CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA — During its long, ignoble past, Robben Island served variously as a leper colony, naval base, mental institution, whaling station, and jail to South Africa's most famous political prisoner, Nelson Mandela.
A new phase - as a shrine to past suffering and courage - begins on Jan. 1.
It is still unclear what exactly will happen to the wind-blown island 18 miles off Cape Town when it changes hands to the Arts and Culture Department from Correctional Services, which oversaw its blighted recent past.
But it is a given that the island, one of the most potent symbols of three centuries of white cruelty to blacks, will become a protected area so South Africa's past will never be forgotten.
"The details are still being worked out. But we know the island will become some sort of cultural preserve, like a museum," says Correctional Services Ministry spokesman Bert Slabbert.
Conditions on "Die Eiland," as it was known in Afrikaans, were much harsher than those in mainland jails. Mr. Mandela, now the first black president of South Africa, arrived in 1964. Despite the damp cold he, like all black prisoners, was not allowed to wear long trousers, took cold showers, and slept in a six-by-six foot cell covered only by three flimsy blankets. A light bulb burned all night, and the prisoners subsisted mostly on gruel.
Authorities tried to shatter his spirit at the limestone quarry where political prisoners were forced to break rocks. But Mandela and his colleagues kept their faith by turning the island into a "university" where they shared news, debated strategies, and held academic seminars.
Mandela was moved to mainland jails, then freed in 1990. The jail's political section closed the following year. Only common criminals remain, the final 100 to be transferred by 1997.
It must be strange for them to watch boatloads of visitors who now embark weekly for the stone jail where South Africa's modern political history was shaped.
On a recent outing, a crowd of white mainland prison staff joked and took photos of each other in Mandela's former cell.
"It's a bit hard to believe I'm seeing this," said an Afrikaner who worked here while Mandela and his colleagues were jailed. "Times have certainly changed."
Next came two blacks, who solemnly touched the thick metal window bars and gazed silently at the courtyard where Mandela spent so many long years.
At the souvenir shop, visitors can buy T-shirts and teaspoons or chunks of quarry rock, sold for $8 each with Mandela's endorsement to raise funds for former political prisoners.
Mandela's fellow internee and friend Ahmed Kathrada is heading the committee that will decide the future of the island, which was made a national monument in 1995. He has received more than 200 proposals, including one that would turn the island into a luxury tourist site and casino.
Aside from the fact that the 1,420-acre island is too small to handle large-scale tourism, and access is often hampered by rough seas. Moreover, former political prisoners are vehemently opposed to such a project.