In the summer of 2003 we visited South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. One very ipmressive tour was the excursion to Robben Island in South Africa. It was here, that Nelson Mandela toiled virtually every day for 13 years, digging up rock, some of which paved the road we were driving on with our bus. The sun was so relentless, the quarry so bright and dusty, that Mandela was stricken with “snow blindnes” that damaged his eyes. Robben Island (Afrikaans Robbeneiland) is an island in Table Bay, 12 km off the coast from Cape Town, South Africa and is located at 33.806734° S 18.366222° E. The name is Dutch for “seal island” (or to be strictly accurate “island of seals”, because Robben is a plural noun), although “Seal Island” is a different island near Cape Town (in False Bay).

Entrance Prison Robben Island - Cape Town - South Africa

Entrance Prison Robben Island – Cape Town – South Africa

Robben Island is roughly circular and about a kilometer wide. It is flat and only a few metres above sealevel, as a result of an ancient erosion event. The island is composed of Precambrian metamorphic rocks belonging to the Malmesbury Group. Robben Island was first inhabited thousands of years ago by stone age people, at a time when sealevels were considerably lower than they are today and people could walk to it. It was then a flat-topped hill. Towards the end of the last Ice Age the melting of the ancient ice caps caused sealevels to rise once again (they have gone up and down many times over the ages) and the land around the island was flooded by the ocean. Since the end of the 17th century, Robben Island has been used to isolate certain people — mainly prisoners — and amongst its first permanent inhabitants were political leaders from various Dutch colonies, including Indonesia. The most powerful part of the tour is a visit to Mandela’s cell, a 7-by-9-foot room where a bulb burned day and night over his head for the 18 years he was jailed here, beginning in 1964. As Mandela recalled in Long Walk to Freedom, “I could walk the length of my cell in three paces. When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other side.”

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