Following the Footsteps of Prisoners, Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa

The ferry to Robben Island from Cape Town takes only 30 minutes but at the end of it we were in a different world. A harsh landscape, bleak and  devoid of trees, greeted us at the quay where a tour bus took us to the prison in the center of the island. That there was a tour bus on this island seemed a contradiction; an almost impossible collision of worlds. Robben Island is the infamous prison island off the coast of South Africa; it was here that Robben Island’s most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela, spent 18 of his 27 years imprisonment during South Africa’s era of apartheid.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You want to learn more about apartheid and the struggle against it.
  • You admire Nelson Mandela and his ability to create unity in such a divided country.
  • You want to learn about the resilience and humanity of those subjected to such conditions.
  • Good for: those interested in history, Mandela, the anti-apartheid movement, anyone who cares about the righting of wrongs.

The Prison and Its Prisoners

Robben Island had been used as a prison since the 17th century to house common criminals, political prisoners and anyone considered to be an enemy of the state. Virtually escape-proof, it also housed a leper colony, a mental institution and an isolation hospital. But in 1997, it was reincarnated as a museum and heritage site; in 1999, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And all because of Nelson Mandela.

A former Prisoner describes life on Robben Island (Ann Burnett 2013)

A former Prisoner describes life on Robben Island (Ann Burnett 2013)

The bus stopped first at the hut where one of the earliest anti-apartheid activists, Robert Sobukwe, the founder of the Pan-Africanist Congress, was held in isolation. At first, he was sentenced to three years imprisonment but his sentence was continually increased so that in all, he served nine years.

Next, we were ushered into the Hall of B section, where the political prisoners were held. We sat on benches around the walls and chatted until a dignified old man entered. He was small and slightly stooped, wearing a warm blue sweater against the chill. He introduced himself as a former political prisoner who had been incarcerated on Robben Island at the same time as Mandela. He spoke quietly but clearly and as he related his life in the prison, the room hushed. He did not exaggerate or speak with emotion; instead he simply shared the cold, hard facts of his and other prisoners’ existence: the petty cruelties of the guards, the hard labor and poor diet (even worse than that given to the marginally better-treated  ‘colored’ prisoners), the censorship of letters and infrequent family visits, the isolation of being totally cut off from news of the outside world.

One piece of news that Mandela did receive was of the death of his son, Thembi, who had been killed in a car crash. Mandela was refused permission to go to his funeral.

The Wing Where Mandela Was Held

Nelson Mandela's cell in the prison (Ann Burnett 2013)

Nelson Mandela’s cell in the prison (Ann Burnett 2013)

It was a subdued group that followed our new guide to the prison cells themselves. We stopped at the one where Nelson Mandela was held. Like the others, it was a small bare space with a rolled up mat for sleeping, a bucket for a toilet and a stool with a bowl for his food. Floor to ceiling bars afforded open viewing for the warders. During the day, the prisoners were taken to work at breaking works in a limestone quarry on the island. The glare of the blinding sun reflected against the white rocks, permanently damaging the unprotected eyes of the prisoners. For example, Nelson Mandela, even now, cannot tolerate flash photography. And yet out of this hardship came a man dedicated to peace and reconciliation, a man who had persuaded not only fellow prisoners but also some of the guards to follow his example.

The guide led us out into the yard and pointed out a small patch of earth next to a wall that had been made into a vegetable patch by some of the prisoners. They had all enjoyed working there and watching the plants grow. But it had another purpose. Mandela had started writing his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, and the manuscript was hidden in tins and buried until prisoners were able to smuggle it to the mainland.

The view across to Cape Town (Ann Burnett 2013)

The view across to Cape Town (Ann Burnett 2013)

We spent some time with our thoughts as we wandered around the island. Across the narrow strait of water, Table Mountain stood with its usual wreath of clouds. How often would the prisoners have looked at this view and yearned for their freedom? Back at the quay, we passed through the gift shop — such a mundane feature in a place of such bleak history — before boarding the ferry back to Cape Town. Such a short journey, such a Long Walk to Freedom.


  • Tours of Robben Island leave from the Gateway at the V&A Waterfront, Cape Town.
  • The crossing can be rough. Be prepared to deal with seasickness.
  • Wear comfortable shoes and clothing. In summer, carry sun protection.


  1. Jill Browne says

    Thank you, Ann, It’s hard to visit tragic places like this but so important to tell their stories, as you have done here.

    • Ann Burnett says

      Yes, it was a very thought-provoking trip. Using former prisoners as guides allowed them to tell their stories as no-one else could.


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