Robben Island Prison Tour

Street View Tour guided by former political prisoner Vusumsi Mcongo

By Robben Island Museum

Robben Island Museum

Arrival at Robben Island 

Welcome to Robben Island, South Africa - home to the infamous prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years, along with over 3,000 political prisoners during their fight to end Apartheid. Apartheid (literally "apart-hood" in Afrikaans) was a system of racial segregation enforced by the ruling National Party of South Africa from 1948-1994.  The island is a national and UNESCO World Heritage site 9 kilometers offshore from Cape Town.  Today, it is one of South Africa's most visited sites, accessed by ferry from the Victoria & Albert Waterfront. The journey across Table Bay takes approximately 40 minutes.

On disembarking from the ferry at the Main Quay, you are greeted by an exhibition of photos portraying the history of the island, which you can peruse as you make your way to the prison buildings and the start of the formal tour.

The Robben Island prison gate was constructed by political prisoners using stone from one of two quarries on the island where prisoners were required to labor in the harsh conditions. The grey slate was taken from the blue quarry.

Entrance to Robben Island Prison by Robben Island MuseumRobben Island Museum

The message "We Serve With Pride" appears in two languages: English and Afrikaans. It is framed on the left by the coat of arms of and on the right, a shield decorated with a lily, the symbol of Robben Island.

Robben Island - Introduction to Walking Tour (2015)Robben Island Museum

Meet Vusumsi Mcongo, a Freedom Fighter in the anti-Apartheid movement was imprisoned on Robben Island from 1978-1990.

All tours of the island are conducted by ex-prisoners.
Mr. Mcongo will guiding us on this virtual tour of the Maximum Security prison.

As we approach the prison, you can see one of many guard towers to the left. These were manned 24 hours, even though it was nearly impossible to escape from the island, the only way being by boat or a cold 9km swim.

This would have been the view the guard had from the inside of the tower. You can see Table Mountain in the far distance.

Anyone wishing to enter the prison would use the knocker on the door to call the guard.

The guard would then peer through the spyglass before unlocking the door.

All prisoner letters - received and sent - were strictly controlled by the Censor's Office. The prison censors would cut or black out any content that was deemed undesirable. In the 1960s, prisoners could only read and receive letters written in the official languages recognized by the state - either Afrikaans or English. Communications in Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and other languages were forbidden at first.

Prisoners received medical treatment by doctors in the Hospital Ward, which was often favoured due contact with fellow prisoners.

The courtyard of Section B, where Mandela was housed, is where he and fellow prisoners would eat breakfast, exercise and do manual labour tasks, such as chiseling rock, assigned to the prisoners.

View from the middle of the Section B courtyard. Note the covered walkway at the end of view. From here the warders would maintain constant surveillance on the prisoners below.

Mandela also gardened a small plot here, and secretly began writing his famous autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

The political prisoner Jeff Masemola (aka "Bra Jeff or "Brother Jeff") - a leader of the Pan Africanist Congress - also gardened tomatoes here. He was "in and out of B Section" recalls Mr. Mcongo because he confronted the warders about prisoner rights and conditions.

This space was also the location for competitive sports at different times in the prison history.

This prison corridor separated different sections of the prison, and was avoided, as prisoners were not allowed to have contact with those in other sections.

Let's now walk into B Section, which housed mostly political prisoners and where Nelson Mandela's prison cell is.

Mandela's cell

Following the Rivonia Trial, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison. He was sent to Robben Island where he was imprisoned for 18 years,1964-1982. Mandela was kept with many other, mostly political prisoners in Section B, each in their own cell to avoid conversation. 

Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in this 2 x 2 meter cell.

Mandela rolled and unrolled his bedding each night as the majority of space in the tiny cell was taken up by his desk and book shelves.

Inside of Nelson Mandela's cell (1971)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Nelson Mandela's Cell ca. 1971
A folded jacket rests on the top of the sleeping mat in the corner. A fellow prisoner constructed additional shelves for Mr. Mandela's books and papers from cardboard, match boxes and plastic. Prisoners were only given one board upon which to shelve their possessions.

Cells of other political prisoners were similar in size to Mr. Mandela's as suggested by this view of fellow inmate Lungelo Dwaba's cell. Mr. Dwaba was incarcerated at Robben Island from 1964 to 1979.

Limestone Quarry Limestone QuarryRobben Island Museum

Prison labor 

Prisoners were forced to perform hard labor in the island's quarries, in use on since the 17th century. The infamous Lime Quarry is located at the center of the island while the Blue Stone Quarry was located Work in both areas was extremely harsh.  

Limestone Quarry Limestone QuarryRobben Island Museum

Prisoners performed long hours of enforced labour smashing stone in the lime quarry. Mandela and many other prisoners, suffered permanent eye damage from the glare off of the white stone.

There were also other quarries on the island where prisoners were put to work, such as this bluestone slate quarry, now a favourite bathing spot for the local penguins.

Robben Island group of prisoners (1977-04-25)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Under global media scrutiny, the Apartheid government invited journalists to tour the island, asserting that prison conditions were not harsh. Black political prisoners who typically worked in the quarry in shorts, were given long trousers (usually reserved for Indian and other Asian prisoners under Apartheid prison regulations). To spread positive propaganda the prisoners were relocated to work in the garden on the day of the journalists' visit.

Mandela photographed without his permission - Robben Island (1977) by © National Archives of South AfricaThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

Photograph of Nelson Mandela taken by the international media during their visit. This and other photographs and film footage appeared across the world. In letters to the head of the prison system, Mr. Mandela protested this unannounced visit and subsequent publication of images without prisoners' consent as an invasion of privacy.

Communal areas

Prisoners were generally discouraged from mixing, but did have opportunity to have meals together, swap library books and, from time to time, watch a film.  When granted time out of doors, they played football, tennis, table tennis, and other competitive sports.

Our guide and ex-political prisoner Vusumsi Mcongo worked in the kitchen where encoded messages were often smuggled between prisoners.

This was the recreational hall, where table tennis and pool was played and movies were sometimes shown. It also served as a library, where prisoners could take out books.

Table Tennis Award Table Tennis AwardRobben Island Museum

This table tennis certificate was awarded to Benson (Ben) Fihla for highy commendable performance in the sport between 1972-13. Indeed, this was one of two table tennis awards given to Ben Fhila on one day.

Prisoners' award certificates were hand drawn and lettered by fellow inmates on precious sheets of A4 paper.

Exterior view of the kitchen and dining halls. Similar to the gateway and watch towers, these buildings were also built of blue stone slate quarried on the island.

Football was a popular and highly competitive sport among prisoners, who formed their own league with a binding constitution. The document is preserved in the Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archive at University of the Western Cape.

The prison league strictly adhered to FIFA regulations and principles and won FIFA recognition for their struggle and adherence to governing principles.

Football Trophy of Tokyo Sexwale Football TrophyRobben Island Museum

Ex-political prisoner Tokyo Sexwale's football trophy won at a soccer tournament at the prison during his incarceration. The trophy was made by prisoners to symbolize the will to survive, live and be victorious.

Credits: Story

Robben Island Museum
Nelson Mandela Foundation of Memory

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Nelson Mandela: 32 Years of Freedom
Celebrating Madiba's return
View theme
Google apps