A tour of Robben Island, 30 years after Nelson Mandela’s release

South Africa was a pariah nation in 1990, when Mandela was released. What does Cape Town look like now, asks Melissa Twigg

Tuesday 11 February 2020 10:19 GMT
Aerial view of Robben Island with Table Mountain in the distance
Aerial view of Robben Island with Table Mountain in the distance (Getty)

Thirty years ago today, Nelson Mandela stepped out of Victor Verster Prison and into Cape Town’s hot February sunshine. He was a free man for the first time in nearly three decades – and the waiting crowd broke into song as he stood on the steps and smiled. At a rally of 250,000 people outside City Hall later that day, he addressed the nation with a message of reconciliation. “Fellow South Africans,” he boomed, in his distinctive voice. “I greet you all in the name of peace.”

Mandela’s release symbolised a new dawn in South Africa – a country that in 1990 was still a pariah nation, banned from participating in global sporting events, with virtually no tourism industry and the spectre of one of the most repressive regimes of the 20th century hanging over it. Today, it is rightly beloved by visitors from around the world. But it is only by looking at the life Mandela led that we can really understand the still-fragmented nature of modern South Africa, as well as its humanity, warmth and generosity.

Cape Town is one of the world’s most photogenic destinations. Table Mountain looms over pristine beaches, jewel-coloured houses fill the inner city and vine carpeted valleys sweep through the suburbs. But on the city’s Atlantic Seaboard, the glamorous infinity pools and white sand beaches have a full-frontal view of Robben Island, the brutal prison that housed Mandela for 18 years.

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