A Timeline of Robben Island from 1936 to 1999

By Robben Island Museum

Robben Island Museum

Military staff operating the canon by UnknownRobben Island Museum

Military fortification: 1936 . - 1945

Robben Island was declared a military reserve by the Minister of Defence.

In June, John Craig, the Advisory Engineer for harbours in the Union, was given the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and charged with the fortification of the Cape Coast in preparation for war.

15,000 tons of building materials were transported to the Island for the construction of gun emplacements with their ancillary observation posts, power stations, plotting stations and magazines, most of which were 30 feet underground. In addition, the perimeter of the Island was fortified with machine-gun posts, search light stations and barbed-wire barriers.

Robben Island schematic drawing of accommodation by UnknownRobben Island Museum

Accommodation had to be provided for an estimated garrison of 3,000, much of this was duplicated in order to house ‘europeans’, ‘natives’ and ‘coloureds’ were housed in tents on the beach.

An outlook post by UnknownRobben Island Museum

Women of the Coastal Artillery were posted to Robben Island. An airstrip was built and all civilians were evacuated out of concern for a possible Japanese attack.

Cornelia Battery WW2 by UnknownRobben Island Museum

Although not used in warfare, the military installations and their conspicuous camouflage were not removed from the Island. They remain of historical interest.

Freedom Charter by ANC Youth LeagueRobben Island Museum

Changing political context: 1948 - 1960
While the Island went through a period of relative quiet in the post-war years, developments on the broader political front were unfolding in a way which would project Robben Island into the forefront of national and international politics.

Building on three centuries of colonial and racial oppression, the National Party came into power and institutionalized the policy of apartheid.

Apartheid gave rise to its anti-thesis: a movement calling for democracy and non-racialism. At a historic meeting at Kliptown in June 1955, the Congress Alliance adopted the Freedom Charter, which declared that South Africa belonged to all who lived in it, black and white.

Sharpeville Massacre (1960) by UnknownRobben Island Museum

In an attempt to stem the demands for democracy, the white minority government increasingly resorted to repression. In March 1960 at Sharpeville, a mass demonstration against the pass-laws ended in violence - police fire killed 69 people and injured 178. The government declared a state of emergency, arrested 20 000 people and banned the main oppositional groupings, the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). Detention without trial was resorted to on a large scale.

Pylons - Sabotage by UnknownRobben Island Museum

High security prison: 1960 - 1991
1960 In the wake of Sharpeville, Robben Island was taken over from the Department of Defence by the South African Prisons service. 1961 Reflecting the siege mentality and policy of apartheid, Robben Island was once again opened as a prison for political prisoners. The original prison was an old stone building with 11 cells. Unable to function openly, the liberation movements embarked on a new phase of the underground and armed struggle. On 16 December 1961 Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), with Nelson Mandela as Commander -in-Chief, launched a sabotage campaign against government installations, Poqo, the military wing of the PAC, also turned to sabotage.

Robert Sobukwe with Press on arrival at Robben Island (1963) by UnknownRobben Island Museum

From the early 1960’s, many members of Poqo, the ANC and the SACP were imprisoned on the Island, as were members of the Unity Movement and Liberal Party. Robert Sobukwe, the PAC president, was the only person to be held on Robben Island even though his sentence had expired. Pre-empting his release, the state pushed through the General Law Amendment Act, which gave it the power to prolong indefinitely the detention of any prisoner.

8 Rivonia Trialists (1964) by UnknownRobben Island Museum

After police raids on the underground headquarters at Rivonia, Nelson Mandela and seven other leaders of the ANC and SACP were sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to Robben Island. To accommodate the increasing numbers of political prisoners, new buildings - blocks A,B,C and D - were constructed, to replace the temporary corrugated-iron block, known as ‘the zinc jail’.

Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu by UnknownRobben Island Museum

Prisoners described the conditions on Robben Island at this time as appalling - poor food, inadequate clothing, forced labour in the notorious lime quarry and severe punishment. It was official policy that all warders were white and all prisoners black. Women and white political prisoners were sent to Kroonstad, Pretoria Central and other jails. Until 1971, political prisoners were not housed separately from criminals.

