Robben Island Prison Museum

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Nelson Mandela Gateway

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

Gallery of images of Robben Island, World Heritage Site and Apartheid era prison

Robben Island, the place where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 (out of 27) years, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999. It was used as a maximum security prison during South Africa's Apartheid era, and has since become a symbol of the strength and endurance of its political prisoners, and "the triumph of the human spirit, of freedom, and of democracy over oppression. " (Quote from UNESCO World Heritage site, citing reasons for its inscription.)

Robben Island has a long history, visited by the Khoi long before any Europeans arrived, it was named by Portuguese sailors for the plentiful seals (Dutch for seals = 'rob'). The island has also been known as Penguin Island. It was first made a place of banishment by Jan van Riebeeck in 1658, and has since served as a prison, a leper colony, and as a defensive station during World War II.

The Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island, the point of departure from Cape Town's Waterfront for the Robben Island ferry, was officially opened by Nelson Mandela on 1 December 2001.

It is worth booking tickets in advance, as this in one of Cape Town's most popular attractions. Note that when you do they will ask for a phone number – this is because they occasionally have to cancel tours due to bad weather and choppy seas.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Ferry at Nelson Mandela Gateway

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

The ferry crossing, in this catamaran, takes around half-an-hour. It can be quite a bumpy ride, but if the weather is too extreme, the trip will be cancelled. The air-conditioned cabins provide adequate, if somewhat squashed, seating. The deck area extends round the back and sides of the cat on two levels and offers a bracing view of the island or back towards Cape Town (and Table Mountain).

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Ferry

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

On arrival at Murray's Bay Harbor you make your way to the waiting tour guides, and buses. This is the route taken by prisoners on their way to the main prison buildings of Robben Island. As well as a couple of large display boards there is a curio shop and toilet.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Entrance

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

The Robben Island prison entrance was built by political prisoners using stone from the island's Malmesbury slate quarry. The badge on the left is that of South Africa's prison service, the one on the right is a lily – the emblem of Robben Island.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: View Towards B-Block

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

Looking left, as you walk towards the administration block, you see the shower block, dining room and recreation area for B-Section, where political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela were held. The shells used for supports on the rope fence are from World War 2.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Admin Block Entrance

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

The Prison Administration building contains a display of prisoner's letters, heavily censored by prison staff, as well as various induction rooms, and the hospital/clinic.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Your Tour Guide is an Ex-prisoner

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

One of the best aspects of the Robben Island tour is that some of the prison guides are ex-prisoners. This display board shows a photograph of the last group of political prisoners being released in 1991 – your guide may be among them.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Criminal Section Cell

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

F-Section was where common criminals were held. These prisoners shared communal cells, with up to 50 or 60 prisoners together in one large room. Only a few of the bunk beds still remain in the cell shown above, and these were not introduced until the late 1970s. High level political prisoners, such as Nelson Mandela were kept separate in the maximum security B-Section.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Prisoner's ID Card

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

When prisoners arrived at the prison they were issued with ID-cards. The example here, for Billy Nair, was prisoner number 69/64 (the 69th prisoner of 1964), and was sentenced to 20 years for sabotage. (Nelson Mandela was prisoner 466/64.)

Prisoners were classified according to four different levels of privilege, A to D:

Category A prisoners, the most privileged, were allowed access to radios, newspapers, and to buy their own food (such as coffee, peanut butter, margarine, and jam) from the prison shop. They were allowed to receive and send up to three letters a month, and to receive two visits a month (visits could be swapped for an extra two letters each month).

Category D prisoners were not allowed access to radios, newspapers ,or the shop. They could only have letters twice a year (these could not exceed 500 words, any longer and the end would just be cut off), and one half-hour visit every six months. In addition, category D prisoners were expected to do hard labor in the limestone quarry (see Limestone Quarry).

