'Framed in my mind forever'

Published: 07 December, 2013 18:01 IST | Hemal Ashar |

Photographer Kamal Julka recalls his visit to Robben Island, the place where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years as a political prisoner

It is particularly poignant that Nelson Mandela passed away yesterday, during the current Indian cricket team to South Africa (SA). Several journalists and press photographers had met the anti-apartheid icon for the first time, during India’s tour of SA in 1992-93. Photographer Kamal Julka was one of these.

The Indian cricket team with Nelson Mandela on the 1992-1993 tour

Julka, who was a freelance photographer at that time, recalls, “I saw Mandela for the first time during the 1992 India cricket tour to SA. I knew this was a moment steeped in history, something I would relish and cherish forever,” adds Julka speaking on the phone from Jaipur, where he is based.

Sachin shaking hands with Mandela in 1996-97. Pics/Kamal Julka

Through those whirlwind three months of the cricket tour, where it was all about the ball and the blade, howzatt and catches that won matches, Julka knew the icing on the cricket cake would be a visit to Robben Island, the place where Nelson Mandela spent years of his life behind bars as a political prisoner.

Kamal Julka (r) with Mandela

Julka says, “I wanted to go to Robben Island but people said it was near impossible. I then spoke to Ali Bacher, administrator of the United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCBSA) who also said, “impossible. You cannot go there. He told me that I would need permission from the Ministry of External Affairs.”

Kamal Julka looking out of the chopper that took him to Robben Island

A few other photographers were not interested. One even told me: paagal hai kya? (are you mad?) You want to go there, just concentrate on cricket.” As the tour wound down, Julka felt his Robben Island ambition slipping away. He recollects, “There were just a couple of days left for the tour to end, two or three, I think.

The bed where Nelson Mandela slept in his cell on Robben Island

I was sitting with somebody in a bar one night, having a drink. Suddenly, one person came up to me and said, “Ali Bacher wants to talk to you. Bacher introduced me to an official from the Ministry of External Affairs.

A top view of Robben Island

He asked me: Why do you want to go to Robben Island? I said: to see the place where Mandela spent years in jail. I went back to my room and at midnight, I heard a knock on my room door. There were two officials of the Ministry of External Affairs standing outside. They said: Permission has been granted, you can go to Robben Island.”

Julka’s happiness was soon tempered when he heard that he would not be allowed to take the ferry to the Island. “I was told I had to hire a helicopter. Somehow, I collected Rs 25,000, which was needed then. In the morning, I had to go to the police station (I forget which city I was in) and deposit the money and my passport.” Soon, Julka’s dream took wing, literally and metaphorically. He was in the skies and landed at Robben Island.

He took pictures and even in those days when news did not travel as fast as it does now, it was soon all over that Julka has pictures of Robben Island. “A magazine in India offered to pay me all expenses for the exclusive pictures,” says Julka. Julka adds, “Robben Island reminded me of one thing: the immense strength and struggle of this man.

” Today, Julka, who is head of photography department at the Rajasthan Patrika Group carries the Robben Island message to youngsters. “I tell them, like Mandela you have to have the strength to struggle for a great picture. ‘Burn’ yourself for one,” signs off the photographer who considers Robben Island the highlight of an eventful 40-year career.

About Robben Island
Robben Island is an island in Cape Town, South Africa. The name is Dutch for Seal Island. Robben Island is 3.3 km long north-south, and is 1.9 km wide, with an area of 5.07 km. Nobel Laureate and former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid.

Kgalema Motlanthe, who also served as the President of South Africa, spent 10 years on Robben Island as a political prisoner, as did current president Jacob Zuma. Robben Island was used as a prison for political prisoners and convicted criminals from 1961. It was a maximum security prison for political prisoners until 1991. The medium security prison for criminal prisoners was closed in 1996. Robben Island is both a South African National Heritage Site as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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