Robben Island wasn’t always used as a prison. During the 1800s, the mentally and chronically ill as well as lepers were sent to live there, since it was far removed from society.
When South Africa became involved in World War II, the island served as a training and defence station. It was only after 1961 that Robben Island became a prison, and from then onwards, anyone who challenged the political system of the National Party was sent there as a political prisoner to work at the limestone quarry.
Prisoners were treated harshly, were often beaten, and had to endure poor living conditions. One of the most internationally recognised prisoners was our first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. He arrived at Robben Island in 1964 and spent 18 years on the island with fellow anti-apartheid activists.
He was confined to a small cell, had no bed to sleep on, and had to use a bucket toilet. He was allowed one visitor per year and was permitted to write and receive one letter every six months. Even though he and the other prisoners had to endure this type of treatment, their spirits never waned.
In February 1990, the National Party gave in to internal and external pressure and released Nelson Mandela. Through hard struggle and leadership, he paved the way to a new democracy in South Africa. Sadly, he passed away in 2013.