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Images of Southern Africa - Robben Island

Robben Island lies some 12km off Cape Town and was a prison for over 400 years. It is now a museum and conservation area and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999. (See

The Island is most associated with Nelson Mandela who spent 18 of his 27 years in prison there. Mandela was born 18 July 1918 in a village near Umtata, then the capital of the former black homeland of the Transkei. His birth name Rolihlahla means ‘trouble maker’; he was given the English name Nelson at mission school.

In 1964 Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment for being a member of the then banned African National Congress (ANC) and for acts of sabotage and conspiracy against the state. He was sent to Robben Island with other ANC leaders and imprisoned there until 1982 when he was transferred to Pollsmore Prison in Cape Town. Mandela was released on 11 February 1990, was elected leader of the ANC in 1991 and became President of South Africa following elections in April 1994.

Robben Island is an example of what historical geographers refer to as a ‘landscape of memory’. Many countries work to retain memories of the past by making important sites centres of pilgrimage. Auschwitz in Poland is one such landscape of memory. Visitors now embark for Robben Island through the ‘Nelson Mandela Gateway’ on the Cape Town waterfront where the sense of pilgrimage is evoked.

The photograph shows the entrance to the Robben Island prison. The information over the entrance is provided in two languages: Afrikaans and English.

Ideas for further exploration:

  • In what ways is Robben Island being preserved as a ‘landscape of memory’?
  • Can you think of any other ‘landscapes of memory’ from around the world that countries/international organisations would seek to preserve? Why would they wish to do so?

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