At least South Africa has the world’s best murder trials

First Oscar Pistorius, then Shrien Dewani: at dinner parties, talk has been of little else for months

18 October 2014

9:00 AM

18 October 2014

9:00 AM


I was astonished, in London the other week, to discover how closely you Britons were following the Oscar Pistorius trial. I was invited to Rosie Boycott’s breakfast club, which meets on Friday mornings in a west London coffee house. The table was full of charming old geezers of approximately my vintage, all clearly Oxbridge men of the most civilised variety and yet as taken with the Pistorius drama as any Hello! magazine subscriber.

Why did the Oscar trial grip the world’s imagination? Some say it is because of the blade runner’s novel handicap. Others put it down to feminism — women everywhere were pissed off by what they took to be the cold-blooded murder of ‘one of us’. My take: do not underestimate the fact that Oscar and his model girlfriend Reeva were young and beautiful and seemed to be living a magical life of fast cars, fancy nightclubs and fashion shoots on tropical islands.

The glamour factor might also explain the world’s fascination with the Dewani murder case, presently playing out in Cape Town. Here again, the protagonists were rich and good-looking and stars moreover of reams of CCTV footage of themselves in their natural habitat — the corridors and reception areas of a five-star hotel on Cape Town’s waterfront.

My favourite bit of CCTV footage begins at 5.17 p.m. on Friday 13 November 2010. The camera is focused on a twilit courtyard. A taxi appears and disgorges a lovely creature who sashays into the lobby of the Cape Grace hotel. This is the newly-wed Anni Dewani, 28. She’s tall, willowy, elegant even in jeans and trainers.

Her husband Shrien Dewani, 30, lingers in the taxi, negotiating some sort of deal with driver Zola Tongo. Within minutes, they reach agreement in principle, and Mr Dewani comes striding into the hotel, looking like a Bollywood idol with his designer stubble and collar turned up Elvis-style.

For the Dewanis, this is day 15 of a nuptial rite that began in India with a three-day party for 500 guests before moving to the luxury Chitwa Chitwa safari lodge in Kruger Park, where a chalet for two costs around £1,000 a night. Shrien and Anni both come from money. He is a chartered accountant whose Bristol-based family owns a string of homes for old people. She is a cellphone engineer and sometime model whose dad owns a large electrical business in Sweden.

Thus far their nuptials have cost at least £250,000, with more to come: a luxury suite in the Cape Grace costs another £1,000 a night, and dinner for two at the posh Sevruga restaurant will set you back at least £75. Halfway through the meal, Shrien leaves the table, allegedly to finalise his arrangement with Mr Tongo, the taxi driver. They agree on a price and set a time for the next day’s meeting.

When next we see the golden couple, they are passing under a CCTV camera in one of the Cape Grace’s faux Victorian corridors. Shrien is an ebullient mood. He darts ahead, laughing, then turns back to face his wife, cocks his thumbs and forefingers into pretend pistols and drills her with both barrels — Bang bang! You’re dead! Anni doesn’t bother to react. After all, it’s just a joke.

Or is it? Twenty-four hours later, she is shot dead in what initially appears to be an everyday hijacking.

Three months ago, you could hardly eat at a South African dinner party for all the shouting about the Pistorius trial. Now the Dewani case has turned into an equally fevered national and international obsession. ‘Why South Africa?’ cry the pundits. Because we’re lucky, say I. There is nothing like a good murder trial to take your mind off unpleasantness like the Islamic State or problems here at home. President Zuma’s lawyer was in the news last week for opining that corruption is a crime only in ‘the western paradigm’. I gnash my teeth and return to the murder mystery.

The Dewani case revolves around a single question: what were Shrien and Tongo talking about as they sat in the latter’s taxi on that fateful Friday evening? Prosecutors depict Shrien as a secretly gay man forced by his family into a marriage that is abhorrent to him. His bride senses this, and confides to her sister that Shrien keeps rebuffing her sexually. By the time they land in Cape Town, Shrien is desperate to put an end to this torment. Knowing that he’s in an anarchic country with one of the highest murder rates ever measured, he takes a chance, and propositions taxi driver Tongo: ‘Can you help me get rid of my wife?’ Tongo says, ‘Of course, sir.’ Later, they agree on a price — around £1,400 — and a modus: Tongo will arrange a fake hijacking, and Anni Dewani will not survive.

