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Robben Island is one of the most important locations in South African history. It’s loomed large in the country’s political consciousness since the earliest days of European settlement and, in the years following the release of Nelson Mandela, has become a place of pilgrimage. The very fact of its geography does however mean that it’s only accessible to a very small number of people at a time. That changed a little today with Google’s launch of an immersive Street View tour of the UNESCO World Heritage site.
Among the most interesting aspects of the tour are guided visits to Mandela’s prison cell and anti-apartheid activist Robert Sobukwe’s house.
“People want to see before they part with their pounds and dollars,” said Robben Island CEO Dr Sibongiseni Mkhize, explaining how the tool could help attract more tourists to the island.
“We are actually using technology to enhance the story we’re telling,” he added.
He also pointed out that the project would go a long way to preserving the stories and experiences of the prisoners on the island, many of whom are now elderly.
Rivonia trialist and former Robben Island prisoner Ahmed Kathrada meanwhile pointed out that there was a special kind of irony in the fact that technology was being used to preserve the experience of Robben Island prisoners when so many technological advances had passed them by.
The project will also not be allowed to launch in isolation. Google says that its maps division will also develop teaching notes on Robben Island to help teachers use the tour as an educational tool.
“Not being able to see or interact with children for 20 years was possibly the most difficult thing to endure during my time on the island,” Kathrada added. “There’s a poetic justice that children all over the world will now be able to visit Robben Island using this technology”.
“We’re launching this project five days ahead of Freedom Day in South Africa,” said Luke McKend, Country Director for Google South Africa. “Robben Island is a symbol of South Africa’s fight for freedom. We’re excited about helping people to learn more about this heritage and to explore the island from any device, anywhere in the world.”
This is also not the first time that Google has involved itself in South African heritage projects. In 2012 for instance, it helped put the Mandela archive online.
The internet giant has also previously brought Street View to a number of prominent South African tourist locations including a number of vineyards, the 2010 FIFA World Cup stadiums, and the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. It’s also in the process of bringing the technology to Table Mountain and the Kruger National Park.