Robben Island is a complex, sensitive eco-system and as such is protected by South African Law as a nature conservation area. In addition to this it is designated a World Heritage Site and has to balance additional stringent conservation requirements in line with RIM’s mission of ensuring public access to the Island’s heritage. The Island’s complex and sensitive ecosystem includes Birdlife, Natural Vegetation, Marine and Wildlife, Geology and Cultural Conservation sites.

Birdlife on the Island

The Island provides shelter and a safe haven for about 132 species of birds including some endangered species.

The variety of species includes sea birds, water birds and terrestrial birds. The Chauker Partridge and Guinea Fowl were introduced to the Island by humans. Many of the birds use the Island for breeding and roosting. Some birds from the mainland such as the Crowned Cormorant and Black Crowned Night Herons breed on the Island in large colonies.

Natural Vegetation

The flora and fauna of the Island were affected by farming practices of the past and also the introduction of extensive plantations of shrubs and exotic trees.

The spectacular veld flowers typical of the West Coast also occur on the Island during spring.

Marine and Wildlife

The boat trip to the Island provides an opportunity to see a wide spectrum of seabirds and mammals including Cape Fur Seals, Southern Right Whales, Dusky and Heaviside Dolphins.

On the Island there are about 23 species of mammals such as Bontebok, Springbok, Steenbok, Fallow Deer and Eland. Ostriches, Lizards, Geckos, Snakes and three species of Tortoises can also be found on the Island.

Geology on the Island

The Island is the summit of an ancient, now submerged mountain. It is linked by an undersea saddle to Blouberg. Its lower strata consist of Malmesbury shale forming a rocky and somewhat inhospitable coastline. Above this lies a thick limestone and calcrete deposit covered by windblown sands and shell fragments.

The Island is low-lying with the highest point also known as Minto’s Hill (named after the 19th century Surgeon-Superintendent of the General Infirmary) being 24 metres above sea-level. The Island favours a Mediterranean climate, but unlike nearby Cape Town, it experiences stronger winds and comparative extremes in temperature.


The Kramat is a shrine built in memory of Pangerau Chakra Deningrat, the Asian Prince of Madura, who died on the Island in 1754. He was one of several Muslim leaders who resisted Dutch colonization, and was banished to Robben Island in 1682. His body was later returned to his son in Indonesia.


Robben Island has important places of commemoration that include the built fabric, routes and paths, gardens, views and vistas. It has within it many and varied layers of history that are at times contested. Furthermore it is an island of many voices, including that of the disadvantaged, the oppressed, the sick, the privileged few, the religious, the imprisoned and the free. Its conservation therefore poses unique challenges.

Conservation Principles

Four main conservation principles underlie the approach to conservation management of RIWHS:

  • There is an evolving understanding of Robben Island’s meaning and value which has both tangible and intangible manifestations in cultural and natural contexts;

  • Robben Island’s heritage value is both local and universal;

  • Robben Island’s heritage value is related to current social debates about, for example, stigma, human rights, reconciliation and healing;

  • Robben Island Museum is committed to a conservation-based approach to development and to a transparent use-based, policy-based and process-driven management that seeks to balance the Island’s tangible and intangible heritage resources.


Robben Island was declared as a World Heritage Site (WHS) in 1999 under criteria (iii) and (vi) of the ‘World Heritage Convention’s Operational Guidelines’.

Criterion (iii) requires that a site bears unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or has disappeared.

Criterion (vi) requires that sites should be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance.

The justification for inscription, as set out in the ‘Nomination Dossier’, captured the significance of the Island based on its long and layered history that has resulted in both the tangible (built fabric) as well as the rich intangible heritage (memories). It reads:

The buildings of Robben Island bear eloquent testimony to its sombre history... Robben Island and its prison buildings symbolise the triumph of the human spirit of freedom and of democracy over oppression. - ‘Nomination Dossier’ 1999

UWC-Robben Island Mayibuye Archives

Most of Robben Island’s rich archival resources are housed at the Mayibuye Archives at the University of Western Cape. Mayibuye’s collections include artefacts, historical documents, photographs, art work and audio visual materials relating to the struggle for freedom and democracy; Robben Island; imprisonment under apartheid and South African culture making it one of the largest archives in the country that contains liberation struggle material.