Race and religion were taken into consideration in terms of how prisoners were treated. The standard prison outfit was sandals, short pants and a canvas jacket (no underwear or socks). Coloured or Indian prisoners were, however, issued with shoes, socks, long trousers and a jersey.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Criminal Cell (View 2)

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

Prisoners were required to place their sandals outside the cell on a night. There was a scramble in the morning outside communal cells to pick up any pair of sandals, as the wardens stood over them threatening beatings for prisoners who were too slow.

In addition to sandals and clothing, prisoners were issued with a tin mug and plate, a wooden spoon, a tea towel, a toothbrush and a set of blankets.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Prisoners' Menu

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

Prisoners' diets were determined by their race. The main proportion of any meal was mealies (corn) sometimes supplemented with rice or beans. Food was used for barter (commonly for sexual favors) and smuggling of food from the kitchen was 'rife'. Those prisoners with a higher category of privileges (see Prisoner's ID Card) could obtain food form the prison shop, to a value not exceeding R8 a month.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Prisoners' Bedding

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

It was not until the mid 1970s that prisoners were given beds to sleep on (the first 13 beds, out of 369 prisoners, were issued under doctor's orders). Instead they were issued with a sisal mat and thick (roughly one inch) felt pad.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Entrance to A and C Sections

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

A-Section, with individual cells, held the student leaders (such as those sentenced after the Soweto uprising) and political prisoners not considered as important as high ranking ANC members like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. C-Section had the solitary cells.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Jeff Masemola

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans

One of the prisoners in A-Section, Jeff Masemola, had access to workshop tools, including a grinding stone. Together with another prisoner, Sedick Issacs, he devised an escape plan. Masemola crafted a copy of the cell master key, which allowed him to 'sneak' around at night. The plan was to steal medical supplies from the dispensary, dope the wells and put the wardens into deep sleep. Unfortunately, they were informed on, the prison wardens discovered the key and both men had an extra year added to their sentence.

Masemola was the first person under apartheid to be sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. In 1963 he and 14 other PAC activists were charged with conspiracy to commit sabotage.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Jeff Masemola's Key

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

A re-creation of Jeff Masemola's key, can be found in the door of his cell.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: B-Section Courtyard

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

Top-level political prisoners were held in B-Section. The courtyard is overlooked by a walkway from where armed wardens could keep an eye on the prisoners.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: B-Section Courtyard (View 2)

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

Since the B-Section prisoners were kept apart form the rest of the prison population, they had to develop ingenious methods to maintain communication. One such method was to open a small slit in a tennis ball slip in a message (usually written on toilet paper) and then 'accidentally' throw it over the wall. Unsuspecting wardens would retrieve the ball, and return a message from the 'general population' of the prison. This way the prisoners obtained newspaper articles and other news of the outside world.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Courtyard Display

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

The tour guide stops next to three display boards to give an informative talk about conditions inside the maximum security section of Robben Island prison. The display includes a photograph of the first ex-political prisoner reunion, a 'classic' picture of rock breaking (hard labor) in the courtyard, and a picture of Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu during their period of incarceration.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: B-Section Courtyard

Nelson Mandela under his cell window in B-Section's courtyard © Dave Hogan / Getty Images
© Paul Gilham / Getty Images

Nelson Mandela and his wife Graça Machel enter B-Section's courtyard where prisoners were forced to break rocks during their years of detention. You can see a security man leaning over the balcony of the warden's walkway from where armed guards would watch the prisoners. (From a publicity event for the 46664 - Give One Minute of Your Life to AIDS' held on 28 November 2003.)

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Nelson Mandela under his cell window

Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel enter B-Section's courtyard © Paul Gilham / Getty Images
© Dave Hogan / Getty Images

Nelson Mandela poses under his cell window in B-Section's courtyard where he and Walter Sisulu spent much of their day in enforced labor. (From a publicity event for the 46664 - Give One Minute of Your Life to AIDS' held on 28 November 2003.)

