Robben Island or Penguin Island is an island in Table Bay, some seven kilometers off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. The name is Dutch for “seal island”. Robben Island is roughly oval in shape and about a kilometer wide. It is flat and only a few meters above sea level, as a result of an ancient erosion event. The island is composed of Precambrian metamorphic rocks belonging to the Malmesbury Group.

Robben Island was first inhabited thousands of years ago by stone age people, at a time when sea levels were considerably lower than they are today and people could walk to it. It was then a flat-topped hill. Towards the end of the last ice age, the melting of the ancient ice caps caused sea levels to rise and the land around the island was flooded by the ocean. Since the end of the 17th century, Robben Island has been used to isolate certain people -” mainly prisoners ” – and amongst its first permanent inhabitants were political leaders from various Dutch colonies, including Indonesia. African leader Makanda Nxele was sentenced to life imprisonment on the island in 1819 by the British colonial government after a failed uprising at Grahamstown. He drowned on the shores of Table Bay after escaping the prison.

From 1836 to 1931 the island was used as a leper colony and animal quarantine station. During the Second World War, the island was fortified and guns were installed as part of the defenses for Cape Town.

Under the apartheid regime, Robben Island became a maximum security prison in 1959, and its character as an island-prison near to a major population center invites comparisons with Alcatraz. Between 1961 and 1991, over three thousand men were incarcerated here as political prisoners, often for decades, including the former South African President and Nobel Laureate Nelson Mandela and incumbent South African President Kgalema Motlanthe. Prisoner family member visits were restricted to once every six months, for a period of only thirty minutes, in conditions which made even conversation difficult. The only reading material allowed was the Bible. A variety of barbaric impositions were made on prisoners, including breaking rocks and mining lime. In the early 1980s, many prisoners engaged in more active demands for rights, and a 1981 hunger strike reinforced their case and led to some minor improvements in conditions.

Throughout this period, security was very tight and the island off limits to almost all civilians, including fishermen. Before about 1980 almost no-one, even among inhabitants of Cape Town, had set foot on the island. It is not generally known that the use of the island as a prison was greatly inhibited for centuries by a lack of fresh water. The island is arid, with low scrubby vegetation and has no watercourses. Boreholes were drilled in the first half of the 20th century but in due course the fragile water table was invaded by sea water and the bores became useless. Sometime after 1965 a pipeline was laid on the bottom of the ocean from Cape Town.

The particular character of the apartheid era prisoners, and their disciplined morale in the face of considerable difficulties and even abuse, is well attested as being sustained by their commitment to the cause of the struggle for freedom, in particular for the majority black African population.

In June 1980 Frederik Willem de Klerk initiated the removal of political prisoners, and most prisoners left by May 1981. The last of the non-political prisoners (who had always been held separately from political prisoners) left the island in 1996, and it became a museum in 1997. Nelson Mandela left to worldwide acclaim on February 11th, 1990.

Today the island is a popular tourist destination and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999. It is reached by ferry from the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town and is open throughout the year, weather permitting, and tours of the island and prison are led by guides who were formerly prisoners there. Robben Island Museum (RIM) operates as a site or living museum. All the land on the island is owned by the State, with the exception of the island church.