Nelson Mandela Prison Cell Robben Island

Robben Island

We couldn’t come to South Africa and not visit the famous Robben island! There is a lot of history on the island, which has been designated as a South African National Heritage Site as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It was a short 30 minute boat ride to the island from the V&A Waterfront. The boat ride was pretty windy, but the sun was shining brightly. Cape Town weather is a dream! I am starting to think that the weather here is ALWAYS beautiful. We’ve only had a few rain storms (which we could use a lot more of), and the wind has been really intense on occasion, but other than that, it’s literally sunshine and a light breeze on daily! The only time it gets uncomfortably hot is when there is no breeze, then you really feel what people call the hot African sun!

As we drove down the road on the tour bus, our guide shared stories about all the important places that we passed. One of them happened to be another beach with a penguin colony! The island was used as a leper colony beginning in 1845. It broke my heart to hear that the women were forced to give their newborn babies up for adoption to on the mainland.

In 1961 the island began to be used by the South African government as a prison for political prisoners and convicted criminals. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in maximum security for 18 years. The prisoners were subjected to hard labor in the lime quarry for 8 hours a day, every single day. They were not given protective clothing of any kind. In the quarry there was a small cave that they were told to use for a toilet. They also used the cave as a place to discuss their political opinions and later on, sort of designated it as their “school”, perhaps a university to teach one another. Their slogan was, “each one, teach one.” I love that, each prisoner is looking out for one another, its not just about you. In the middle of the quarry is a pile of different colored stones that were placed by Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners after their release, signifying one nation united.

Lime Quarry Robben Island

Nelson Mandela was a former boxer. While he was in prison he would do push-ups in the cement courtyard everyday. One day he did 40 push-ups and a guard approached him and told him that there was an act that prohibited a prisoner from doing any more than 40 push-ups a day. Mandela told the guard to show him the act. The guard never showed him the act, and Mandela never stopped doing push-ups!

Mandela also wrote his autobiography while he was in prison, called “The Long Walk to Freedom.” I’d love to read it when I get a chance. Mandela was eventually released from prison on February 11, 1990.

While on the island, we were able to tour the maximum security block. The maximum security prison for political prisoners closed in 1991. Our tour guide was a former political prisoner. He was imprisoned for 10 years. Each prisoner was allowed a visitor every 6 weeks. One week he was told by the guards that his father was coming to visit that Friday. He was so excited because he hadn’t had a single visitor the entire time he had been imprisoned. On the morning of the day his father was suppose to arrive he was pulled from his cell and taken to a room. There in a very heartless way, the guard, without feeling, told him that his father would no longer be coming and that he had been shot 8 times. Then he was told to go back to his cell. It hurt my heart to hear him share his personal story. I don’t understand how some people can be so cruel, seemingly without an ounce of kindness in them.

The guards tortured the prisoners inhumanly as well. Years after being released, our guide found himself working with one of his former guards who had tortured him during his imprisonment. He invited the man over to his home for dinner. He said the man was a little scared to accept the invitation, but he’s a really good cook so the man could not decline! I was really impressed by him and his willingness to forgive and move forward with his life. He doesn’t let the pains of the past run his future. He doesn’t hold onto anger or desire revenge. He is an amazing example of giving people second chances. We can all learn a lot about forgiveness and love from his humble example. How different his life and his family’s lives would be if he carried that heavy burden of anger, pain, and revenge on his back everyday.

Robben island is a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. The men and women who suffered did not suffer in vain. Robert Sobukwe said it best,

“There is no race that is superior to another. There is no race that is inferior to another.”

I think we sometimes take our freedoms for granted, but they did not come without a price. I left the island feeling more grateful for our country and for the men and women who fought so hard for the freedoms we enjoy everyday. Freedom is a cause worth fighting for!


  • Chris S

    March 17, 2017 at 3:19 am

    What horrible conditions those who were sentenced there had to endure.
    -I agree it makes you think of the freedom’s we fight for but also such a great opportunity to see first hand the historic past of the area and to visit this area. Thanks for sharing


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