From the World Heritage inscription:
Robben Island was used at various times between the 17th century and the 20th century as a prison, a hospital for socially unacceptable groups, and a military base. Its buildings, and in particular those of the late 20th century maximum security prison for political prisoners, testify to the way in which democracy and freedom triumphed over oppression and racism.
What survives from its episodic history are 17th century quarries, the tomb of Hadije Kramat who died in 1755, 19th century ‘village’ administrative buildings including a chapel and parsonage, small lighthouse, the lepers’ church, the only remains of a leper colony, derelict World War II military structures around the harbour and the stark and functional maximum security prison of the Apartheid period began in the 1960s.
The symbolic value of Robben Island lies in its somber history, as a prison and a hospital for unfortunates who were sequestered as being socially undesirable. This came to an end in the 1990s when the inhuman Apartheid regime was rejected by the South African people and the political prisoners who had been incarcerated on the Island received their freedom after many years.
Robben Island is most famous as the place where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. It is also one of the more popular attractions in the Cape Town area. Given how recently the end of Apartheid occurred, it is the world heritage site which probably represents the most recent history of all world heritage sites. (The image above shows the actual cell which Nelson Mandela was kept in.)
Visiting Robben Island isn’t difficult, but you can’t put it off until the last minute. As it is an island, the only way there is by ferry, which takes 45-60 minutes from the Cape Town waterfront. It is advisable to purchase your tickets at least a day before as space on the ferry is limited. Also, inclement weather may cancel the ferry, which is why I wasn’t able to visit during my first visit to Cape Town in 2010.
Once on the island, I found the visitor experience to be less than stellar.
Immediately when you get off the ferry, you are herded into tour buses which take you around the island. You are not allowed to get off the bus at any of the historic sites. You can only get off at a gift shop. At the end of the bus tour you are taken on a tour of the actual prison, which is led by form inmates.
The idea of having former inmates lead the tours is a good one, but there were 70 people in my group which made the experience very tedious, trying to herd that many people from room to room. I couldn’t help but think that they should do something to shrink the size of the groups. Either add more guides or make the tours run by former inmates optional for a fee, which would go directly to the guides.
That being said, Robben Island is still something which everyone should see if they are visiting Cape Town for the first time. It provides an important part of the history of mondern South Africa.
View my complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.