Robben Island is an island in Table Bay, 6.9 kilometres (4.3 mi) west of the coast of Bloubergstrand, Cape Town, South Africa. The name is Dutch for “seal island.” Robben Island is roughly oval in shape, 3.3 km (2.1 mi) long north-south, and 1.9 km (1.2 mi) wide, with an area of 5.08 km2 (1.96 sq mi). It is flat and only a few metres above sea level, as a result of an ancient erosion event. It was fortified and used as a prison from the late 17th century to 1996, after the end of apartheid. Many of its prisoners were political.
Political activist Nelson Mandela was imprisoned there for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid and expansion of the franchise to all residents of the country. He was later awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace and was elected in 1994 as President of South Africa, serving one term. In addition, two other former inmates of Robben Island have been elected as President of South Africa since the late 1990s: Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma.
Robben Island is a South African National Heritage Site as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
From 1961, Robben Island was used by the South African government as a prison for political prisoners and convicted criminals. In 1969 the Moturu Kramat, now a sacred site for Muslim pilgrimage on Robben Island, was built to commemorate Sayed Abdurahman Moturu, the Prince of Madura. Moturu, one of Cape Town’s first imams, had been exiled in the mid-1740s to the island. He died there in 1754. Muslim political prisoners would pay homage at the shrine before leaving the island.
The maximum security prison for political prisoners closed in 1991. The medium security prison for criminal prisoners was closed five years later.
With the end of apartheid, the island has become a popular tourist destination. It is managed by Robben Island Museum (RIM); which operates the site as a living museum. In 1999 the island was declared a World Heritage Site for its importance to South Africa’s political history and development of a democratic society. Every year thousands of visitors take the ferry from the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town for tours of the island and its former prison. Many of the guides are former prisoners. All land on the island is owned by the nation of South Africa, with the exception of the island church. Administratively, Robben Island is a suburb of the City of Cape Town. It is open all year around, weather permitting.