Robben IslandCape Town, Spring 2012

One of our final IES trips was to Robben Island. Robben Island is most famous for be a prison for political leaders and anti-apartheid activists during the apartheid era. It was also a training and supply station during World War II as well as a hospital for those with mental illness or leprosy. The island has a really fascinating history.

Robben Island is most famous for be a prison mainly because of those who were imprisoned there during apartheid. We took a ferry out to the island to check it out, go a tour of the museum, and learn more about those who stayed there.

Pulling up to Robben Island. On this rather gloomy day, it was quite ominous.

While on Robben Island we learned a lot about how the prisoners were treated during their time there. This is where they were marched onto the island from the boats and into cells.

The walk to the prison.

This limestone quarry was were prisoners like Nelson Mandela were forced to work for years on end. Fun fact: Limestone dust is actually really harmful to be around and can cause blindness after working with it for too long. That is why people are discouraged from using flash photography when taking pictures of Nelson Mandela; his eyesight was severely damaged during his time on Robben Island.

The limestone quarry where Mandela worked.

We also saw where Robert Sobukwe was imprisoned. He was a political prisoner and the founder of the Pan African Congress (PAC). The PAC was an opposition party during apartheid. Sobukwe was actually put in solitary confinement and was not allowed to have any contact with the other prisoners. While on the island I learned that he was alone for so many years on end without human interaction that he forgot how to speak. I can’t even imagine that.

Where Robert Sobukwe was placed in solitary confinement on Robben Island.

Our next stop on our guided tour was the prison precinct. One of the highlights of this part was seeing where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison…

Nelson Mandela’s prison cell for 18 years on Robben Island.

Touring the barracks where the prisoners stayed was also really eye opening. I was surprised and puzzled to see that the racial segregation aspect of apartheid even affected people in prison. I guess I just had no clue as to how it literally permeated every aspect of South African life and society, all the way down to jail.

As you can see, there was even racial separation on Robben Island. Different races got different meals.

What was also really cool about our tour of the museum on Robben Island was the fact that our tour guide was actually an ex-political prisoner. He told us about his personal experiences at the prison during apartheid as well as the labor the prisoners were made to do. This photo was displayed in the courtyard to help tourists get a visual of what the work was like.

Prisoners were made to sit there for hours on end and break stones that they would eventually use to build with.

The tour actually became pretty emotional when one of the men on the tour spoke up and explained that he, too, was a prisoner on Robben Island. The two men looked at the pictures displayed in the courtyard for the public and reminisced over their experiences on the island.

The man in the blue on the left was the one on the tour; the man in red on the right was the tour guide. Both were political prisoners on Robben Island during the struggle against apartheid.

This was a really memorable way to end the tour. Walking back to the gift shop and the boat after witnessing such an incredible encounter really made me think about what these people went through in their struggle for democracy. While I will never truly be able to understand what it is like to be imprisoned, I really liked learning more about what happened on Robben Island. I feel this has educated me in a way that I can better appreciate what these individuals went through in order to help South Africa achieve its democratic political system today.

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