Robben Island – The History of Apartheid’s Famous Political Prisoners

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Robben Island – The History of Apartheid’s Famous Political Prisoners

Robben Island is one of Cape Town’s top tourist attractions. It has been made world-famous because of the many prominent South African political figures who were imprisoned here during the apartheid era.

The African National Congress (ANC), a national liberation movement formed in 1912, has lead the struggle against racism and oppression in South Africa. During the liberation struggle, political prisoners were incarcerated at Robben Island for being outspoken against oppression and their activism against apartheid.

The conditions at the prison were so harsh that inmates believed it would be the end of the road for them and that they would never leave the cold, barren and lifeless island. Situated in the bay of the ‘Cape of Good Hope’ in Cape Town, was the perfect place for a maximum security prison during the apartheid era. The guards at the prison were exceptionally cruel. Despite the injury, pain and despair that the prisoners suffered with daily, they managed to change their situation into one of opportunities.

Due to international pressure and a series of hunger and sit-down strikes, the prisoners eventually changed the attitude of the jailers and the prison conditions improved greatly.
The inmates tutored one another and their warders and studied for University degrees. Despite the inhumane treatment they had endured, the evil of apartheid was eventually squashed by democracy.

Famous Apartheid Political Prisoners

The ANC wanted to make sure that every South African citizen was entitled to basic human rights. As all peaceful means of bringing about change were exhausted, the ANC took up arms against the South African Government in 1961. After the massacre of peaceful demonstrators and the banning of the ANC, they went underground and formed their military wing.
Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) was formed to retaliate and defend their people, future and freedom. In 18 months MK carried out 200 acts of sabotage. In 1963, police raided the secret headquarters of MK, arresting the leadership. This led to the Rivonia Trial where the leaders of MK were charged with attempting to cause a violent revolution.

Robben Island was Nelson Mandela’s home for 25 years. He was released in 1990 having spent the last 14 months at the Victor Verster prison in Cape Town. Mandela was made ANC President a month after his release and he also became South Africa’s first democratically elected President in 1994.

Those imprisoned at Robben Island included some of South Africa’s most well-known political figures:
• Nelson Mandela, ANC leader and former President of South Africa (first black president).
• Govan Mbeki, father of former President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki. Govan was sentenced to life in 1963 but was released from Robben Island in 1987 by PW Botha.
• Walter Sisulu, former ANC Activist.
• Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa and leader of the ANC.
• Mosiuoa Lekota, imprisoned in 1974, President and Leader of the Congress of the People.
• Mac Maharaj, former accused at Little Rivonia Trial.
• Joe Seremane, current chairperson of the Democratic Alliance.
• Tokyo Sexwale, businessman and aspirant leader of the ANC.

Tour Robben Island

Tour Robben Island and get a glimpse into the prisoner’s lives and times during the apartheid era. A trip to this World Heritage Site is an unforgettable experience.
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The Table Bay Hotel, was opened by South Africa’s former President, Nelson Mandela, in 1997. This perfectly located hotel situated at the V&A Waterfront, provides easy access to famous attractions and beautiful views of the harbour, Table Mountain and Robben Island.
For bookings, please contact Central Reservations
Tel: +27 (0) 11 780 7810

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