Year inscribed: 1999
Location: Western Cape, 33º 48′ S 18º 22′ E
Type: Cultural heritage
Robben Island is most famous as the place where Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa, was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 years in jail. The island has since become a symbol of the triumph of democracy and freedom over oppression.
Lying 11 kilometres offshore from Cape Town, the small, windswept island is now home to the world-renowned Robben Island Museum, a highlight of any visit to South Africa.
Robben Island was not always a prison, nor was it originally cut off from the Cape Peninsula. Thousands of years ago it was an inhabited area connected by a spit of land to the Cape mainland.
It was first made a jail by Dutch colonists at the Cape who, from their arrival in the mid-1600s, incarcerated opponents of colonial rule there, including African and Muslim leaders.
Robben Island later became infamous as a maximum-security prison for anti-apartheid activists, including Nelson Mandela. From the mid-1960s the prison held many leaders of the African National Congress (ANC), including Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Ahmed Kathrada, as well as Robert Sobukwe, the founder of the Pan Africanist Congress.
It was also used as a leper colony, and as a mental hospital from 1846 to 1931, as well as a training and defence base in World War II.
Following the unbanning of the ANC and other opponents of apartheid in 1990, political prisoners were released from the island, the last leaving in May 1991. The last common-law prisoners left in 1996, when the island ceased to be a jail.
In 1999 the World Heritage Committee declared Robben Island a World Heritage site of cultural significance.
“The buildings of Robben Island bear eloquent testimony to its sombre history,” the committee noted, adding that the island “symbolises the triumph of the human spirit, of freedom, and of democracy over oppression.”