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10 things you didn’t know about ‘Mandela’s’ Robben Island

Last week, South African president Jacob Zuma re-iterated his controversial position that teenage mothers should be sent to Robben Island to complete their education by force.

If his plan succeeds (very unlikely) then it will just be the latest instalment of the Island’s notorious reputation, which has been known as a leper colony, animal quarantine station, and famously, as a prison for political activists.

1. Robben Island is known for being the place former South African president Nelson Mandela was jailed for 18 of his 27 years, but the Island was the home of prisoners from outside South Africa, notably Namibia. Namibia was a German colony until World War I; when Germany was defeated in the war, Namibia was administered by South Africa as a de facto overseas province of South Africa, and any political agitation in Namibia was punished by South Africa.

2. One prominent prisoner was Andimba Toivo ya Toivo, a founding member of the Ovamboland People’s Congress, one of the political parties campaigning for Namibia’s independence. Toivo was arrested in 1966 by the South African authorities, and jailed in Robben Island to serve a 20-year sentence. 

In prison he was “not an easy fellow”, fellow inmate Mike Dingake remembers, “never showing remorse and often up for a fight with the authorities.” From his release in 1984 up to 1991, he was secretary-general of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (Swapo), and later became Minister of Mines and Energy in independent Namibia, and, somewhat ironically, Minister of Prisons from 2002 to 2006.

3. Several other Namibian guerrilla fighters were incarcerated in Robben Island, including John ya Otto Nankudhu, commander of the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia,.He received military training in Egypt and the Soviet Union and set up a training camp in Tanzania, but was captured by the South African authorities, tried and sentenced to death, which was later commuted to life imprisonment on Robben Island. He was released in 1985.

4. Gaus Shikomba, a member of the South West Africa Liberation Army, was also sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island in 1967 but released in 1984.

5. Robben Island’s reputation as a place for banishment goes back even longer than the 20th century. One of the earliest prisoners held there was a pair of Malagasy men called Massavana and Koesaaij – probably not their actual names, rather a Dutch phonetic approximation – who led a mutiny on the slave ship Meermin in 1766 as they were being forcibly transported from their home in Madagascar to be enslaved in the Cape Colony of South Africa. 

The mutiny led to the shipwreck of the Meermin; Massavana and Koesaaij were not tried for the mutiny but sent to Robben Island for “observation” where Massavana died three years after they arrived, Koesaaij survived 20 more years.

6. Robben Island also served as a leper colony, starting in 1845.  Initially this was done on a voluntary basis and the lepers were free to leave the island if they wished. But with the introduction of the Leprosy Repression Act in May 1892, detention of lepers on the Island was no longer voluntary and the movement of the lepers was restricted. In 1891 fifty-two lepers were admitted to the island, with the Act in force the number jumped to 338 in 1892 and 250 in 1893.

7. The Island became a place for imprisoning political prisoners in 1961, but life on the Island was not all bleak. In 1966, the prisoners formed a football league among themselves that they called Makana Football Association, adhering strictly to FIFA’s Laws of the Game – one of the few books in the prison library. The league was named Makana after a 19th century Xhosa prophet who was himself incarcerated on the Island.

8. Makana F.A. was a multi-team, two division league run with fanatical attention to detail and formality in writing constitutions, forming committees, imposing disciplinary sanctions, training referees and logging results; at one point, over half the inmates were involved in the league. But some “high-profile” prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada, were barred from participating in or even watching the matches.

9. Jacob Zuma, now South Africa’s president, was a captain of Makana’s Rangers club, a sturdy defender and also a referee, says this article by the New York Times; Dikgang Moseneke, the deputy chief justice of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, drew up the league’s constitution and was its chairperson. Steve Tshwete, another player, became the country’s first post-apartheid sports minister.

10.  Today, some of the tour guides on the island are former prisoners themselves. You might think that this is an incredibly bold gesture of coming to terms with the brutality meted out against them, but perhaps not. One blogger, writing on his visit to the Island says he asked the tour guide/former inmate why he was working there, expecting “a profound Tutu-esque statement of reconciliation. Instead he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I needed the money’.”

Ahmed Kathrada, who spent 26 years imprisoned with his close friend Nelson Mandela, was asked in this Al Jazeera interview what the hardest part of being on Robben Island was. He said, the worst deprivation “was the lack of children [on the island] … I saw a child, and touched a child, after 20 years. So it was the worst deprivation, absence of children.”

This article first appeared on the Mail & Guardian’s sister site,

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