Robben Island

Robben Island, just seven miles from Cape Town, has a long and dark history as a place of imprisonment and exclusion but is now a museum, recording the  incarceration of the political prisoners of South Africa’s Apartheid era, most notably Nelson Mandela.  However, it is more than a museum. It has become a place of pilgrimage and celebration of one man’s struggle for freedom. Former prisoners and warders live in harmony side by side on the island. The former prisoners act as guides, imbuing the story with authenticity and passion, telling their story over and over again, pacing the floors of the cells and reliving the past.



‘I was assigned a cell at the head of a corridor. It overlooked the courtyard and had a small eye-level window. 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. The width was about six feet, and the walls were at least two feet thick. Each cell had a white card posted outside it with our name and our prison service number. Mine read, ‘N. Mandela 466/64’, which meant I was the 446th prisoner admitted to the island in 1964. I was forty-six years old, a political prisoner with a life sentence, and the small cramped space was to be my home for I knew not how long.’

THE LONG WALK TO FREEDOM The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela – pp.369-70


‘The lime quarry looked like an enormous white crater cut into a rocky hillside. The cliffs and the base of the hillside were blindingly white. At the top of the quarry were grass and palm trees, and at the base was a clearing with a few metal sheds…Mining lime is not a simple task…Despite blistered and bleeding hands we were invigorated.’

I much preferred being outside in nature, being able to see grass and trees, to observe birds flitting overhead, to feel the wind blowing in from the sea. It felt good to use all one’s muscles, with the sun at one’s back, and there was simple gratification in building up mounds of stone and lime.’

THE LONG WALK TO FREEDOM The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela – pp.390-391


‘…we were on board the ferry headed for Cape Town. I looked back at the island as the light was fading, not knowing whether I would ever see it again. A man can get used to anything, and I had grown used to Robben Island. I had been there for almost two decades and while it was never a home – my home was in Johannesburg – it had become a place where I felt comfortable. I have always found change difficult, and leaving Robben Island, however grim it had been at the time, was no exception. I had no idea what to look forward to.’

 THE LONG WALK TO FREEDOM The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela – pp.497




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7 Comments Add Yours

  1. Howard Gardener

    “Former prisoners and warders live in harmony side by side on the island.”

    It is just incredible to me that these people have managed to stop and reassess such a terrible part of their lives, then somehow overcome and assimilate it. To recognize and accept that occasionally we may all be part of an unjust environment that may have no locus of blame other than the sheer stupidity of mankind – and then move on. This, I guess, is a quality that Mandela had in abundance. It is a lesson that we could all do with learning – and relearning.

    Thank you, Sylvia, for this reminder.

    • Sylvia Selzer

      It is incredible to me that the number of people I have met living in terrible deprivation in places like Kliptown have the same attitude to life – they don’t waste time complaining but move on. They hold on to their aspirations and are Mandela’s living legacy.

      The family visiting Robben Island in the photographs have success – the father with his smart suit, camera, video and laptop, anxious to be part of Mandela’s story.
      This is not a culture of blame but, with the death of Mandela a country that is waking up to see a government that is failing its people.

  2. Tricia

    I love the way you create these stories. It’s so direct and pared down to essentials, just as good writing should be. Really powerful.

    • Sylvia Selzer

      You have a great understanding of what I’m trying to do, Tricia – presenting images that tell a story and leave the viewer to respond to what they see and feel. Thanks for your generous and sensitive comment.


    I like the way the quotes match the photos. Robben Island was in no small way a sanctuary – where the natural world is by no means excluded by confinement.

    • Sylvia Selzer

      Unfortunately, not a sanctuary of choice nor the bleak but beautiful environment enhanced by imprisonment – the mainland with family, friends and life
      visible but beyond reach.

  4. Ashen

    … A man can get used to anything, and I had grown used to Robben Island … poignant.


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