And that's a wrap – veteran police cameraman hangs up his equipment after 30 years

2019-06-02 08:16
Andre van Lill with the scrapbook he started on the various protests he covered over the years. (Tammy Petersen, News24)

Andre van Lill with the scrapbook he started on the various protests he covered over the years. (Tammy Petersen, News24)

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Andre van Lill has had a front-row seat to some of South Africa's most iconic and violent moments: from Winnie Mandela standing on the roof of a toilet building in Cape Town's Greenmarket Square, waving a box of matches promising to liberate the country, to the horrific aftermath of the St James Church massacre 25 years ago.

As an official police cameraman, he also had unfettered access to some of the most gruesome crime scenes since he was first handed his Sony Beta-Cam as a young officer in 1985.

On Friday, he lugged his equipment up two flights of stairs at the provincial police headquarters in De Waterkant for one last time.

Van Lill joined the force in 1977. The son of one of only four brigadiers in the country, he was just three weeks shy of his 18th birthday when he signed up.

"I didn't sign up because my dad was a cop. I had a dream of catching criminals," he recalled.

Western Cape Police Commissioner Khombinkosi Jula  

Western Cape Police Commissioner Khombinkosi Jula conferred four medals to Andre van Lill. (Supplied, SAPS)

Fresh out of police college in 1978, Van Lill was accidentally placed on patrol soon after being deployed to Pinelands police station to learn the ropes in the charge office. Hs brother was also stationed there.

He remembers forcing his colleagues to stop and search a suit-wearing man walking down Forest Drive carrying a suitcase.

"The other officers weren't keen because this guy was neatly dressed and didn't appear suspicious. But I had noticed that his pants were tied with some kind of rope," Van Lill said.

"He was searched and the suitcase was found to be filled with stolen possessions. The suit had been stolen from the house he had just burgled. Eventually he was linked through his fingerprints to between 25 and 35 cases in that area and the surrounds."

After SAPS management decided that siblings could not work at the same police station, Van Lill was transferred in 1981 to the police's Anti-Riot Unit. His older brother remained in Pinelands.

He soon became the record keeper for his battalion, recording incidents like stonings and teargas canisters being discharged.

In 1985, it was decided that audiovisual recordings would become part of the documentation process to assist in commissions of inquiry and court cases. Four people per province were selected to be trained in camera work.

Andre van Lill in a tie for the first time in year 

Andre van Lill in a tie for the first time in years at a ceremony honouring him ahead of his retirement. (Supplied, SAPS)

After receiving a crash course, Van Lille and 15 other trainees were handed their new tools of trade.

"That day, 34 years ago, I met the love of my life: a top of the range Sony Beta-Cam being dragged towards me. There she is," Van Lill said, pointing it out between the old TV sets, video players and recording equipment on the floor of his office.

"In those years, you had the camera and the lens, which needed to be attached. Then there was a moerse cable that went to the recorder the size of a suitcase that you carried with a strap slung over your shoulder."

Van Lill recorded significant crime-related incidents as well as protests, with the footage sent to police headquarters to analyse.

"I saw bad things. Very bad things. People got shot in front of me, died before my eyes. I was called to a scene to record a burnt body. The person had been necklaced and was still smouldering. It's a horrific smell. I couldn't eat for a while after that," he remembered.

"I was an officer, so I served the government. But me, Andre, I knew what was happening [under apartheid] was wrong. So I did what I thought was right. I pressed record. I recorded everything I saw, to give a true picture of what is happening. Whether the cops were right or wrong, I gave the viewer the opportunity to decide."

He ran through the streets of Old Crossroads and Nyanga lugging his expensive equipment, learning every street name and side road for when he had to flee dangerous situations, once even scrambling over a vibracrete wall to get to safety.

"Did you know that Nyanga police station used to be a tavern? It had a concrete bar and concrete seating," he recollected.

Among the worst scenes he has covered was the St James Church massacre in Kenilworth, Cape Town in July 1993.

"I remember my footage. In one shot, I zoomed in on a red droplet with a black background. I zoomed out, showing that it was a shot of someone's blood on a Bible. That day was a bad one," Van Lill said.

"I have seen a lot. Imagine a child being removed from a hole after being missing for days. It's disturbing. So you teach yourself defence mechanisms. You become cold, until it's just another murder, just another death."

But a little girl speaking at a memorial service about her father who was killed in the line of duty broke him, he admits.

"It was seeing the tears on her cheeks that cut deep. Her daddy had been doing his job when he died. There was something about her, just trying to be brave, that hit me. I hid behind my camera so that no one would see me cry."

In 1995, Van Lill was promoted to captain and was named as the head of SAPS' video unit.

He and his team started their own police publication called Western Cape Spectrum which focused on news and successes in the province.

He also produced police-orientated educational material, such as who is first and last on a crime scene and how evidence is collected.

With his video camera, Van Lill has covered major events, operational successes and contributed to the police's TV programmes such as Police File and When Duty Calls. His video footage has also been used by independent broadcast houses locally and internationally.

Earlier this month, the police's provincial management conferred four service medals and certificates to Van Lill.

"It was very unexpected. I was just told to wear a tie and to bring my family. My manager said it was the first time she saw me with a tie and without a camera," he said, laughing.

Andre van Lille kisses his last camera before retu 

Andre van Lill kisses his last camera before returning her to the police. Next to him is the first camera he received in 1985 - a Sony Beta-Cam. (Tammy Petersen, News24)

"It was special to have my wife and one of my daughters there - they were the ones who suffered all these years. I was on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. When something big happened, I had to be there. So to them, I owe a big thank you."

Come Monday, he will spend quality time with the new piece of equipment in his life – a brand new rowing machine he bought himself as a birthday gift.

"My wife retires in December, so for the next seven months I will do things I have neglected, like fix up the roof of the house and work on my succulent garden.

"Then I want to go on a road trip. I don't aspire to travelling overseas when our own country is so beautiful. I want to explore it, just hit the road with her."

On Friday, Van Lill gave his camera a final kiss before handing "her" back to the police.

"When the country was in turmoil, I was there. When Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison, I was there. I was privileged to see things change, just like I always knew they would. I am honoured to have been able to witness democracy.

"But I have also seen so much bad. That's over now. I am ready to see the good things in life."

Read more on:    cape town  |  police
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