David Beresford: Letter from Johannesburg

They cremated him last Wednesday. Now I’ll have to redo that list—the emergency numbers pinned on a kitchen cupboard: police, ambulance, fire brigade… You need them in Johannesburg. The list had four names of “dependable blokes”.
The first was Andrew Meintjes’s.

Meintjes was an engineer, as well as a photographer. Engineers tend to be practical types—the sort you want in an emergency. He did a lot of dreaming, too, and what made him exceptional was that he turned dreams into reality.

His hi-fi amplifier, for instance, was truly a dream of spheres—and it worked like a dream. He built just a few, quickly realising that to be successful he would have to go into mass production, and he was no more interested in mass production than Vincent Van Gogh.

I’m not saying he was a Van Gogh, although one newspaper, The Star, said in a report of his murder that he was a genius. And his Panfield was a piece of art as much as it was a camera—a symphony in glass, steel and fabric. Like the amplifier, he made only a few, snapped up by architectural photographers around the world as an artistic creation and an invaluable tool.

His great project was never completed. He wanted to build a camera obscura for Johannesburg and was commissioned to do so by the Africa Museum, but it ran out of money.

Andrew had a thing about central Johannesburg. My guess is that it was again the engineer in him—he could not bear the waste of all the fine buildings standing empty as if a neutron bomb had depopulated the place. In a way it had: the neutron bomb of crime.

So it was no surprise when he started photographing those buildings, renting himself an office in adjoining Braamfontein. This gave him a magnificent view of the city centre and the new Nelson Mandela Bridge, intended to lead the regeneration of the city. It was as if he wanted to oversee the rejuvenation process.

Andrew had a dream of hitting the jackpot with an invention. He had just finished helping his wife Lorna realise her ambition of getting a law degree, and that had hit his pocket. He had been married before. They had a daughter, but gave her up for adoption. Recently the girl, now a blonde beauty called Frances, came looking for him. She is a musicologist and they built steel didjeridoos. He taught her photography.

His dreams of “making it” seemed about to be realised recently when he emerged as the country’s leading photographic printer. Investing in a couple of monster inkjet printers, he began churning out dazzling digital prints. Soon he had virtually every professional photographer clamouring—which was when he decided to move his equipment from his home to his office.

Earlier this month President Thabo Mbeki denounced as ‘racists’ those who draw attention to crime in the country and suggest it is rising. He said such reports depict African people ‘as savages’.

So it is at risk of being unPC that one records that they came for Andrew—calling his name—as he was about to leave for home, shortly before 6pm. They tied him up, but he untied himself and went for them. One shot him—once in the leg, once in the chest and three times in the back—before seemingly running out of ammunition.

They got away with a cellphone. And the life of a dependable guy. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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