Robben Island: South Africa’s most educational tourist attraction

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(Last updated on: 14/05/2021)

Robben Island is an incredible place to visit and is the perfect tourist attraction to take students who are learning about history, psychology, travel and tourism and a range of other subjects. We visited Robben Island as part of our tour through southern South Africa, and it was a highlight of our trip. A form of dark tourism, it was a little macabre at times, but the educational benefits of a visit to Robben Island make the visit worthwhile.

Where is Robben Island?

Robben Island is located in Table Bay. This is just under 7 km west of the coast of Bloubergstrand, which is slightly north of Cape Town, South Africa. The Dutch/Afrikaans name is Robbeneiland. The word ‘robben’ is Dutch for seals, so the literal translation is ‘seal island’.

robben island

The island is only a few metres above sea level. An oval shape, it is 3.3 km long and 1.9 km wide – with an area of just 5.08 km squared. Towards the end of the 17th century, Robben Island was fortified and used as a prison. It remained this way until 1996, less than 30 years ago. The island is now a South African National Heritage Site as well as being a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and visiting Robben Island is a popular tourist day out.

Robben Island prisoners

For three centuries, Robben Island served as a prison. Many of its prisoners were political. Activists, politicians and union leaders were kept here over the years. You may recognise some of these names:

  • Nelson Mandela – probably the island’s most well known prisoner:a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader and philanthropist.
  • Dennis Brutus – activist, educator, journalist & poet who campaigned to have South Africa banned from the Olympics.
  • Welcome Duru – actor, boxing promoter, musician, politician and socialite.
  • Mosiuoa Lekota – Leader of the Congress of the People in South Africa.
  • Seth Mazibuko – the youngest member of the South African Students’ Organisation, who planned and led the Soweto uprising.
  • Sakaria Zaa Nashandi – Namibian politician and businessman, recognised National Hero of Namibia for his contributions to the independence of the country.
  • Njongonkulu Ndungane – South African Anglican bishop.
  • John Nyathi Pokela – former chairman of the Pan Africanist Congress.

These are just a handful of Robben Island prisoners. Many more activists and leaders were imprisoned during the South African apartheid. This was a fraught time wth a policy that entirely governed the relations between the white minority and non-white majority across South Africa as well as South West Africa (now Namibia). It sanctioned racial segregation as well as political and economic discrimination towards non-whites. It existed from 1948 until the early 1990s.

Visiting Robben Island

robben island

You can now visit Robben Island – it is deemed to be South Africa’s most educational tourist attraction. It is one of the best things to do in Cape Town, and definitely something to factor into your itinerary if you’re planning to visit the area. Below you’ll find everything you need to know if you want to visit this former prison island!

Robben Island Museum

This is the public entity that is responsible for managing and maintaining the island. Established by the Department of Arts and Culture in 1997, they implement various programmes involving conservation, educational, tourist development, research, archiving and general heritage. These are designed to achieve the RIM’s mandate: to conserve the Island’s natural and cultural resources and heritage, and promote it as a platform for critical debate and life-long learning.

The RIM’s five missions are as follows:

  • To conserve and manage the cultural and natural heritage in order to retain the significance and the outstanding universal value of the site. 
  • To promote an inclusive and holistic understanding of the Island’s multi-layered history. 
  • To develop responsible and sustainable tourism products and services that offer a unique visitor experience. 
  • To share, educate and communicate the values, experience and legacy of Robben Island. 
  • To ensure Robben Island Museum adheres to good practices for managing a World Heritage Site.

Visiting Robben Island with kids

Robben Island is suitable for visiting with children. It is important to open small eyes to the horrors of the past, and this is a brilliant way of doing so. The tour is up to four hours long, with the ferry journey from the V&A Waterfront taking between 30 minutes and 1 hour. You get around two hours on the island itself, which is long enough to see everything but not so long that little feet will get tired!

General information

Visiting Robben Island is an iconic tourist activity when visiting Cape Town. As such, you have nothing to worry about. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes, and don’t forget your suncream. You can bring a camera with you, too. Don’t forget to ask plenty of questions, as the tours are run by former Robben Island political prisoners who obviously have an incredible first-hand insight into what happened on the island. There is a shop on the island to buy books and refreshments.

