Lying only a few kilometres from the commerce of the Waterfront, flat and windswept Robben Island is suffused by a meditative, otherworldly silence. This key site of South Africa’s liberation struggle was intended to silence apartheid’s domestic critics, but instead became an international focus for opposition to the regime. Measuring six square kilometres and sparsely vegetated by low scrub, it was Nelson Mandela’s “home” for nearly two decades.
The ferry trip from the Waterfront takes about half an hour to reach the island. After arrival you are taken on a bus tour around the island and a tour of the prison. The bus tour stops off at several historical landmarks, the first of which is a beautiful shrine built in memory of Tuan Guru, a Muslim cleric from present-day Indonesia who was imprisoned here by the Dutch in the eighteenth century. On his release, he helped to establish Islam among slaves in Cape Town. The tour also passes a leper graveyard and church designed by Sir Herbert Baker.
Robert Sobukwe‘s house is perhaps the most affecting relic of incarceration on the island. It was here that Sobukwe, leader of the Pan Africanist Congress (a radical offshoot of the ANC), was held in solitary confinement for nine years. No other political prisoners were allowed to speak to him, but he would sometimes gesture his solidarity with them by letting sand trickle through his fingers as they walked past. After his release in 1969, Sobukwe was restricted to Kimberley under house arrest, until his death from cancer in 1978.
Another stopoff is the lime quarry where Nelson Mandela and his fellow inmates spent countless hours of hard labour.