Oral history and sound archive

These include recordings of interviews with ex-political prisoners, former exiles and political activists; Radio Freedom broadcasts; unique recordings of speeches and lectures; and historical papers archive.

The historical papers section includes more than 350 collections of personal and organizational records of major political events and turning points that culminated in the unbanning of political organizations in the 1990s. The Robben Island Political Prisoner’s General Recreation Committee records is also a collection of particular significance. It dates back to the 1960’s and serves as a wonderful testimony to the creative capacity of the human spirit to survive great hardship.

Photographic archive

These contain about 30 000 negatives, 70 000 prints and 4 000 transparencies of images that document life under, and resistance to Apartheid rule from the late 1940s until 1990. Subjects include the history of colonialism, the history of apartheid, images of apartheid, liberation movements, forced removals and resettlements, repression, political prisoners, trials, labour and trade unions, women, culture, education and the armed struggle. Important collections within this archive are the IDAF, Billy Paddock, South and Grassroots Collections. The images of two prominent photographers’ work represented in the collection are those of Eli Weinberg and Leon Levson.

Films and video archive

These archives contain audio recordings, film and video. It houses footage of about 1 000 documentary productions and 6 000 unedited recordings.

The Audio collection includes interviews with exiles, political prisoners and the Radio Freedom collection. The film and video recordings includes hundreds of hours of news footage, production rushes and stock footage from more than 200 film and video production projects. The core of the collection came from IDAF. Most of these films and videos were banned in South Africa prior to 1990.

Artefacts, art, posters and banners

The collection includes artefacts that were used as forms of political protest during the anti-apartheid struggle. These include T-shirts, stickers, badges and jewellery, among other items. Ex-political prisoners from Robben Island also donated some personal items used by them during their imprisonment on the Island.

The art collection includes paintings, lithographs, etchings and sculptures that were acquired by UWC and the Mayibuye Archive over time. The art collection primarily serves as a visual record of resistance to the apartheid system and thus all of the works precede 1994.

RIM historical artefacts

This collection includes more than 3 000 accessioned objects left on Robben Island by prison authorities. It includes prison clothing, items manufactured in the prison workshop, workshop tools, prison registers, a music collection of LP records, sporting equipment and furniture.

Due to the harsh environmental conditions prevalent on the Island, this collection was moved from the Island to Mayibuye to better preserve it.

Institutional archive collections

This collection includes organisational records of each RIM department, its publicity and educational materials, proceedings of conferences organised by RIM and copies of RIM’s publications.


RIM’s public heritage / education programmes aim to educate and expose people of all ages from all walks of life to elements of South Africa’s rich heritage that is embodied in Robben Island’s multi-layered history. The programmes provide information and experiences of the Island that are more in-depth than the general visitor tour and focuses on inculcating an understanding of and commitment to human rights and development.

School Tours

School Tours programme is aimed at creating an exciting and stimulating learning experience for children and young people who visit the Robben Island Museum. For most school children this is a once in the lifetime experience.

Outreach Programme

In 2010, a new stage play was introduced with more vibrant musical drama and choreography. The play is a perfect piece of edutainment and tells the story of Robben Island from the political imprisonment time to when it became a museum and World Heritage Site.

Robben Island Independant Camps

These are theme driven camps organised by national and international organisations and implemented on Robben Island. The themes and content of the camps must address issues of human rights and development and reflect the spirit of RIM’s Vision and Mission as stipulated in the ICMP. An organisation applies to use the Multi-Purpose Learning Centre (MPLC) facilities and accommodation.

Resource Centre

The Resource Centre provides educational resources and specialised learning spaces for RIM staff, visitors, the African Programme in Museums and Heritage Studies (APMHS) students, visiting scholars, interns, youth and adult groups. It holds a very special collection of books donated by Jack and Ray Simons as well as Emeritus Archbishop Ndungane. It is located on the Island at MPLC (the old Medium B prison)

Nation Building Youth Camps

These camps, based on a culture of human rights and responsibilities, are designed to develop a sense of citizenship in young people. The camps blend practice and theory and offer participants the opportunity to develop leadership skills through their first-hand experiences on the Island and participation in the various activities during the camp.

Adult Groups

This programme provides specially crafted adult heritage education programmes for audiences of diverse learning environments and backgrounds. It is designed to expose adults to heritage knowledge and to assist in the national mandate of providing education and training services for ensuring life-long learning.