Heritage & Monuments

The Nelson Mandela Gateway To Robben Island

South Africa / Africa

The Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island is both a museum and the entrance to the ferry terminal taking visitors to Robben Island, a 30-minute voyage across the water.  The museum is on three floors and contains an exhibition area, an auditorium and a museum shop.  There is a further museum on Robben Island itself.

Robben Island is oval-shaped and about two miles long and 1.1 miles wide.  The island was first discovered by Bartolomeu Dias (c. 1450-1500), a Portuguese explorer in 1488 and subsequently used as a refuelling station.  From the late 17th century until 1996 it was the famous prison island, where mainly political prisoners were held.  In 1819 Makanda Nxele  (c 1780-1819), a Xhosa witch doctor, briefly held on the island,  drowned in an attempt at escaping.   

In 1806 John Murray opened a whaling station on the island and in 1845 also as a leper colony.  There were 338 lepers in 1892 and 250 more were admitted in 1893.

Murray Bay harbour was constructed between 1939 and 1940.  From 1961 the island was used for both political prisoners and escaped convicts.  From 1964 until his release in 1982, Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) was detained on the island, after which he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Tokai, Cape Town until 1988, and then to Victor Verster Prison from 1988 until 1990 when he was sensationally released and on arrival at City Hall, made a speech declaring his wish for peace and reconciliation with the white people.  In 1994 he was elected as President and served until 1999.  

Two other inmates of Robben Island have been President, Kgalema Motlanthe (born 1949), President from 2008 to 2009, and Jacob Zuma (born 1942), President from 2009 to 2018.

Robben Island is now a South African National Heritage Site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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