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South African Heritage Focal Point: Robben Island

Since 1997 Robben Island has been a museum acting as a focal point of South African heritage. Daily tours of about 4 hours long, including the two half-hour ferry rides are offered (weather permitting) from the V & A Waterfront in Cape Town. In 1999 the island was declared a World Heritage Site.

For nearly 400 years, Robben Island, about 12 kilometres from Cape Town, was a place of exile and imprisonment where rulers sent those they regarded as outcasts and troublemakers.

During the apartheid years Robben Island was used to isolate opponents of apartheid and to crush their morale. Freedom fighters, like Nelson Mandela, spent more than a quarter of a century in prison for their beliefs.

Overcoming opposition from the prison authorities, prisoners on the Island after the 1960s were able to organise sporting events, political debates and educational programmes, and to assert their right to be treated as human beings, with dignity and equality. They were able to help the country establish the foundations of a modern democracy.

Robben Island was used at various times between the 17th and 20th centuries as a prison, a hospital for socially unacceptable groups and a military base. Its buildings, particularly those of the late 20th century such as the maximum security prison for political prisoners, witness the triumph of democracy and freedom over oppression and racism.

On the road to the village you’ll pass a square-towered church and old Sailboat cannons. Most of the buildings today, date back to the Second World War with 9.2 inch guns and bunkers bearing testimony to the armaments erected to defend Cape Town.

The main centre of Robben Island is located in a small village and mostly everything ?from milk to building materials had to be ferried over from Cape Town Harbour. Robben Island generate it’s own electricity and obtains its water from nine boreholes.

Much has been done to restore the Robben Island’s ecological haven to what it used to be centuries ago. In 1991 Robben Island was included in the SA natural heritage program and the northern parts of the island was declared a bird sanctuary. Buck, ostrich, and rabbits are also to be found on the island.

The author Lawrence Green described Robben Island as “The Island of Exiles”. For centuries it was a remote inaccessible place. It was said that the Portuguese has put prisoners here in as early as 1525, but to date, no evidence has pointed to this occurrence.

There has never been a case recorded of anyone swimming to freedom, yet it is possible as Robben Island is a starting point for many long distance swimmers today. Of the few escape attempts made, Harry (or Herry) a leading trader, managed to escape to Saldanha in a leaky sailboat.

Oliver Tambo, leader of the ANC, once said:
“The tragedy of Africa, in racial and political terms [has been] concentrated in the southern tip of the continent – in South Africa, Namibia, and, in a special sense, Robben Island.”

How to get there
Tickets are sold at R150 for adults and R75.00 for children aged 4-17 years. Children under 4 come free, but must be included in the booking.

The three and a half hour tour includes a return trip across Table Bay, a visit to the Maximum Security Prison, interaction with an ex-political prisoner and a 45 minute bus tour with a guide providing commentary.

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