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Hintergrund: Robben Island

Early history of the island

  • Robben Island from the air; the background shows Cape Town and the Table Mountain. Robben Island, South Africa’s Alcatraz; (Rechte: dpa)

Robben Island near Cape Town was notorious for its function as a prison island. Nelson Mandela and other opponents of the apartheid regime had to serve their sentences there. Most of its inhabitants could not enjoy the island’s amazing location, as they did not live there by choice. There was no escape from the island, which is located 12 kilometres away from Cape Town. Nowadays, the prison serves as a memorial, the whole island is a World Heritage site. The guides showing visitors around are former prisoners.

The history of the island as a prison camp started well before apartheid. As early as the 16th century, the Dutch colonialists used Robben Island as a detention centre. Back then, prisoners already had to work in the stone pit and collect shells. Lime and schist (two kinds of rocks) were used to build the "Castle of Good Hope", the old fort in Cape Town. From 1806 to 1820, whale hunters put to sea from Murrays Bay, the island’s tiny port. In 1843, the prison was shut down and lepers were banished to the island. They built a church (of which today only a ruin remains) and gave birth to a total of 43 children – instead of dying an early death, as they had been expected to. In 1931, the survivors of the leper camp were relocated to Pretoria. Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, the South African military established a base on the island, traces of which are still visible today.

The most famous prisoner

  • Mandela in his prisoner clothing darning clothes. Nelson Mandela was kept on Robben Island for 18 years; (Rechte: dpa)

Before Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president, he was a prisoner on Robben Island and had to work in the stone pit. Today, the tiny prison cell in which Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years is open to the public. Mandela lived here from 1964 to 1982, until he was relocated to the high-security prison in Pollsmoor near Cape Town. In the so-called "Rivonia Trial" in October 1963, Mandela was accused of high treason, sabotage and conspiracy. A raid of the underground headquarter of the ANC (African National Congress) in Rivonia, a suburb of Johannesburg, on June 11th, 1963 had preceded the trial. During the trial Mandela himself took over the defence and said in his plea from April 20th, 1964, that he was one of the founders of "Umkonto we Sizwe", the military wing of the ANC. At the start of the Rivonia Trial, Mandela was already serving another sentence. Because he had called out on strike and left South Africa without a travel permit, he had been sentenced to five years in prison. In June 1964 he received a life sentence – because of terrorism, communist activity and the attempt to overthrow the government. Mandela wrote down his memories about his time on Robben Island in his biography "Long Walk to Freedom".

Conditions of detention

  • A watch tower surrounded by a barbed wire fence. The island was highly secured; (Rechte: dpa)

The most authentic memories of the island’s history are held up by the tourist guides, many of whom are former inmates. Three to four times a day, they show visitors the places where they suffered and tell them about their memories. Officially, detention and heavy labour were called “banishment”. In 1967, the prisoners went on a hunger strike for more blankets, more food and the permission to play football and rugby in the prison yard. Their strike was successful. The world’s attention increasingly focused on Robben Island. At the beginning of the 1970s, the conditions of detention slightly improved: Lawyers had enforced the prisoners' right to learn to read and write. In 1974, the island’s stone pit was closed due to massive international protests. Until then, prisoners, among them Nelson Mandela, had had to hew off stones that were used for road construction. A cave served as the prisoners' break room. Nelson Mandela was not the only prisoner whose eyesight was forever damaged by the blindingly bright limestone reflecting the sunlight.

Conditions of detention

  • Portrait of Nelson Mandela with a fist raised The first black president of South Africa; (Rechte: dpa)

Over the course of the 1980s, the South African government faced increasing domestic and external pressure. The end to the system of apartheid was unstoppable. However, the reforms of president Pieter Willem Botha, who came to power after the Soweto uprising and remained in office until 1989, were not very extensive. By the mid-1980s, the charismatic leader of the black population, Nelson Mandela, had already been imprisoned for more than 20 years. All over the world people called for his release. By the early 1990s, the white government had to give in to the international pressure. Mandela was set free and immediately became a leading political figure. When the white minority government and president Frederik Willem de Klerk enforced a reform programme in 1992, the participation in government of the black majority was inevitable. After the first free elections for all South Africans, on May 10th, 1994, Nelson Mandela became the state’s first black president. In 1999, Thabo Mbeki succeeded him as head of government. Officially, apartheid was abolished in 1994. However, many South African governments to come will have to deal with its massive social consequences.

Memorial and World Heritage

In December 1996 the last 300 prisoners and their 90 warders left the prison island, as did the 18 watchdogs that were relocated to Cape Town. Just a handful of families remained behind – workers, museum staff and their children. The tennis courts and the miniature golf course are now deserted, the former wardroom serves as a school, and tourists send their postcards to places all over the world from the old post office. In 1997, the South African government turned the former prison into a national memorial. Two years later, the UNESCO named it a World Heritage site. Every day the "Robben Island Museum" offers guided tours around the island. The island’s myth is preserved for forthcoming generations: in the maximum-security wing of the prison, the leading figures of the ANC and the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress of Azania) had served their sentences. Today, every hour catamarans and ferries dock at the island, carrying hundreds of tourists. The bus tours across the island always end in the prison. Over the entrance gate, the motto of the wards is still emblazoned in Afrikaans: “We serve with pride”.