Re-visiting Robben Island

Thanks to a recent visit by the first lady of America, South Africans have once again been made aware of our country’s many attractions. As is so often the case with what is local and readily available, it took Mrs. Obama’s disappointment at not being able to visit Robben Island, to remind many of us of its value and appeal as a site of both cultural heritage and natural conservation.

Mostly recognized as the site of a maximum security prison for political prisoners during the Apartheid years, the island has captured the imagination of the world. Its ongoing association with Nelson Mandela, once a prisoner and later the first democratically elected president of South Africa, has ensured that the island remain a symbol of South Africa’s struggle for political freedom.

Declared a World Heritage Site in 1999, the Nomination Dossier stated that Robben Island “symbolize[s] the triumph of the human spirit of freedom and of democracy over oppression”.

As if in testament to its special status, the Robben Island Museum and prison buildings have become a very popular tourist attraction in recent years. However, what most people don’t realize is that Robben Island’s history stretches back much further than Apartheid. Due to its isolation and its strategic location, Robben Island has served as everything from a pantry and post office to a quarantine station, a leper colony and a lunatic asylum. Ever since the 1400’s, it has also been home to almost every kind of political prisoner known to the Cape.

In addition to being a fascinating and many-layered archive of South Africa’s history, Robben Island is also a protected nature conservation area. The island is not only home to 132 species of birds, most of which use the island as a breeding and roosting station, but visitors can also expect to see small herds of springbok, bontebok and eland as well as the odd steenbok and fallow deer. In this sense, the breeding colony of African Penguins is a particularly popular attraction for eco-tourists. Those nature enthusiasts who visit the island on a clear and sunny day should also make sure to appreciate the same breathtaking view of Table Mountain that met the first sailors to round the Cape.

When all is said and done, Robben Island is one of those few sites that every South African should visit at least once in their life-time. And since it is only half-an-hour’s ferry ride fromCape Town, it should be one of the first things on your to-do-list the next time you visit the Western Cape.

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