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Robben Island: A Tour of Conscience

by Ilona Kauremszky

During the apartheid era in South Africa, a notorious maximum security prison on Robben Island once imprisoned millions—including Nelson Mandela—who were banished, isolated and forgotten.

The prison finally closed its doors in 1996. But since 1997, heart-wrenching tours of the facilities are now conducted by former political prisoners who serve as guides.

Perhaps it’s a form of therapy, a need to share with as many individuals as possible their humbling tale that saw them ripped from their homes, many times in the middle of the night, and shipped here to face these unimaginable, inhumane conditions.

My visit to Robben Island started with a bus tour that took us to the limestone quarry where Mandela is said to have come every day, with countless others, for 13 years. They used pick and spade to chip away at the stone under unbearably hot, blinding conditions, with no water, no food.

By the waterfront we walked along a penguin boardwalk and spotted “Jackass” penguins, an endangered species, which ironically breed on this island. A graveyard for people with leprosy and a church reveals that the island had a history as a settlement.

Finally, it was off to the maximum security prison. Built in the 1960s, it was known as the hell-hole of apartheid. Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned there for 27 years, once described it as “the harshest, most iron-fisted outpost of the South African penal system.”

While there, I met Patrick Matanjana. At the age of 18, Matanjana was imprisoned on Robben Island. He spent 20 years in the cell next to Mandela. You can watch my interview with Patrick Matanjana, below.

Robben Island serves as a solemn reminder about what humans can do to each other. The sadder part is it happened in our lifetime. Now Robben Island serves as symbol to South Africans of the price it paid for freedom.