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As South Africa prepares to mark Freedom Day on Monday, the management of Robben Island, the symbol of despair turned to hope, has declared that it has “turned over a new leaf”.
The museum management has big plans to boost visitor numbers and improve how tourists experience the island, with the first coming to fruition this week with the launch of a virtual internet tour of the island’s famous prison.

Robben Island Museum chief executive Sibongiseni Mkhize said when he joined the museum in 2011, he encountered “an institution that was suffering from all kinds of challenges”.

“For the first three years, we have tried to stabilise the organisation. What we are doing now is saying ‘let’s start looking for opportunities for growth’.”

Earlier this year the island was mapped for the first time by Google Street View, which means that anyone with a computer and internet connection can explore it via Google Maps.
Internet users can tour the prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years behind bars, and view videos and historical images, by visiting the website of the Google Cultural Institute or installing the Robben Island Museum app.

The tour is guided by former inmate Vusumsi Mcongo. Users can also view video interviews with other former political prisoners.

Inside Mandela’s cell the tour scrolls to a picture of what it looked like in 1971, showing how fellow prisoners had constructed shelves for Mandela from cardboard, plastic and matchboxes.

“This launch says ‘Robben Island is looking forward, and we are no longer dealing with the problems of the past’,” Mkhize said on Wednesday.

Quinton Mtyala, spokesman for the museum, said the corruption and staff disputes with management that had tainted the World Heritage Site were a thing of the past.

The museum has a long history of labour disputes; in 2011 employees went so far as to physically block tourists from boarding the ferries during a dispute with management.

At the time there were allegations that corrupt staff members were scalping their free tickets, and political parties called for the island’s management to be investigated.

Then, in late 2013, the island’s R26 million primary ferry Sikhululekile was put out of action for good after being damaged, leading to delays and complaints of poor service by visitors.

Last year, when an underwater survey by the Council for Geoscience was conducted at the island’s harbour, it was found that the ferry’s draft was too deep and it was bumping into rocks at low tide, leaving management red-faced.

Mtyala said RIM’s multiyear focus on risk management and improved organisation had improved how the island is run. In the island’s 2013/14 annual report, released in September, the auditor- general gave it its third consecutive unqualified audit.

In the five years from 2005/06 to 2009/10, it had achieved only qualified audits, and a “disclaimer” in 2007/8.

Now visitor numbers are also up; in the 2014/15 financial year the island attracted 359 149 visitors, the highest number in the past five years.

In 2012/13, by contrast, 318 485 people visited the island.

Mtyala said other proposals being considered by island management included walking and bicycle tours, using the island as a base for events and conferences, and broadening the focus of tours to include the whole of the island’s heritage, which stretches back to the 16th century.

“We’ve got all these layers of history on Robben Island, and we want to move away from a sole focus on the prison,” he said.

In future, sites such as the island’s World War II military installations, churches, its historic village and history as a leper colony may become part of the visitor experience.

Also on the agenda are potential “foraging” tours, where tourists will learn about its plants.

The museum was also investigating making tours to the island more “uniform”, with less focus on the personal stories of the guides, many of whom are former inmates.

During the tour’s question-and-answer sessions, the guides would still have ample time to talk about their own experiences, however. “We are open to new possibilities,” Mtyala said. “We want people to come with proposals.”

Tourism MEC Alan Winde said the island’s collaboration with Google was “definitely a step in the right direction”.

“We know that attractions which continue to reinvest and reinvent themselves draw higher visitor numbers year on year.”

He said Mkhize, who walked straight into serious labour disputes when he was appointed as chief executive in November 2010, had had a “very difficult task” in turning the island around.

And while he had been a “proactive” leader, Winde still wanted to see more. “With the right strategy in place, Robben Island would really be able to offer visitors an authentic, rich experience.

“The national government and Robben Island management need to commit to a radical overhaul of its offerings, and, once again, the Western Cape government would be pleased to join these efforts.”

Meanwhile, the island’s main problem is still transporting visitors there. Since the Sikhululekile went out of action permanently in late 2013, it has not owned a modern large ferry and it is in the market for a new boat or boats.

In the 2013/14 financial year, the museum spent R18m on boat hire, and it is also still making use of two older ferries, the Dias and the Susan Kruger.

The two old ferries not only attract complaints of discomfort, but are slower than the hired boats.

Mtyala said the plan was for these ferries to be retired once a new boat had been acquired. But they would likely stay on as part of the museum’s history of the island, only not as transports, but as exhibits.

This article was originally published in the April 25th edition of the Weekend Argus. 

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