Dewani: The story that still grips a nation

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A gorgeous young woman’s life ended by a bullet. A wealthy, handsome young man who says he is innocent of murder.

Two-and-a-half years before there was Reeva and Oscar, there was Anni and Shrien. In the week when a UK court ruled Shrien Dewani was fit to face extradition, REBECCA DAVIS looks back on the case so far.

HONEYMOON HORROR, shrieked the Daily Mail headline on 15 November 2010. “The wife of a British tourist has been murdered on honeymoon in South Africa by armed robbers who hijacked the taxi she and her husband were travelling in.”

It was an instantly compelling story. The Dewanis: two beautiful young people, just at the start of their life together. Pictures of the newlyweds on their wedding day a mere fortnight previously added an unbearable poignancy. Yet BBC journalist Jonah Fisher later wrote that the BBC initially decided not to report on it.

Having discovered that Anni Dewani was a Swedish national, rather than a British citizen as had erroneously been first stated, the broadcaster thought the story would have limited interest for a UK audience and decided to shelve it.

How wrong they were. The tale of the “Honeymoon Murder” was picked up around the world and ran and ran. The early reporting on the case played on fears crime-ridden Africa: the heart of darkness in the “ramshackle townships”, “no-go areas for tourists”.

For South Africans, responses were more complex. What the hell were they thinking, going into a township at night? was the kneejerk response of many, white and black alike. Sadness, but resignation. Many asked why SA Tourism didn’t have more explicit warnings in their informational material around entering townships at night.

Others responded angrily that the townships should not be demonised as places of senseless violence in such a reflexive way. The South African Police Service (SAPS) expressed shock at the murder. The South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) expressed shock at the shock of SAPS, pointing out that there had been 110 murders in Gugulethu in the year running up till March 2010. It was “revealing”, the SAIRR said, that it took the murder of a tourist to make police “take stock of the state of affairs”.

2010 had been an annus mirabilis up to that point for South Africa: a World Cup executed more successfully than many had dares hope. Fears of tourists being attacked during the tournament proved false. The country had presented itself as a nation in unity: a friendly, hospitable, world-class holiday destination. With one gunshot, the Dewani murder seemed to expose the lie. As news of Dewani’s murder spread, Chinese news agency Xinhua wrote, “it seemed that all progress made in improving perceptions and stimulating tourism to the country had been lost”.

Did the murder of Anni Dewani harm tourism to South Africa? In April 2011 Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk told Parliament it did not. But it could scarcely have failed to harm the township tourism market, which in previous years had become a valuable revenue source.

A few weeks after the murder, Cape Town Tourism CEO Mariette du Toit-Helmbold wrote a letter: “Whilst the furore surrounding the Dewani case has not resulted in cancelled trips to Cape Town, it saddens me to say that we have received numerous reports of cancellations of cultural and township tours in our city”.

Yet very quickly a seemingly straightforward narrative began to unravel. Why, after all, had the couple been driving into a township at night? Wikipedia will tell you that they wanted to take a “slum tourism trip”. Dewani told the BBC, two days after the murder, that Anni wanted to see “the real Africa”.

But it emerged that they had been into Gugulethu not once, but twice that night: once en route to dinner in Somerset West, and once on the way back. Was Anni’s hunger for an “authentic” experience really so intense that it demanded a second visit in one day?

A week later, safely back in the UK, Dewani’s story appeared to change. Now he said it was taxi-driver Zola Tongo who suggested driving into Gugulethu, not his young bride.

Questions were raised, too, about the fact that Dewani had been allowed to escape the situation unhurt. Perhaps it says something about the psyche of a crime-scarred country that many found this surprising. “Why did they take the wife and let the husband go?” a Gugulethu resident asked a New York Times journalist in December 2010, about a month after the murder. “And why wasn’t she raped? If criminals take your woman, they rape her. That’s how it’s done.”

Of course, there will be many who say now they always knew there was something fishy. But in truth, it was depressingly plausible to many South Africans that the crime could have taken place just as Shrien Dewani claimed.

Then, the staggering confession from taxi-driver Tongo: Shrien Dewani had promised him R15,000 to kill his wife. The plan had been hatched together. Tongo had recruited the other assassins, Mziwamadoda Qwabe and Xolile Mngeni. They had planned to carry out the murder on the first trip into Gugulethu, but the other two men hadn’t been ready, necessitating the second trip. For the plea bargain which led to the arrest of Shrien Dewani, Tongo got an 18 year jail-term.