How much does it cost to visit Robben Island?

The cost for visiting Robben Island is as follows:

South Africans:

Adults – r400 Children – r210

Non South Africans

Adults – r600 Children r310

What can you see on the island?

When you arrive on Robben Island you’ll get on a bus to tour around the island. You’ll head to various points of interest and discover everything this tiny island has to offer. These are all the points on the island…

Sea Challenger

This is an SA service vessel. It ran aground in April 1998, attempting to pull the Hang Chen II off the rocks. You’ll see it on the Northern side of the island.

Blue Stone Quarry

In the North West part of the island, this quarry is where many prisoners endured hard labour. They were forced to build a wall to protect the quarry itself, but this wall was breached by a maritime storm in 2001.

The Ou Trunk

This was originally five wooden WW2 barracks, but was converted into a Medium Security Prison in the 1950s. Eight new brick buildings were built here in the 60s, and Mandela was imprisoned here briefly in 1962.

The Zink Tronk

A corrugated iron building from the 1960s, this was created to hold large numbers of prisoners – it had general cells, ablution facilities, a clinic and a library. It was demolished in the mid-1970s, but you can see what’s left.

Han Cheng

This is a Taiwanese fishing trawler, which ran aground in 1998.

Penguin Boardwalk

Visiting Robben Island isn’t just about the prison. It’s also about penguins! This is a penguin sanctuary, and here you can see them under a wooden bridge just living their best life.

Murray’s Bay Harbour

This was where anyone visiting or arriving at Robben Island would arrive: one breakwater and the quay, at the area of the earliest landings on the island.

Kramat

This is a Muslim shrine, signifying the relationship between Robben Island and Islam. It was built in honour of Sheik Madura, who died here in 1754.

Maximum Security Prison

This was built by prisoners themselves in the 1960s, with stones from the island’s quarries. There are 4 H-Block sections, an isolation block, hospital, admin section, dining hall and kitchen. Different blocks were used for different types of prisoners.

Airstrip

There is an airstrip on the island, used for flying prison officials in and out during the apartheid. It is now used for transporting VIP guests, such as politicians and Heads of State.

Chanson de la Mer

This is another boat you can see while visiting Robben Island – a South African yacht, which ran aground in 1986.

Leper Cemetery 

Many people died of leprosy on the island in centuries past, so there is a large graveyard here named the Leprosarium Graveyard.

robben island

Robert Sobukwe House

Robert Sobukwe was a Robben Island prisoner. He was kept in solitary confinement, in a house that was used as a hygiene office in WW2.

Church of the Good Shepherd

This church was built in 1895 for and by the Lepers of Robben Island. It fell into great disrepair but has since been renovated.

Limestone Quarry

First mined during the Dutch colonial period, prisoners were forced to work here throughout the 20th century.

MPLC

A wartime building used for common law prisoners from the late 1960s onwards.

John Craig Hall

Built in 1943, this was used for weekly dances for prison warders in 1960.

Garrison Church

This is the only other church on the island, constructed by prisoners in 1841.

Parsonage 

Now part of the guesthouse, this was originally a church and was also once part of the Commissioner’s residency.

robben island

Faure Jetty

The only one of three jetties to remain.

Pre-Primary School 

This was built in 1894 for the white children on the island. It has since closed.

Guest House

Used for conferences, this was built for the Commissioner of the island in 1895.

Irish Cemetery 

Used for the burial of Irish island residents until the 1920s.

WW2 Gun Placement 

A wartime gun placement, constructed in April 1940.

Robben Island Lighthouse 

A lighthouse, located on Minto’s Hill and built in 1864.

Van Riebeek’s Quarry

The island’s oldest quarry, opened in 1652. Prisoners worked here.

Alpha 1

A pump house, also used as an abattoir and butchers shop as well as waste storage and a radar station over the years.

WW2 Search Lights

Two anti-aircraft search lights.

Fong Chung II

Another Taiwanese boat you can see while visiting Robben Island, this was a tune fishing boat that ran aground in 1975.

Further reading

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Dr Hayley Stainton

Hi, I'm Dr Hayley Stainton

Through Tourism Teacher I share my knowledge on the principles and practice of travel and tourism management from both an academic and practical perspective.

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