Surviving on Robben Island

On the 1st of December 1999, UNESCO listed Robben Island as a World Heritage site.

Under Apartheid Robben Island was the prison in which most black male political prisoners who opposed the apartheid regime were incarcerated from 1962 to 1991. However, as far back as the 1650s, African chiefs like Autshumato, Makhanda and Maqoma had been imprisoned on the Island for as long as 21 years and more.

Imprisonment warranted strategies that would ensure that prisoners survived the confinement, restriction and isolation. Chiefs such as Autshumato and Maqoma resorted to escape as the only way to free themselves from these conditions. During the Apartheid era, when security had been upgraded and escape had become more difficult, prisoners used several ways to make their lives in prison bearable.

Nelson Mandela at the Long March To Freedom in Pretoria. He was imprisoned on Robben Island for 27 years.

In the winter of 1964, Nelson Mandela arrived on Robben Island where he would spend 18 of his 27 prison years. Confined to a small cell, the floor his bed, a bucket for a toilet, he was forced to do hard labor in a quarry. He was allowed one visitor a year for 30 minutes. He could write and receive one letter every six months.  George Bizos, Mandelas’ lawyer and long-time friend recalled how Mandela used his boldness and charm to relate with the guards in such a way that he gained their respect and better treatment. He recalled how on his first visit to Mandela, he seemed to set the pace at which he and the warders moved, which was unusual for a prisoner to do. Mandela went on to say “George, I’m sorry, I have not introduced you to my guard of honour.” He then proceeded to introduce each one of the warders by name.  The warders were stunned but went on to respectfully shake Bizos’ hand.

Various former Robben Island prisoners speak of their experiences in this video;

Mandela later stated in his biography that the most important person to a prisoner was the prison warden who was the most immediate person to go to when one needed an extra blanket or any assistance. Having friendly wardens was also vital for the purposes of communication with fellow prisoners in different sections so as to continue with the work of the ANC. Unlike Mandela however, some prisoners felt that the survival of their ideals depended on them maintaining a distance from the wardens who represented the Apartheid regime.  Govan Mbeki for example distanced himself from members of the Prisons Service and spoke only when it was necessary. Mbeki also did not watch television as he viewed Western films as products of capitalism.

Sport was also an integral part of social life. At first the men played covertly in their cells using balls made of paper, cardboard and rags. One bold prisoner in the 1960s, is said to have stood up and requested that they be allowed to play soccer and was as a result punished for it. In 1965, after sustained lobbying, the authorities allowed prisoners to play outside on Saturdays. The teams built their own goals and threw off their prison uniforms to put on team colours.

The National Heritage Monument honours these survivors. Many former Robben Island prisoners stand at the Long March To Freedom in Pretoria, a celebration of conquest over adversity.


Interview with George Bizos

Robben Island – The Dark Years” INTERVIEW EXCERPT. From Chapter 66 of Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

Fran Lisa Buntman. Robben Island and prisoner resistance to Apartheid. Cambridge University Press, 2003.