Dewani’s supporters concede that their champion led a secret life in London’s gay S&M underworld but otherwise find it hard to believe any of this. Within minutes of their meeting, a suave chartered accountant with a grammar-school education propositions a total stranger to commit murder? ‘Rubbish,’ says Cape Town journalist Lin Sampson.

Her theory of the case unfolds thus: a rich couple arrives at the airport, pockets bulging with hard currency, ears and fingers dripping with jewellery, bound for one of the most expensive hotels in Cape Town. The taxi driver’s eyes gleam. Soon as he’s dropped the Dewanis at the Cape Grace, he informs his friend Monde Mbolombo that he’s identified a potential robbery target and that he can deliver the victims into Mbolombo’s hands the following evening. Mbolombo then arranges for two young thugs to ‘hijack’ Tongo’s taxi and strip the tourists of their jewels and cash.

But something goes wrong and the thugs accidentally shoot Anni dead. This brings out swarms of police who soon arrest all four conspirators. Hoping to save their own necks, three of them say, it’s not really our fault, that rich Indian paid us to whack her.

Why would police buy this story, and give the accused reduced sentences in return for their testimony against Dewani? ‘They have a provincial mentality,’ says Ms Sampson. ‘They think snooty foreigners have impugned the national honour, and want to punish them.’

Last year, a BBC Panorama investigation assessed the police case against Dewani and found it full of gaping holes. According to forensic scientist Jim Fraser, it ‘almost beggars belief’ that Dewani should behave in the manner depicted.

True, but there is much under the African sun that defies foreign comprehension. Our murder rate, for instance, is around 35 times higher than the UK’s. In Fraser’s world, armies of well-trained detectives work on a single murder. Here, a single detective often has scores of cases on his desk. Some get no attention whatsoever, which is why frustrated members of the underclass are constantly beating suspects to death on the streets. A government commission says there are at least five such mob executions every month in Cape Town alone.

Did Shrien Dewani read of such things in Bristol and think, here is a place where life is so cheap it is almost free? Is that why he brought his bride to South Africa, and why he had the gall to ask a total stranger to help murder her?

I hate to think we have fallen so low. I’d prefer to believe Dewani’s version of what took place in the taxi that fateful evening. Yes, he says, we negotiated a deal — but says the service under discussion was not murder. It was a helicopter ride, a surprise for my wife. That’s why he was carrying a large sum in local currency the next evening, when Tongo arrived to carry him and Anni away on the last ride of her life.

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Show comments
  • brillopad1

    ‘At least South Africa has the world’s best murder trials’
    Plenty of practice.

  • Icarus

    Oh dear – so he’s going to get off just because the intelligentsia don’t want to think of South Africa as the murder capital of the world. This Is quite a one sided article. And we don’t know if Dewani had had third party contact with the driver or had known something of his reputation beforehand. This was not Dewani’s first time in SA.

    • camjan2

      No rape was the motive. She resisted . They tried to grab her out and accidentally shot her. They kicked him out first at gunpoint. Simple. It happens weekly. That is by far the most likely scenario. Poor witness this week almost admitted that was the case. State case may unravel fast. Far more intriguing than Oscar case.

      If indeed not guilty many, very many will owe this man an apology.

      • kingkevin3

        You seriously believe anyone in the civilised world is going to respect a not guilty verdict? you have to be joking. The guy is clearly guilty. Just like Pistorius. Anyone arguing otherwise in either case is simply dumb or …f***** dumb.

        • Damaris Tighe

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          “I try to keep an open mind, I don’t care what anyone says.

        • camjan2

          Well I never. It looks like I am dumb. Tongo shares a cell who will tell it like it was….Helicopter cash stolen at gunpoint. Rape the motive regarding the lady. Accidentally shot trying to avoid being dragged out and shot. Simple. Predictable.

