Take a Tour of the Robben Island Museum

About 7 kilometers west of Cape Town, South Africa, Robben Island is associated in many people’s minds with Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist and former President of South Africa who was imprisoned there for 18 years.

Nelson Mandela was just one of over 3,000 political prisoners who were held there by the apartheid government of South Africa. The prison was closed in 1996, and in the same year Robben Island was declared a National Monument of South Africa.

Standing at the gate to what was the prison on Robben Island, look to the east along the quay that extends into Murray’s Bay Harbor. The extensive concrete quay and jetty were built during and just after WWII.

Robben Island was run as a maximum security prison. When the prison was open, this gate, which opens onto the vast prison yard, would’ve been manned constantly. Other prison security structures included 5 watchtowers and 3-meter-high walls separating sections.

Entrance to Robben Island Prison by Robben Island MuseumRobben Island Museum

The apartheid security forces slogan above the gate, in Afrikaans and English, reads, “WE SERVE WITH PRIDE”. Today, South Africa has no less than 11 official languages. The most prevalent spoken first languages are Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, and English.

You’re approaching the entrance to General Section B of the island’s maximum security prison. To the left is Section A. The prison’s buildings were erected by prisoners during the 1960s from stone they quarried on the island.

The door in Section B is open now, but this would have been closed and locked when the prison was in operation. It opens onto a barred entryway where a guard or warder would have been posted at all times.

South Africa’s flag was adopted following the end of the apartheid regime in 1994. Its black, green, and yellow colors were drawn from the banner of the African National Congress, while other parts recall the Netherlands’ and Great Britain’s flags.

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison for his anti-apartheid activism. In the mid-1940s, Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC), an organization fighting racial discrimination with nonviolent means. As the apartheid system hardened under white National Party rule, the ANC became increasingly militant. It was banned in 1960. In 1962, Mandela was arrested for inciting a workers strike, which eventually led to a life sentence at the maximum security prison on Robben Island from 1964 to 1982.

Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu by UnknownRobben Island Museum

Mandela’s cell is approximately 2 by 2 meters. Like all the island’s prisoners, he was subjected to a regime of enforced hard labor. Despite the many hardships, while in prison Mandela earned a law degree and wrote an autobiography.

In 1994, Nelson Mandela revisited his prison cell, and he stood looking out the barred window for a widely-published photograph. Other visitors to the prison, including Barack Obama, have stood in the window trying to imagine Mandela’s life here.

There are 5 guard towers in all at the maximum security prison on Robben Island. This one stands at the corner of A Section of the isolation block where important political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, were held. It is made from slate quarried on the island by prisoners.

Sedick Isaacs became an anti-apartheid activist while still a teen. In 1964, he was teaching mathematics at Cape Town high school when he was convicted of sabotage. During his years on Robben Island he continued to resist the oppressive prison regime and was punished with long stretches in solitary confinement.

He still found a way to earn bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and information science during his imprisonment. He was involved in 5 escape attempts before being released in 1977.

For some part of the 13 years Isaacs was incarcerated at the maximum security prison on Robben Island, he was held in this cell in the isolation block.

Throughout his incarceration here, Robert Sobukwe was kept in solitary confinement in a small house separate from the main prison blocks. After his release in 1969, Sobukwe was banished to his family home in Kimberly and placed under house arrest.

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