Durban - An artist was trying to protect his wife, 7-year-old daughter and friends in a home robbery in Westville early on New Year’s Eve when he was shot dead.
Seven suspects were arrested just hours after the murder in Westville of contemporary artist Clinton De Menezes, 43.
Just two days earlier he and his wife, Nicola, and daughter, Eva, had celebrated their first wedding anniversary.
De Menezes and his family, who lived in Kenya, had been visiting long-time friends, Simon and Amanda Malpas, as he did every festive season.
Simon said the three of them had been having drinks on the balcony at the back of his home at about 1am on Tuesday when De Menezes went to the bathroom.
The dogs, inside the house, started barking, Simon said.
“We (turned) down the music and the next thing there was a man on the balcony,” he said. “I ran towards him and hit him with a plastic chair.”
His wife, Amanda, saw another man creeping up the opposite set of stairs and ran into the house.
The glass door leading into their lounge closes in two sections. Amanda managed to pull the one side closed, warding off one assailant while her husband struggled with the other.
“I called (Simon) to come inside and ran in the house,” she said. “Clinton ran in (from the bathroom) and pulled the other side of the door, but could not lock it as the assailants yanked at it from outside.”
Amanda ran to wake up Nicola and Eva.
“Nicola must have heard the commotion because when I got to the bedroom she was already standing at the door,” she said.
The two women hid in the bathroom, bundling the child into the laundry basket.
Once they were safely locked in, De Menezes went to his friend’s rescue.
“We tried to tell him not to go, but he said he had to go help Simon; he couldn’t leave him alone,” Amanda said.
De Menezes came up behind Simon, who was caught in a tug-of-war with the assailants for the door. “I was hanging on for dear life. Clinton must have come up behind me; I had no idea he was there and the next thing I hear a loud bang,” said Simon. “I don’t know how they missed me, I was standing right in front of them.”
He then ran and locked himself in his bedroom, not knowing his friend was lying wounded on the lounge floor.
From the bathroom, where they had been holding each other in desperate prayer, the women could hear groaning and the robbers talking. “It must have been the guy Simon hit with the chair,” said Amanda. Before long there was silence and Simon ventured out to let the women out the bathroom.
They all ran across the road to a neighbour and called the police.
While her husband was lying on the floor dead, Nicola closed his eyes, kissed him goodbye and thanked him for being such a loving father and husband, said a shaken Amanda, as she took Simon’s hand in hers. Nicola had also given Eva the opportunity to say goodbye to her father.
“There was hardly any bleeding on his chest from the gunshot wound but there was a lot of blood coming from under him,” said Simon.
Simon, the best man at the De Menezeses’s wedding, cleaned up the blood. “It was the least I could do, he was a hero. I’ve lost a magnificent friend.”
Simon was injured during the attack but does not recall how he bruised his arm and got a black eye. He also has cuts on his feet from the broken glass.
The De Menezeses had been living in Kenya since July.
Amanda said Nicola was devastated and has since left to spend time with her husband’s family in eManzimtoti.
The balcony door has since been replaced, “for safety and because it was a reminder with the bullet hole in it”, Simon said.
It was the second time the Malpases had endured an assault on their home since October.
“Guys just walked in through the front door.
“They tied us and one of the kids up with my son’s football socks, in the kitchen,” said Simon.
One of the robbers took a knife from the kitchen and threatened the family with it, but they were not harmed, although the incident had traumatised the couple’s teenage children.
After the shooting of De Menezes, the Malpas’s two teen children, who were not at home at the time, were too afraid to return, said Simon.
“Why must we make our homes into fortresses to feel safe?”
Amanda said they were thinking of selling their home, “but where can you go here that is safe?”
In the October robbery, the family’s television set, computers and phones were stolen.
In Tuesday’s incident, robbers made off with three cellphones and a wallet, all of which were allegedly recovered when the suspects were arrested.
Police arrested four suspects, including the driver of the metered taxi they were in, on the N3 towards Durban, said police spokesman, Captain Thulani Zwane.
“A 9mm pistol suspected of being used during the shooting was found as well as a toy gun. It (the pistol) will be sent for ballistic tests to establish if it was used in any other crimes in the country.”
Zwane said three more suspects were arrested later in Westville.
The suspects, aged between 25 and 30, were due to appear in the Pinetown Magistrate’s Court on Thursday.
As news of De Menezes’s death spread in the art world, his Durban colleagues expressed their shock and devastation at his “senseless” murder.
Nathi Gumede, chairman of the KwaZulu-Natal Society of the Arts (KZNSA) committee, said he was deeply saddened that the life of an artist who was making his mark all over the world had to end in such a way.
Gumede had known De Menezes since their university days and when De Menezes served on the committee from 2003 to 2004.
“Durban owes Clinton a lot for his contribution to arts and culture,” he said, adding that he had tracked De Menezes’s success overseas via social networks.
“We will continue to celebrate his life and honour his work.”
De Menezes was born in Johannesburg and obtained his master’s degree in fine art from the Durban Institute of Technology in 2004. He co-founded The Art and Sculpture Studio and was the curator of The Cupboard Gallery and sat on the exhibitions committee for Durban’s acclaimed Red Eye Art Collective.
In 2004 De Menezes founded Alchemy Studios, a company established to fabricate artwork for private and public spaces, before relocating to the UK in 2007.
Tony Starkey, DUT’s former head of the Fine Art department, said he was absolutely mortified.
“This is a tremendous shock. I have been communicating with him on and off via e-mail and following the progress of the beautiful work of this incredibly talented artist since he left DUT.”
Starkey had supervised De Menezes’s research for a master’s degree. “He was incredibly rooted in the importance of land in South Africa.” Starkey said it was tragic that 20 years into democracy, there was still violent crime. “It shows that as a country we haven’t really settled ourselves. Clinton will be gravely mourned in the art world.”
Sculptor Andries Botha echoed this, saying he had seen De Menezes struggle to find a “language that spoke of his enduring love for the vibrant, but contested, South African landscape”. Botha said the death had brought an end to a promising life.
“Clinton’s life as an artist could not find its expression in South Africa. He was finally beginning to find his feet and establish his career overseas, but being close to his family and his yearning for, and love for the (South African) land, always brought him back and that it is a terrible irony that he was shot dead here.”
Botha said crime in SA was indicative of an alarmingly dysfunctional society in which normal people could not find security even in their homes.
Cartoonist Nanda Soobben said De Menezes being shot while trying to help his friend demonstrated the calibre of person he was. “The death of this brilliant artist is a great loss to the art world.”
De Menezes’s work has been exhibited in the UK, US and Germany.