Inmates clean up Robben Island yesterday, giving them a chance to occupy the holy space of the big man Nelson Mandela as part of Corrections Week.

For the first time in more than 15 years prisoners have returned to the “holy ground” of Robben Island.

About 150 inmates in bright orange prison jumpsuits have been ferried across Table Bay to clean up the island.

Yesterday the group of uniformed “low-risk” inmates from Goodwood, Pollsmoor and Malmesbury prisons set off to rip out weeds and bushes, mow the lawns and add a splash of paint to some of the rundown buildings to add a bit of sparkle.

Low-risk inmates are those nearing the end of their incarceration or who have been convicted of less serious offences, such as petty theft.

They took along tools – lawnmowers, brooms, rakes, wheelbarrows and paint – and boarded an early ferry.

An old church established in 1814 was among those buildings given a good scrubbing and a new coat of paint.

The exercise also formed part of the prisoners’ rehabilitation – programmes designed to help them reintegrate into society by exposing them to community-based initiatives.

For their general rehabilitation, the selected inmates are routinely involved in outreach programmes outside the prison gates.

The initiative forms part of various programmes the Department of Correctional Services has been running for Heritage Month and takes place during Corrections Week which ends on Tuesday.

During Corrections Week the department will raise awareness of the work it does and the rehabilitation programmes it promotes.

As part of the initiative a memorandum of understanding is to be signed to expand the restoration programme that will see inmates ferried to the island regularly to maintain the buildings and gardens.

Robben Island Museum spokesman Quinton Mtyala said the extra help was welcome.

Mtyala said the initiative started earlier this month with various parolees and prisoners arriving to clean up the island.

“The island has faced challenges regarding the upkeep of the infrastructure and we will accept any help we can get… for us it’s a win-win situation really.”

Robben Island, declared a World Heritage Site by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in 1999, was an island of exiles where many freedom fighters were incarcerated, among them Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe.

Businessman, politician and former political island prisoner Tokyo Sexwale said that when the prisoners went to clean on the island it was not just to cut grass – they would realise that they were on “holy ground”.

“The cutting of the grass is not just a renewal for the island, it is also for the prisoners who have wronged society – it is a chance for them to remember who was there.”

Sexwale spoke fondly of his memories of the island ahead of Heritage Day, what it stood for, saying it was a place of reconciliation between different political groupings, the jailer and the prisoner.

The island represented a legacy of Nelson Mandela and symbolised the triumph of the human spirit.

The island occupied the “holy space of the big man” – Madiba’s ideas, tranquilities and his ability to rise above pettiness.

He said the legacy of what South Africa strove for – a non-racist, non-sexist, successful society – started on the island.

“When the world looks at us through the eyes of Robben Island they see victory against adversity,” he said.