Memories of Mandela: A Tour to Robben Island



My one bout of bad weather in Cape Town comes on the day I’m sailing to Robben Island.

But gloomy weather seems appropriate for a tour to a former prison. For it was on Robben that Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, after the freedom fighter was captured and tried by South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1960s. 

The tour to Robben Island starts at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, an attractive tourist hub of restaurants, shops and hotels. We’re bypassing pleasure for history, however, and take our seats aboard the ferry that will bear us to the low-lying island in Table Bay.

Though the prison is now a museum, nothing much seems to have changed since the days it held political prisoners. Standing in the cold morning air, we can see its old gate framed by grim grey stone walls and a stark sign with a message of “Welkom” in Afrikaans. 

Boarding a tour bus, we’re welcomed by guide Thabo (“It means ‘joyful’ in Xhosa”), who gives us an overview of the island’s history. Named after the Dutch word for seal, Robben had a variety of uses from the 17th century onwards.

Isolated by the bay, it was used as a place of incarceration by the Dutch settlers, then their British successors and finally the Republic of South Africa. Thabo dwells on the final period when Mandela was held here, explaining the severe restrictions in place for family visits; generally prisoners could only receive visitors once every six months, but such visits could be arbitrarily cancelled. 



“Any questions?” asks Thabo, adding: “The mood’s a little bit sombre now.” He’s living up to his name, chatting happily, but we can’t help but feel subdued by the stark surrounds and the facts we’re learning.

We stop at a quarry where inmates once chipped away at rocks to extract lime. It was hard work, with the men exposed to the sun’s glare off the white, dusty surface, and prisoners often suffered damage to eyes and lungs as a result. The one positive aspect of the site, says Thabo, was that the workers could talk privately within the small cave on one side. “That cave was the first democratic parliament of South Africa,” he says. 

After the bus tour, we enter the prison buildings on foot. Our new guide is Sparks, who was himself imprisoned here in the 1980s. He leads us to a big cell which once held 60 inmates, and describes to us the privations the prisoners had to deal with: including the lack of appropriate clothing and bedding during winter; and punishments such as beatings and solitary confinement.

A highlight of the tour is a walk past Mandela’s cell, a tiny enclosure set up as it would have been in his prison years: with a latrine bucket, a small table, and basic bedding on the floor. It’s hard to imagine living one day in this austere space, let along two decades. 

As I try to process this thought, I’m struck by Sparks’ measured, almost upbeat tone when talking about this grim locale where he was once incarcerated. He mentions that he was 17 years old when he was sent to Robben Island, which means he’s only in his early fifties now. I wish I had half the resilience to life’s hardships that he embodies.

As the clouds grow darker and rain begins to spit, the walk back to the ferry seems the perfect time for reflection. Injustice is always with us, it seems, but so is hope. A visit to Robben Island is worth it for that truth alone. 

Robben Island tours operate three times daily, fee ZAR 360 (about £20).

Tim Richards visited Cape Town courtesy of South African Tourism

You can get Cape Town included as a stopover on our Discoverer round the world


Published by Stuart Lodge