During the era of apartheid, Robben Island gained global notoriety as a place of extreme institutional cruelty. Its purpose was to isolate and break the spirits of apartheid opponents, some of whom endured over 25 years of imprisonment for their beliefs.
Those incarcerated on the island achieved a remarkable psychological and political victory, transforming a prison synonymous with suffering into a symbol of freedom and personal empowerment. Robben Island became an emblem not just for South Africa and the African continent, but for the entire world, representing the triumph of the human spirit over immense adversity.
Human habitation on Robben Island dates back thousands of years, to a time when it was connected to the Cape mainland. However, since Dutch settlement in the mid-1600s, the island has primarily served as a prison.
A diverse array of individuals found themselves imprisoned on Robben Island, including indigenous African leaders, Muslim leaders from the East Indies, Dutch and British settlers, women, and anti-apartheid activists such as South Africa’s first democratically elected President, Nelson Mandela, and the Pan Africanist Congress’s founding leader, Robert Sobukwe.
Today, Robben Island not only speaks of the dark history of apartheid but also of the triumph over it and other human rights violations. It stands as a testament to the indomitable spirit of resistance against colonialism, injustice, and oppression.
In the face of opposition from prison authorities, inmates on Robben Island, particularly after the 1960s, managed to organize sports events, engage in political debates, and establish educational programs. They asserted their right to be treated with dignity and equality as human beings, contributing to the foundation of modern democracy in the country. Robben Island is now remembered as a place of oppression and resilience.
Beyond being a prison, Robben Island served as a training and defense station during World War II (1939-1945) and as a hospital for leprosy patients, the mentally ill, and the chronically ill from 1846 to 1931. Even during this period, political and common-law prisoners were held there. Given the limited treatments available for these illnesses in the 1800s, Robben Island effectively functioned as a prison for hospital patients.
Since 1997, Robben Island has been transformed into a museum. This museum is a dynamic institution that plays a central role in preserving South African heritage. The Robben Island Museum conducts educational programs for students, youth, and adults, supports tourism development, conducts ongoing research related to the island, and serves as an archival repository.