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Robben Island Prison Museum: B-Section Entrance

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

Entrance to B-Section, where maximum security prisoners, such as Nelson Mandela, were held. The Robben Island Prison emblem of two crossed keys is shown, as well as the scales of justice.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Mandela's Cell (View 1)

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

Nelson Mandela's cell is set out as it would have been before 1978, when he was issued with a bed, or later years when he had bookshelves and a table to study at.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Mandela's Cell (View 2)

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

When not being used, prisoners were expected to fold their blankets up and store them next to the bedding. Category D prisoners (as Nelson Mandela was in the 60s and 70s) had little in the way of personal effects, and their cells were bare.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Mandela's Cell (View 3)

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

Whilst locked in their cells, prisoners had to use a lidded bucket for their toilet. (Prisoners in the communal cells shared four such buckets between 50 or 60.) Prisoners in these cells experienced a wide range of temperatures over the year – from freezing cold in winter, to stifling, humid heat in summer. With just a few blankets and a single layer of clothing they were prone to congestive ailments.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Mandela's Cell (View 4)

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

Furniture in the cell included a small cupboard for the small number of items each prisoner was allowed to keep. The windows never had curtains or blinds.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Mandela's Cell (View 5)

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

At night the barred cell entrance would be firmly shut behind a solid wooden door. Wardens could still check on the prisoners through a window off to the side.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: View Down B-Section Corridor

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

Both sides of this corridor are lined with individual cells used for maximum security prisoners. The door at the far end exits out to the section courtyard (see B-Section Courtyard).

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Robben Island Prison Museum: B-Section Tour Exit

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

Given that all the tour groups make their way past Nelson Mandela's cell, an alternative exit was required to prevent bottlenecks. This cunning door, which can be closed to retain the integrity of the structure leads off near the B-Section corridor. The passage behind the door leads to a recreation/dining room and the shower block for B-Section.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: B-Section Security

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

Security around the B-Section was heavy. A guard tower overlooked the tennis court and down onto the recreation/dining room.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Admin Block Entrance

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

There is a constant stream of visitors going into the prison, with a full ferry load being split into three groups. Each group is taken through the prison (though you may not see all of it) and on a bus tour of part of the island.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Tour Bus

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

The tour buses are spartan, but comfortable. Unfortunately, although they do stop at several sites around the island, you are no longer allowed to exit the bus for a closer look at, for example, the limestone quarry. You are accompanied by a different guide to the one you had for the prison for this part of the trip.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Limestone Quarry

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

The limestone quarry was used for hard labour of maximum security prisoners like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. Conditions were harsh – limestone dust caused lung damage, the rock was blindingly bright in direct sunlight, and there was only a small cave to shelter from the elements. Rock was broken from the quarry face manually, and then broken down into small pieces to be used as road gravel.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Reunion Cairn

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

In 1995 over 1000 ex-political prisoners attended a reunion on Robben Island. As they left the prisoners added a rock to a reunion cairn which had been started by Nelson Mandela.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Robert Sobukwe House

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

In 1963 Prime Minister BJ Vorster introduced the General Laws Amendment Bill which would permit the detention in solitary confinement without trial for 90 days. One particular clause was directed as a single individual: Robert Sobukwe. He had been due for release, but instead was transported to Robben Island, where he stayed in 24-hour solitary confinement in the yellow house on the left for six years.

The other buildings are kennels which housed the Prison's guard dogs.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Sobekwe Meets National Party Officials

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans

Although Robert Sobukwe was under 24-hour isolation, he was visited several times during his incarceration on Robben Island by officials of the National Party, and by police and intelligence officers. Sobukwe, being the leader of the PAC had been quite a catch, especially given a crackdown on the PAC's paramilitary arm Poqo who were taking a more extreme path in the armed struggle against Apartheid - killing white South Africans and those they considered collaborators.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Leper Cemetery

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

Robben Island was used for more than just a victualling station and a prison. From 1844 onwards lepers were isolated on the island. A governmental secretary, John Montagu, had decided that the prisoners in the penal colony would by better used building harbors and roads on the mainland. As well as lepers, the blind, poor, seriously ill, and the insane were sent to the island. They were made to work in the Robben Island quarries. Their life was dismal, sleeping in small tin shacks or the military stables.

