Island Tour which includes the ferry ride. The tour visits the Maximum Security Prison on the island, offers interaction with a former political prisoner, takes in a 45-minute bus ride around the island with commentary, and gives time to explore the Murray Bay Harbour where you will find a Muslim shrine and a museum shop.
The tour is operated year-round, although summer comes with less chance of rain and choppy seas. The ferry does not operate when the conditions are poor.
Approx R200 adults; R100 children.
The tour lasts 3.5 hours
Comfortable shoes, rain protection in the winter, a camera.
Cape Town abounds with accommodation of all types and sizes, with a number of convenient options on the V&A Waterfront itself.
Temporary exhibtions are often staged at the Nelson Mandela Gateway, which you can view before departure or on return. While you are at the Waterfront, be sure to view the Mandela statue along with those of 3 other Nobel Peace Prize winners - Archbishop Tutu, President FW de Klerk and Albert Luthuli.
Robben Island Museum
Tel +27 21 413 4220/1
(Nelson Mandela Gateway, V&A Waterfront)
Tel +27 21 409 5169 (Robben Island)
Tel +27 21 413 4233 / 37
Fax +27 21 418 3736
Tel +27 21 411 1037
Robben Island Lighthouse
Table Mountain from the Robben Island lighthouse
Large breeding colonies of comorants, gulls and oystercatchers are found on Robben Island.
Robben Island Museum
The Robben Island Museum relates far more than a story of Nelson Mandela's imprisonment. The World Heritage Site has an interesting history and natural heritage