Google Street View offers unique tour of Mandela’s prison

Robben Island has served many functions. Most famously, it was the political prison that housed Nelson Mandela, the deceased South African president, for 18 years. In the 19th century, it served as a hospital and leper colony. Today, Robben Island is a UNESCO heritage site, and the most visited landmark in South Africa.

And for the first time, you don’t need a plane ticket to get there.

Today, Google Street View launched the most comprehensive online tour of Robben Island to date. This tour, however, is different. Unlike other Street View projects, the Robben Island Prison Tour is annotated by former political prisoner Vusumsi Mcongo, who was acts as a virtual guide.

As users scroll through panoramic images of, say, the prison courtyard, Mcongo describes his days chiseling rock as part of his manual labour detail.

“The whole thing was to be able to tell a human story,” says Google spokesperson Mich Atagana.

“As much as this island has become a heritage site and a tourist attraction, it is also where these people spent the bulk of their adult lives.”

Atagana says that mapping the island wasn’t without its challenges. For instance, Street View usually uses cars to map a place, but as the prison is on an island, this wasn’t possible.

Instead, trekkers equipped with tripods walked the island in four- and five-hour chunks to capture the imagery, often spending the night. A rainy day would put the team out of commission.

Overall, over 100 people — from former political prisoners to Google technicians — helped bring the project to fruition, five days before Freedom Day.

Google is also hoping the technology will be used as a teaching tool in parts of the world that can’t realistically get on a plane to South Africa.

“It’s at the bottom of the world,” admits Atagana. “A lot of people can’t afford to make the very long trip, so we wanted to replicate the tour for them so they could learn about this very important part of our history.”

Former anti-apartheid prisoner Ahmed Kathrada, for one, is heartened by the project.

“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,” he says.

“There’s a poetic justice that children in classrooms all over the world will now be able to visit Robben Island using this technology.”

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