Ghost Island

Life among the ruins of a former prison island


It is known world-wide for being the prison island that housed one of the most famous public figures in recent decades. The World Heritage Site draws thousands of tourists each year, hoping to step inside Nelson Mandela's cell and learn about South Africa's apartheid era. It has however served as a place of incarceration and banishment for centuries - from the 1400's when it was used as a prison for rebel sailors. But although many of the island's inhabitants over the years were held against their will, for others it was - and still is - simply home.

Take a walk through the quiet lanes that tour groups never see, the forgotten graves, shipwrecks and abandoned homes. All hint at a once bustling community which ironically thrived during its tenure as a maximum security prison. Three long-time residents offer a view of change on the island and how this has affected those who remain. Stay after sunset for a glimpse into life on Robben Island.

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About 45 families (140- 150 people) still live on Robben Island. Most are employed by the Robben Island Museum - among them are former Correctional Services employees.

Frikkie Nel and his wife are two of the few remaining residents. Their house is the only inhabited one left on their street.

The Nels have a strong bond with the island and enjoy the unique experience of living here. "Twenty-five minutes out of the city, crime-free environment, no traffic problems - for me it's the best of both worlds," he says. But while the isolation has its benefits, the couple also feels the sting of it. In a practical sense, commodities are not easy to come by. "The isolation forces one to plan better," Nel says. "And you need to plan your whole schedule or your whole life according to boat schedules." The departure of many former colleagues has also had an impact on their social life.

Oom Jan

Jan Moolman moved to the island in 1963. He first worked as a prison warder, but became a skipper a few years later. He retired in 2012 and now lives on the mainland.

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Christo Brand

Christo Brand became a warder in 1978.

He supervised the island's most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela, with whom he left the island in 1982.

He returned to work on the island in 1997 to manage the retail outlets.

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The last political prisoners left the island in 1991. With the subsequent closure of the Maximum Security Prison in 1996, many of the employees who were resident on the island also left. Their houses stand empty.

On the 1st of January 1997 Robben Island Museum officially took over the running of the island. Some former Correctional Services employees were redeployed by the new management. While regular tours were set up, restrictions were imposed on the movement of people to protect wildlife. Tour groups are restricted to tight schedules and visitors are not allowed to roam the streets or explore beyond the scheduled stops.


"It breaks your heart. You know the history of a building, you know the people who lived in the houses."
"How ironic that today visitors are barred from walking around, enjoying less privilege than some prisoners themselves, then." - Former resident Michael Klerck
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The standard tour of Robben Island is 2.5 hours long. Visitors are bussed from the harbour to several stops, including the limestone quarry and the prison. Tours do not include sights such as the light house or the WW2 artillery guns and strict control is imposed on where tourists may walk.

Visitors are not allowed to stay overnight and many parts of the island are out of bounds, even to residents.

Tours focus on the island's 30-year tenure as a Maximum Security Prison, and less is mentioned about its past pre-1961.

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Jan Moolman believes more should be done to educate visitors about the island's entire history. He claims that the tours are not long enough to provide a real sense of the place. "Two and a half hours is not enough to visit Robben Island," he says. "I said so many times, give the people more time. They can go and sit on the beach, just watch over the beach over to Bloubergstrand, sitting on the island and watch Table Mountain on the other side, just to have the feeling that you are alone - the only way back is on the ship, there's no other way back to the mainland." He argues that the island is not only physically obscured, but historically as well. Oom Jan is also worried that not enough is being done to preserve the more recent past of the island. "There are certain parts that can go back to nature, but the island is historical and for me what is historical is everything that has been raised by mankind - it has to stay like that, it has to be kept in shape."

Christo Brand hints at the potential the island holds as a destination, but he adds that some efforts have been made to turn things around. "We've got new management in who has a different view of thinking about how we can make this place sustainable." "Our financial status was also in the red for a time - we're at least now better off, things look better." Nel adds that the rabbit population explosion which forced authorities to carry out a major cull is proof that management has seized back control. "It is true that especially the rabbits did quite a lot of damage to the vegetation on the island, but a lot was done about it." He says renovations were carried out on various buildings too. "There are a lot of positives that could be seen..."


Jan Moolman left Robben Island for the last time on 26 December 2012. The date will forever be etched into his memory and the painful moment still haunts him. He had spent approximately 50 years of his life living and working on the island.

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Ghost Island

Robben Island Museum was contacted on numerous occasions to respond to points raised in this story, but has to date failed to do so.