The Apartheid Prison of Robben Island

Where: Offshore island near Cape Town, South West of South Africa
When: Became notorious in the apartheid era of 1948 – 1990
History: For centuries the island was a dumping ground for social and political prisoners and lepers, and this is where Nelson Mandela and other ANC members were isolated and imprisoned
Go there for: take a tour with a former political prisoner, who belief apartheid should be forgiven but never forgotten

The offshore Maximum Security Prison of Robben Island, a mile from the commercial Waterfront area, was a key site in the struggle to oppose apartheid and end the regime of racial segregation.

It attracted international attention as Nelson Mandela, the first black post-apartheid president of South Africa, was held here for 18 of the 28 years he served in prison. From his cell in Robben Island, Mandela went on to become the single greatest figure of freedom and resistance in the 20th century. Members of Mandela’s ANC party, freedom fighters for equal rights for all races, were kept in solitary single cells as they were regarded as the most dangerous people in South Africa.

During the apartheid era (1948 to 1990), the prison became notorious for brutal treatment and human rights abuses. When apartheid collapsed, the prison became a symbol of liberation and the triumph of the human spirit over oppression.

History and Heritage

For four centuries the island was an offshore prison for social outcasts and political prisoners, and during the 1930s and 40s it became a dumping ground for leprosy victims and a World War II defence station. Today, the prison is a museum and the island became a world heritage site in 1999. The preserved site offers opportunities to watch birds like the jackass penguin and guinea fowl and see veld flowers in the spring.

The boat trip from Cape Town allows great viewing of Cape Fur seals, Southern Right whales and Dusky and Heaviside dolphins. You can tour the prison with an ex-political prisoner as a guide, who do this service as part of the belief that apartheid should be forgiven but never forgotten.


Invictus” is a short Victorian poem by the English poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903) and inspired Nelson Mandela during his time in Robben Island Prison who shared the words with his fellow inmates:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

More Information

Robben Island
Tel. number: 0027 21 405 4500 (Cape Town tourism office)
Opening hours: Tours leave on the hour from 9am to 3pm. The duration is 3 ½ hours.
Admission price: R150 ($24) adults, R75 ($12) children (4 to 17) with discounts from May to September.