ROBBEN ISLAND, South Africa — Tourists panned their video cameras through the bars of President Nelson Mandela's former jail cell Wednesday as South Africa threw open Robben Island prison to the public.
The island was formally transferred at midnight Tuesday from the prisons service to the Arts and Culture Department, which has declared it a museum. The prison gained notoriety as the main prison for those, such as Mandela, who fought to overthrow apartheid.
Tourist ferry trips to the island five miles off Cape Town began Wednesday, and the day's 300 available tickets were sold within an hour.
Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in jail on the island, describing it as the "harshest, most iron-fisted outpost in the South African penal system." The island became a jail in 1960, and the last political prisoners left in 1991. The last common criminals left Robben Island last month.
"This is historic, this is wonderful," said one of the tourists, black South African Humphrey Matyeka, who flew 1,000 miles from Johannesburg with his wife and daughter to be on the first public tour.
Tourists are driven in buses around the perimeter of the island while guides point out ruins from its past as a leper colony, military garrison and private hunting park.
The selection of the Robben Island tour guides mirrors the reconciliation that Mandela, elected president in April 1994, has tried to achieve since he was freed from a mainland jail in February 1990.
Six of the guides are former political prisoners who served time on the island and three are former jailers from the Prisons Department.
"It's touching," said Matyeka. "To see this cell where Mandela lived all those years and still came out with so much grace, with no desire for revenge. How many of us could do that?"