Robben Island Museum goes way beyond the telling of history; it has symbolic significance not only for South African society with its great diversity of cultures, but for the world. Over and above its emotional story stretching back to the mid-1600s, it is a symbol of justice, human rights and self-sacrifice.
While the anti-apartheid activists of the 1900s have assumed centre stage in this tale, few people realise that Robben Island Prison Museum's history as a place of incarceration began 350 years ago with Autshumato, a member of the Khoekhoe, an indigenous group of people - now vanished. The first Dutch settler to arrive in the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck, depended on Autshumato as an interpreter, particularly in the cattle trade that supported the colonial settlement. Cultural misunderstanding resulted in the interpreter's banishment to Robben Island, but he escaped - the only Robben Island prisoner ever to do so.
A 3.5 hour-long tour of the museum on Robben Island begins at the Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, where you can view various exhibitions on the island. After a half-hour ferry ride, visitors are guided through the maximum security prison, often by a former political prisoner who has personal experience of the prison. A 45-minute bus ride around the island details its history as a mental hospital, military base and leper colony. There is also an opportunity to explore Murray's Bay harbour with its Muslim shrine and museum shop.
Robben Island Prison Museum is serviced by ferries that depart the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town 4 times a day. The ferry ride takes a half hour each way.
Temporary exhibtions are often staged at the Nelson Mandela Gateway, which you can view before departure or on return. While you are at the Waterfront, be sure to view the Mandela statue along with those of 3 other Nobel Peace Prize winners - Archbishop Tutu, President FW de Klerk and Albert Luthuli.
It is best to book the Robben Island Tour which includes the ferry ride. The tour visits the Maximum Security Prison on the island, offers interaction with a former political prisoner, takes in a 45-minute bus ride around the island with commentary, and gives time to explore the Murray Bay Harbour where you will find a Muslim shrine and a museum shop.
Robben Island Museum
(Nelson Mandela Gateway, V&A Waterfront)
Tel: +27 21 413 4220/1
Tel: +27 21 409 5169
Tel: +27 21 413 4233 / 37
Tel: +27 21 411 1037
Approx R300 adults; R160 children.
Cape Town abounds with accommodation of all types and sizes, with a number of convenient options on the V&A Waterfront itself.
The tour is operated year-round, although summer comes with less chance of rain and choppy seas. The ferry does not operate when the conditions are poor.
The tour lasts 3.5 hours.
Over and above its history, the fauna and flora of Robben Island are extremely interesting, and their conservation is another goal of the museum. There are 132 bird species on the island, some of them endangered, as well as small herds of antelope.
Robben Island Museum has World Heritage status and is a South African National Heritage Site.
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