Mandela's prison at Robben Island

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Mandela's prison at Robben Island

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Robben Island in Table Bay, seven kilometres from Cape town, became notorious as Nelson Mandela’s prison. Today it’s a powerful tourist draw. Many of the guides are former inmates.

For advocating armed resistance to overthrow the Apartheid government of South Africa, in 1962 Mandela began his 18 years here, of a life sentence that would last 27 years, before he won release.

“You come face to face with time,” he said. “There is nothing more terrifying.”

As the lowest class of prisoner to begin with, he was allowed one visitor every six months, and one letter, censored. Poor food, little of it. Physical and mental abuse by guards. Solitary confinement. It makes for an emotional tour.

A Palestinian student visiting said: ‘‘Seeing his cell, and where he spent most of his time in prison was very inspiring. As bad as it was, it also gives hope, because it makes you feel you will get to whatever you seek – eventually, if you work hard enough. It was amazing, just seeing his blanket and all those little belongings of his.”

The political enemies of the apartheid regime broke rocks into gravel. The glare of freshly-exposed limestone harmed the eyes, dust got in the lungs. Mandela’s sight was badly affected.

This island museum visitor said: ‘‘I’m very moved by what I’ve seen. It’s unforgettable… seeing the cell that held Mandela. And the conditions were terrible. Yet he had the love and grandeur of spirit to forgive everything that was done to him.”

The island was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999.

Our correspondent Riad Muasses said: “Nelson Mandela wasn’t only a national hero but a global personality, thanks to whose contribution Apartheid fell. Hundreds of thousands of tourists come here every year, to the prison where he spent nearly two decades.”