Robben Island prison fence gets a fashionable makeover

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Robben Island Museum’s rusted maximum prison security fencing could have ended up at a scrap metal yard but instead artists found a way to give it a new life – and meaning.

Cape Town-based graphic designer Charmaine Taylor turned to jewellery making when thinking of creative ways to use the discarded fence. She knew it was a valuable artifact.

“This fence held captive the apartheid political prisoners on Robben Island, including Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Steve Biko, and many more, until their release in 1989 and 1990,” says Taylor.

The Legacy Collection recycles fencing from Robben Island to create jewellery. Pic Supplied

The Legacy Collection recycles fencing from Robben Island to create jewellery. Pic Supplied

“I started off framing parts of the fence. But it’s so hard to take it off the wall and show it to someone. So I thought about how to take it from being a beautiful wall piece to carrying it around with you. Then I thought about making jewellery. I wanted to put it onto someone.”

Taylor had been collaborating on other projects with the Robben Island Art Company & Trust and gained the exclusive right to produce jewellery, worn by the likes of singer Paula Abdul.

Taylor’s Legacy Collection comprises pieces of the fence that have been sealed and covered in gold and silver. She launched it just before Nelson Mandela’s death in December 2013 and its first consignment sold out immediately.

“The museum wrote off the fence as scrap metal but the artist Christopher Swift, who also produces work using the fence, and myself saw the value of it. And we wanted to do something good with it,” says Taylor.

The Legacy Collection, she explains, represents the transition that South Africa went through from apartheid repression to democracy. She says it is a “symbol of captivity and to break it apart is breaking free”.

Taylor uses parts of the fence to create various designs, each bearing a name that speaks of the various phases of South Africa’s contemporary history. Among pendants are names such as Amnesty and Liberty, while there is also the Justice bangle, Amandla cufflinks, as well as Grace and Mercy earrings.

“Each piece is named after something we went through as a society. It’s an emotionally rich collection. When you are talking about it, it has a story and a legacy,” explains Taylor.

“That’s the beauty… when people come from a struggle, to see what happens afterwards. You can turn a broken past into something beautiful. Our leaders who were on Robben Island have come out stronger. This story should never be forgotten.”

Taylor is now working on the XX Freedom collection, to celebrate South Africa’s first 20 years of democracy. She says it is time-consuming working though, with a metal fence that is mostly fragile to work with.

“It can take up to eight weeks to produce one piece. It’s difficult to make. It has been quite a process because every millimeter of the fence responds differently to heat, bending, plating and thereafter to laser on the authentic serial number,” says Taylor.

“There are little nooks and crannies that we sprayed. The sealing process is the most difficult. Bangles are particularly hard to make because when you bend the fence it can break.”

Another challenge is that the fence is finite. It will at some point all be used up in making artworks and jewellery pieces.

“This is limited but after the fence has gone I will still continue with jewellery design. I’m thinking of bringing out a commemorative range,” says Taylor.

Meanwhile, she is donating 10% of her profits to employment projects to “also break free from poverty”.

“One of the beneficiaries is an NGO called Harvest of Hope, which trains organic farmers, and the other is the Nelson Mandela Foundation,” says Taylor.

The Legacy Collection ranges from R2,500 to R8,600 per item. For more information look at


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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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