A Powerful Visit to Robben Island
By Danait Kidane
I had the amazing opportunity to study abroad in South Africa through my university a couple years ago. With around twenty-two other students and two advisors, we embarked on our month long Business & Culture: South Africa Exploration Seminar. During our last couple of weeks, we had the chance to spend time in Cape Town and visit Robben Island, the former South African maximum-security prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life. Other notable prisoners include Jacob Zuma (President of South Africa), Kgalema Motlanthe (former President of South Africa) and several members of the ANC political party.
With many of us eager to visit Robben Island, we headed towards the popular V&A Waterfront in Cape Town where we waited for our scheduled ferry. With long lines in sight, many of us walked around the harbor and took pictures of the famous Clock Tower, a symbol of Cape Town’s sea-faring history. Once our group moved towards the front of the line, my friends and I stepped back in line, and got ready for the journey ahead of us. I boarded the ferry with curiosity and anticipation, and I also sensed the feeling of curiosity among all of the other passengers. The ferry ride was slightly bumpy with occasional strong winds but the spectacular views of Table Mountain helped distract passengers. Once we reached Robben Island, our group boarded a bus for a 45-minute guided tour of the island.
I felt the silence among our group as we gazed out the windows to see the lepers’ graveyard where an estimated 1,500 people with leprosy were buried.
The massive rocks bordered the island with the chilling Dutch sign above the entrance to maximum-security prison. Upon entering the prison, we had the chance to meet Christo Brand, a South African former prison guard who was responsible for guarding Nelson Mandela. He led the beginning of tour and gave us the perspective of a prison guard on the island. He told us about his experience of coming to Robben Island as a young 18-year-old and that he was lied to about the work he would be doing. He was told that the prisoners in Robben Island were dangerous criminals who had committed heinous crimes. It was an honor to be able to hear his story and about the friendship he developed with the late Mandela. Hearing about his experience at Robben Island and with Nelson Mandela was surreal and one that I will never forget.
An hour later we met with an ex-prisoner of Robben Island, and although I cannot recall his name, his story was equally touching. He had lived in prison with Nelson Mandela and shared some of his memories of him, including how Mandela had spent a lot of his time in isolation of other prisoners. He also shared some of the daily experiences of prisoners and how learning on Robben Island never stopped. Sneaking in books from the guards and teaching each other what they had learned prior to coming to the island, they quietly advocated for education. The most interesting story involved a scientist inmate, willing to learn prisoners and a handmade explosive. He told us that no one was hurt in the learning process but the moral of the story was that the prisoners of Robben Island never lost their will of resistance. It was influential to be able to hear from those two men and to experience Robben Island itself.
From Nelson Mandela’s former cell to the yard where the prisoners would exercise, the prison was powerful with symbols of apartheid at every corner.
We also had the unique opportunity to spend the night on Robben Island and experience a night as a prisoner, and most of us stayed on the island until the next morning.
Our group shared feelings of anger, disappointment and sadness while hearing the stories from our special tour guides and walking through the prison. At the same time, the remarkable stories of our tour guides made most of us appreciate how far South Africa has come since the apartheid era. A chilling experience, the tour was deeply moving and definitely touched us emotionally. I do believe that the experience truly sinks with you once you leave Robben Island. Taking a step back and having the chance to reflect on the experience gives you greater understanding of South African history and its people. It was a personal trip for me after growing up learning about the anti-apartheid movement, Nelson Mandela and townships like Soweto. Even for those who are still learning about South Africa and the political climate during the apartheid, a visit to Robben Island will open both your eyes and mind to incredible stories of struggle and unity. The island itself is also a World Heritage Site, making it a special place of history on this big world of ours.
Visitors should give themselves three and half hours for the full Robben Island tour, as ours took nearly four hours. It does require patience and emotional strength but it is more than worth it. The ferry ride and tour costs about R250 for adults (which is roughly $23 USD) and it’s best to book tickets online to have to avoid waiting in long lines at the harbor. There are various times to visit, but I suggest an early afternoon visit since the morning might be too early to take in all that you will experience on Robben Island.
Born in Kenya to Eritrean expats, Danait grew up in the rainy city of Seattle. She recently went on an exploration seminar in South Africa and backpacked across Europe this past year. Danait is a culture and travel enthusiast who loves to interact with locals and pick up on new languages. Currently studying abroad in the Netherlands, she hopes to inspire others to travel well!