How are prisons in South Africa

Robben Island

The prehistory of the island

Nelson Mandela and other opponents of apartheid sat here for many years. Very few of their "residents" were able to enjoy the spectacular location, as most of them were not there voluntarily. Located twelve kilometers from Cape Town, there was no escape for the prisoners.

The island's history as a prison camp did not begin with apartheid. The Dutch were already using Robben Island as a convict island in the 16th century. And even then the prisoners had to work in the quarry and collect mussels. Lime and slate were used to build the "Castle of Good Hope", the old fort in Cape Town.

From 1806 to 1820, Murrays Bay, the island's tiny harbor, served as a departure point for whalers. In 1843 the prison closed and leprosy sufferers were banished to the island. The lepers built a now derelict church, and they gave birth to 43 children instead of dying quickly, as expected.

In 1931 the survivors of the leprosy station were relocated to Pretoria. Shortly before the start of World War II, the South African military set up a base on the island. Camouflaged gunners' positions are still a reminder today.

The most prominent inmate

South Africa's first black President Nelson Mandela was also a prisoner on Robben Island and had to work in the quarry. In the former prison you can visit the five square meter cell in which Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years from 1964 to 1982 before he was transferred to the maximum security prison in Pollsmoor near Cape Town.

In October 1963, Mandela was charged with treason, sabotage and conspiracy in the so-called Rivonia Trial. The trial was preceded by a search of the ANC underground headquarters in Rivonia, a suburb of Johannesburg, on June 11, 1963.

During the trial, Mandela took over the defense himself and said in his plea on April 20, 1964 that he was one of the founders of the "Umkonto we Sizwe", the military arm of the African National Congress (ANC).

When the Rivonia Trial began, Mandela was serving another sentence. He had previously been sentenced to five years in prison because he had called for a strike and had left South Africa in the meantime without an exit permit.

In June 1964 he was sentenced to life imprisonment for "terrorism, communist activities and attempting to overthrow the government".

Mandela wrote down his memories of the time on Robben Island in his biography "The Long Walk to Freedom".

Conditions of detention

The most authentic memories of the island's history are kept alive by the tourist guides - some of them are former prisoners. Three to four times a day they tell their experiences in prison and show the places of their torment.

"Exile" were officially called imprisonment and forced labor. In 1967 inmates went on an indefinite hunger strike for more blankets, more food and permission to play football and rugby in the prison yard. The strike was successful.

Robben Island moved more and more into the focus of the global public. In the early 1970s, prison conditions improved slightly: lawyers had enforced that prisoners were allowed to learn to read and write.

In 1974 the quarry on the island was closed as a result of international protests. Until then, the inmates, including Nelson Mandela, had been carving stones for road construction for eight hours a day. A cave served as a break room. The glistening light limestone not only spoiled Mandela's eyesight forever.

Memorial and World Heritage Site

In December 1996, the last 300 prisoners and their 90 guardians left Convict Island. And the 18 guard dogs also crossed over to Cape Town. Only a few families have remained - workers, museum employees and their children. The tennis courts and the mini golf course are deserted, the former officers' mess is now a school, and the small post office sends tourist greetings all over the world.

In 1997 the South African government made the former detention center a national memorial, and in 1999 UNESCO added the island to its World Heritage List. The "Robben Island Museum" offers guided tours on the island every day. The myth of the island is cultivated for posterity: the prominence of the ANC, the "African National Congress", and the PAC, the "Pan Africanist Congress of Azania", sat in the high security bar for decades.

Today, catamarans and ferries dock at the Robben Island quay wall at regular intervals, and hundreds of tourists flock off the ship. The bus tours around the island end in prison. The guard's motto is still emblazoned on Afrikaans above the entrance gate: "We serve with pride".