Robben Island | Free Nelson Mandela!

Robben Island lies 9.67km from Cape Town, across the icy, shark-ridden waters of the Atlantic. Windswept and waterless, the 518ha island has long been a place of banishment and despair: Infamous as an apartheid-era, Maximum Security Prison from the 1960s to the 1990S, its most famous prisoner was Nelson Mandela.

Today, the island is a national monument and World Heritage site celebrating the triumph of the human spirit over the shackles of the past.


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During the sea voyages of European discovery in the 16th and 17th century, passing sailors used Robben Island as a pantry, leaving sheep there to fatten up and hunting the resident seals and penguins for meat.


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The old churches and residential buildings in the village are a reminder of the island’s days as a British colonial infirmary. The Commissioner’s residence , which was built in 1895, has been turned into a conference venue and guesthouse . Also in the picture the lighthouse on Minto Hill.


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View over Cape Town from Robben Island.


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Freedom cannot be manacled!


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Robert Sobukwe was the founder of the PAC. On 21 March 1960, the same day as the Sharpeville massacre, Sobukwe led a march to the Orlando police station in Soweto in defiance of the pass laws. Sobukwe was sentenced to three years in prison for inciting unrest. After serving his sentence in Pretoria, he was sent to Robben Island in 1963 where he was detained without a trial for six years, under the notorious ‘Sobukwe clause’.

He lived in solitary confinement, apart from the rest of the prison population, in this small bungalow built during World War II. He had no contact with other prisoners. He was transferred from the island in 1969 and placed under house arrest in Kimberley where he died in 1978.

In the picture converted guard dog kennels next to Sobukwe’s house.


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Mandela and his fellow B section prisoners were first put to work crushing stones in the courtyard. Then, in February 1965, they were moved to the lime quarry, where they used picks and shovels to excavate the lime. Mandela worked here for 13 years.  In the cave at the back of the quarry, the would relieve themselves, and thus keep the guards at bay while they taught each other drawing lessons in the sand.


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The rough coast of Robben Island.


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Robben island has long been used as a place of banishment. A Portuguese ship reportedly left prisoners on Robben Island as early as 1525. During the 17th and 18th century, the Dutch banished political  prisoners here from their colonies in Malaysia, India, Ceylon and Indonesia. During the 19th century, tribal chiefs and foot soldiers who resisted British colonialism were exiled here. Robben Island was taken over by the Prisons Department in 1961. The Maximum Security Prison was built in 1964 partly from stone quarried from the island by the prisoners themselves.


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‘Barbed wire fences and ominous towers became a tragic backdrop to life on Robben Island. At the tile of my imprisonment Robben Island as without question the harshest, most iron-fisted prison in the South African penal system… In the prison, the towers looked over us throughout the day…’  – Nelson Mandela


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A number of former warders work on the island and about 12 ex-prisoners are among the guides who accompany the 1800 visitors a day that flock to the island in the peak summer season.


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The Maximum Security Prison was built by prison labour. The prison had sections designated A to G. The first block consisted of small, single cells. C section was used for solitary confinement. D, E, F and G sections held communal cells housing 60 prisoners each. F and G sections were hole to mainly common-la prisoners. Mandela, the Rivonia trialists, and other leaders of the struggle, were kept in B section.


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In 1977, the apartheid government allowed journalists to visit Robben Island. They found Nelson Mandela, in his 13th year in the island, neatly dressed in prison clothes and working in the garden. In was in this garden he hid his diary.


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Nelson Mandela arrived on the island on June 1964. He was the  466th prisoner in 1964, hence number 466:64. Mandela’s new home was Cell 5 in B section. His 1.8 x 2.1m cell held no furniture. He had a bucket for a toilet and slept on the floor. Lights burnt 24 hours a day. Every six months, he was allowed one visitor for half an hour and one heavily censored letter. When Mandela arrived on Robben Island he was almost 46 years old.


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text by Laurianne Claase, Art Publishers