Robbens Island is best known for the location of the prison where Nelson Mandela was confined for 18 years of his 27 year sentence for sabotage against the Apartheid regime of South Africa. The island is a rugged outpost about 45 minutes by ferry from the mainland of Cape Town and housed political as well as criminal inmates. The political prisoners belonged to the ANC and PAC organizations and were separated by their color; Blacks, Colored and Indian/Asian. Food rations were distributed according to color and the blacks received the least favorable food and the smallest portions. Clothing was also distributed according to color where the colored and Indians/Asians were given long pants and shoes while the blacks were given only shorts and no shoes. All colors worked in the limestone quarry, most with shoes and the blacks without. The prisoners on the island in some respects considered themselves lucky. Upon their initial arrest for treason, sabotage etc. they would be held in jail detention where they were severely tortured for months on end. Many died and many suffered severe mental and physical consequences. Our guide in the prison was an ex-political prisoner and a survivor of the island. In his words he felt the original police detention lasted a lifetime while life on the island was more bearable. He was sentenced to 7 years for what the officials called” terrorism”.
All prisoners upon arrival lost all of their identity and were only known by a number. Three digits/two digits indicating prisoner number/year of incarceration. Nelson Mandela was prisoner 46664 making the 466th prisoner in the year of 1964. He remained there until 1982 when he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison and was given the number 220/82 although prisoner number 46664 continues to be used as a reverential title for him. The prison is only a small reflection of the history of the struggle against Apartheid and the lives lost in the struggle for equality. Nelson Mandela is one of the many heroes but one of the few who put forth the idea of truth reconciliation between the countries racial groups. He was finally released from prison in 1990 and became the first black president from 1994 to 1999. he died December 5th, 2013 at the age of 95.