What is Robben Island like, that dreaded prison we have heard so much about? What is the island really like?
(Naidoo and Sachs 2000:48)
The prison is above all punitive, it operates to break the human spirit, to exploit human weakness, undermine human strength, destroy initiative, individuality, negate intelligence and process an amorphous, robot-like mass. The great challenge is how to resist, how not to adjust, to keep intact the knowledge of society outside and to live by its rules, for that is the only way to maintain the human and social within you. …
Nelson Mandela (quoted in Hutton 1994:55)
Robben Island, the place where Nelson Mandela and his colleagues were imprisoned, is perhaps one of the best-known cultural heritage sites in the world today (Fig. 23.1). On 1 December 1999 at a meeting in Marrakesh, the island was inscribed as a World Heritage Site 1 in recognition of its outstanding universal value to mankind, having already been designated as a national monument. Designation and inscription are only the beginning of a management process, however, which poses the dilemma of how best to conserve the place in a way which retains its significance and yet at the same time caters for the hundreds of thousands of people, both local and international, who want to visit. More imporantly, in the longer term, sites such as Robben Island may force us to re-examine traditional models of heritage management which have been developed in Europe.
Significance lies at the heart of this heritage project. Robben Island is an extremely complex place in heritage terms because it represents a mosaic of significance to many different people at different levels and for different reasons. On the one hand, it is of international significance for its association with Nelson Mandela and his colleagues; on the other it is typical of a number of prison islands - Alcatraz, Rottnest off Freemantle, the isthumus of Port Arthur, St Helena - which are of