After Tongo gave his testimony to the court implicating Shrien Dewani, Dewani’s family immediately sought to paint the picture of South African authorities scrambling for a scapegoat to save their tourism industry. The allegations, they said, were “extremely convenient for South Africa”. They hinted that Tongo’s confession had emerged under torture: “Two weeks have been spent ‘negotiating’ this confession from the taxi driver,” they said.

If the South African public had been gripped by the story before, they were truly electrified now. I knew it! said the same people who, weeks previously, had shrugged despondently: It’s too terrible. But going into a township at night – you take your life into your own hands.

The previously sympathetic character of Shrien Dewani, beareaved young widower, now seemed sinister, cold. Why had he left for the UK just four days after Anni’s death? Might he be secretly gay?

A British holidaymaker who met the Dewanis while staying at the same game park beforehand claimed to now-defunct British tabloid News of the World that their behaviour on their honeymoon was strange for newlyweds – “They never kissed. It seemed like Anni was more smitten with Shrien.” (CCTV footage from the Cape Grace contradicts this, apparently showing the couple interacting lovingly.) The same woman, Chloe Spelling, said she had a conversation with Shrien Dewani after the murder in which he said “It’s been a total disaster from start to finish”, which Spelling felt was a “strange thing to say”.

The Dewani family’s decision to hire celebrity publicist Max Clifford to handle the media storm was read as suspicious, a sign of guilt. It didn’t wash well, especially when Clifford seemed to be trying to pump evidence of Dewani’s grief at his wife’s death into the media. The Sun reported at the time that Max Clifford claimed Shrien was carrying around a Barbie doll to remind him of his lost love.

For South Africans, the notion of Shrien Dewani’s guilt was a lifeline, and a vindication. Pappa wag vir jou, many said grimly, because it was in the era just before Hawks spokesman Macintosh Polela learned that the hard way that one cannot predict prison rape with relish from a public forum.

“Many South Africans are following the case closely, as they feel initial coverage was used to strengthen the perception that theirs is a violent country,” the BBC wrote in November last year. “They hope that if it is proved that the plot was hatched abroad, South Africa's image may be partially restored.”

Such have been the levels of animosity towards Dewani that his lawyers have presented this as evidence that he might come to harm if extradited to South Africa to face trial. In December 2010, less than a month after Anni Dewani’s murder, erstwhile Police Commissioner Bheki Cele said in Limpopo: “One monkey came from London to kill his wife here. He thought we South Africans were stupid. Don’t kill people here.”

As much as this statement certainly echoed the response of many South Africans to the case – indeed, it was probably one of Cele’s more popular pronouncements - it was extremely unwise to be made in public from the mouth of the National Police Commissioner. This is because it was it was leapt on by UK extradition lawyers who suggested that the police’s presumption of guilt could prejudice Dewani’s case.

The DA’s shadow Police Minister Diane Kohler-Barnard said on Wednesday this week that “we greatly feared that the thoughtless comments [by Cele]…may have prevented this extradition. It would have been a national tragedy if a trial was prevented because of the former Commissioner’s foolhardiness.”

Dewani’s continuing attempts to avert extradition have also been read as suspicious by the South African public: why wouldn’t he just face the music, we say, if he had nothing to hide? And it appears that the music will be fairly intense: at the UK hearings, the court has heard that the state’s evidence includes CCTV footage of Dewani allegedly handing money to Tongo, and text messages between Tongo and Dewani on the night of the murder.

The claim that Dewani is in a fragile state of mental health has largely failed to win him sympathy here, despite the High Court in the UK’s ruling last March that it would be “unjust and oppressive” to send Dewani to South Africa to face trial as long as his mental health remained precarious.

In the latest extradition hearing, there were conflicting accounts from two psychiatrists. Professor Nigel Eastman told the court earlier this month that he should be given at least another six months to recover, saying: “If he goes to South Africa and does not improve, he is at risk of being chronically ill and chronically unfit to plead.”

Fellow psychiatrist Dr Ian Cumming testified to the contrary, however, suggesting that a delay could worsen Dewani’s mental health and “it could be better to get on with it”. Cumming also said he was confident that Dewani would get a decent standard of mental health treatment in South Africa. The latter argument appears to have swayed judge Howard Riddle more.

Dewani’s lawyers now have 14 days to appeal the extradition ruling, which they almost certainly will. This already protracted extradition issue could yet be dragged on further, despite the indications that British authorities are losing patience.

Anni Dewani’s father once said that the family could not properly begin to heal as long as Shrien Dewani avoided the South African dock. That sense of unfinished business is felt deeply in South Africa too. 

Photo: Businessman Shrien Dewani is led to a prison van by a warder at Westminster Magistrates court in central London December 8, 2010. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett


Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.

Source: The Daily Maverick