When word got out about the severe conditions the first of 12 commissions was instigated to investigate. By 1890 female paupers had been relocated to Grahamstown, and in 1913 the insane were removed.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Leper Church

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

In 1895 the Church of the Good Shepherd was built by and for the lepers of Robben Island. Designed by Sir Herbert Baker, is was only to be used by men and was not provided with pews. By the time the lepers were relocated to Pretoria in 1931 the church had fallen in to great disrepair, but it has since been renovated.

Between 1931 and 1940 the only inhabitants of the island were the lighthouse keeper and his family.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: 1894 Primary School

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

By the mid 1890s there were over a thousand people living on the island, and in 1894 a primary school was built to provide education for the children. The school still serves the island today, with children ranging in age from six to 11, and four permanent teachers.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Anglican Church

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

The Anglican Church was built on instruction by Captain Richard Wolfe, the commandant of the penal settlement, in 1841. This turreted, wedding cake-like, structure is now a multi-denominational place of worship for the residents of the island.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Warden's Housing

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

The buildings which was housed the prison wardens and their families are now used by the staff, including several ex-prisoners, of the Robben Island prison museum. There is a single shop, primary school (older children must go to Cape Town for their education), multi-denominational church, a guest house, display and education centers, and even a neglected golf course.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: View Towards Cape Town

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

The view across the bay to Cape Town and Table Mountain shows just how good a prison Robben Island made. In the twentieth century there was only one acknowledged escape – Jam Kamfer stole a 'paddleski' and set off for the Bloubergstrand on 8 March 1985. It is not known if he was successful.

However, the 7.2 kilometre distance to Bloubergstrand was swum by a University of Cape Town student, Alan Langman, on 11 May 1993 in two hours 45 minutes.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Wreck

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

The channel between Robben Island and Cape Town is notorious for its currents and strong seas. Several wrecks dot the coast of the island, such as this Taiwanese tuna fishing boat, the Fong Chung II, which ran aground on 4 July 1975.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Lighthouse

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

Jan van Riebeeck first set a navigation aid atop Fire Hill (now Minto Hill), the highest point on the island, where the lighthouse stands today. Hugh bonfires were lit at night to warn VOC ships of the rocks which surround the island. The current Robben Island lighthouse, built in 1863, is 18 metres high and was converted to electricity in 1938. Its light can be seen from 25 kilometres away.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: Moturu Kramat

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

The Moturu Kramat, a sacred site for Muslim pilgrimage on Robben Island, was built in 1969 to commemorate Sayed Adurohman Moturu, the Prince of Madura. Moturu, one of Cape Town's first 'imans', was exiled to the island in the mid 1740s and died there in 1754.

Muslim political prisoners would pay homage at the shrine before leaving the island.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: WWII Howitzer

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

During World War II the sea route via Cape Town became critical because of Axis pressure against the Suez route via the Mediterranean. Gun emplacements were created on the island, originally hidden in bluegum plantations. When the guns were fired in a practice run, the plantation was set alight, with a blaze which could be seen form Cape Town.

This is a World War II howitzer which was intended for coastal defense.

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Robben Island Prison Museum: WWII Gun Enplacement

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

Two huge guns were built to provide protection for the entrance to Cape Town harbor in 1928. They were capable of firing a 385 pound projectile up to a distance of 32 kilometres (20 miles). Originally built on Cape Town's Signal Hill, the guns shattered windows for several miles around when fired, and were accordingly moved to Robben Island. The South African navy retained control of Robben Island until 1958.