From the start, prisoners organised against their isolation. For example, a special committee was formed ‘to keep contact between sections, procure news, and smuggle things out of jail for both local and international purposes’. Prisoners also started informal education classes.

Prisoners embarked on the first hunger strike to protest about their treatment.

Helen Suzman by UnknownRobben Island Museum

After prisoners had smuggled out reports of their poor treatment, and these were publicized at the United Nations, Helen Suzman and the international Committee of the Red Cross intervened on their behalf.

Andimba Toivo Ya Toivo by UnknownRobben Island Museum

SWAPO members were sent to the Island. 1971 The 28th May is still remembered for the raid on prisoners who were beaten, stripped and searched, following a hunger strike in sympathy with Namibian prisoners.

Steve Tshwete, Kepler Wessels and Draft Sport Constitution (1992) by UnknownRobben Island Museum

Despite the severe conditions, political prisoners continued to use every opportunity to organize for study and political purposes, for recreation and to achieve better conditions. The Robben Island General Recreation Committee was formed in 1971, and the Robben Island Rugby Board in the following year. The president of both was someone who would achieve sporting fame in later years: Stephen Vuyisile Tshwete. 1973 Prisoners were allowed to wash with hot water for the first time.

Developers called for Robben Island to become a casino and tourist resort, the first of many such public calls in the next decade and a half.

Soweto Uprising (collage) (1976) by UnknownRobben Island Museum

The Soweto uprising led to the influx of a new generation of prisoners. Influenced by ‘Black Consciousness’, the militant 1976 intake adopted an aggressive attitude towards the prison authorities. At the same time, international attention was increasingly focused on the plight of Robben Island prisoners. These factors led to concessions from the authorities.

Mandela's cell 1970s by UnknownRobben Island Museum

Prisoners were allowed to listen to news casts relayed over the intercom system.

Group One (prisoners categorized with the most privileges) were allowed to buy uncensored newspapers, ending a long period of news ‘blackouts’.

Prisoners formulated an escape plan to lift ANC and SWAPO prisoners off the Island by helicopter on New Year’s Day. The plan was not approved by the ANC-in-exile and consequently not carried out.

The Rivonia trialists were transferred to Pollsmoor Prison. Some prisoners got remissions but many others remained on the Island.

Anti-Apartheid posters by UnknownRobben Island Museum

The United Democratic Front and the National Forum were launched in response to the Tricameral Parliament and other apartheid ‘reforms’, heralding another upsurge in resistance in South Africa. By 1985, open insurrection had broken out in large parts of the country. The state resorted once again to repression and imposed states of emergency. Hundreds of new prisoners were sent to Robben Island, Including many from the Western Cape.

Cape Town City Council asked for Robben Island to be included in the municipal limits of Cape Town.

Nelson Mandela wrote to the State President Botha, thus starting the negotiation process.

Free Nelson Mandela Posters by Anti-Apartheid Movement London Committee and 1988Robben Island Museum

Massive international pressure was exerted for the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners on the occasion of Mandela’s 70th birthday.

Many young activists were sentenced to imprisonment on Robben Island following convictions in two, not too much publicized trials in Cape Town.

ANC poster for release of political prisoners by ANCRobben Island Museum

Mounting pressure led to the unbanning of the liberation organisations, and the release of Mandela from prison.

Women protest - Hunger Strike (1991) by UnknownRobben Island Museum

Hunger strikes were organised on Robben Island as the remaining political prisoners demanded their immediate release.

Released prisoner at Jetty 1 (1991) by UnknownRobben Island Museum

The last political prisoners were released.

World Heritage Site plaque (2015) by UNESCORobben Island Museum

Robben Island was declared a national museum.

Robben Island was declared a world heritage site.

Credits: Story

Based on timeline exhibition done by John Berndt.
Redesigned by Kurt van Vrede and Mortimer Daniels.

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