        • camjan2

          Guess who is dumb now lol as they say

  • Monima O’Connor

    Couldn’t agree more . And the reason when Shrien met the taxi driver in the hotel to pay him and they Went into a separate room? My take on this is that the taxi driver didn’t want to be seen accepting cash openly and he himself suggested the separate room in case someone on the front desk spotted the deal taking place. Such a thing happened to me once at the Taj Mahal hotel in India ( not the murder of course !), a photographer approached us as we had entered this Wonder of the World and asked us if we would like professional photos taken, to which we agreed. He told us he would be at the hotel later that evening and to wait for him in the lobby. He wasn’t there and my friend wandered outside the lobby door to see him waiting in the car park and waving.

    • Damaris Tighe

      Isn’t it unlikely that Shrien would negotiate a helicopter ride with a taxi driver from a township?

      • Monima O’Connor

        Not necessarily. It is possible the taxi driver asked ” is there anything else I can help you with during your stay?”

        • Mc

          And who in their right mind that is acquainted with SA who is averse to a fraud or homicide, is going to catch ataxi from the taxi stand and think they should arrange a helicopter ride through the taxi driver?

      • Penny

        I’ve not kept up with the case but I think the helicopter version is more plausible than the murder chat. It’s possible that, en route to the hotel, the taxi driver was talking to them about other attractions. I don’t know if you’ve even been in an Arab-driven taxi in Jerusalem, Damaris, but you’ll never get out of it without at least five attractions per mile being offered to you because, obviously, they want the job(s).

        The alternative to that is Shrien – who has no clue who the driver is (for all he knew he could be the brother-in-law of the chief of police) – leaning in and saying to the driver: “Well, we’ll skip the tour of Durban, thanks – but any chance you’d murder my wife?”

        Of the two I would say the first is the more plausible.

        • Damaris Tighe

          Yes, but you can’t compare a taxi ride to a J’lem landmark (offered by someone you already know & have some experience of, who will himself be doing the driving) to a helicopter trip. For starters, I’d want to know that the helicopter was operated by a reputable company with well trained pilots. It’s certainly not something I’d negotiate through a South African tax driver I’d just met – or indeed even if I knew him well. Especially when the hotel’s tourist desk is two seconds away.

          On the other hand I’ve read that a South African taxi driver might be just the person to ask about arranging a murder! They tend, apparently, not to be related to policemen but pretty much at the bottom of the pile. I can’t comment here – I really don’t know.

          Edit: And why pay cash? A reputable helicopter company would surely take a card payment.

          • Penny

            Good points, Damaris. I’m very familiar with Jerusalem, but SA – not so much. The question I’m left with then, is, to what extent was Shrien familiar with the differences between his experiences – formed mostly in the UK – and that of SA?

            On a lighter note, my “experience” with Arab-driven taxis in Jerusalem was deliberately limited thanks to the over-kill of two rides. Walking or taking the bus was far less tiring!

          • Damaris Tighe

            Lots of questions, Penny, to which we – & more importantly the Hindochas – may never know the answer to.

            The Arab drivers of J’lem are an interesting bunch. I met one or two who were highly educated, one a trained social worker. These guys were pretty low key, friendly but didn’t hussle. But most are typical middle eastern taxi drivers!

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Women giving you the silent treatment: Come on guys, we’ve all been there. Nothing takes priority over her ego. Well, in an oblique way Oscar has done the male half of the population a favour by prompting an improvement in prompt communication.
    “That you, luv?”
    “Of course it is. Who else were you expecting? Keira Knightley?
    Mumble: “No such luck.”
    And they call me a misogynist.

  • John Cronin

    Hopefully the blacks in south Africa will all kill each other or die of AIDS. When that happens, it will be a wonderful place to visit.

  • Damaris Tighe

    I always thought that Pistorious’s disability should be taken into account at his trial. It would have undoubtedly made him feel more anxious & vulnerable if he believed a burglar was in the house, & the judge in the end took this view. The interesting thing was that the sisterhood was blind to the possibility of vulnerability in a man. Only women can be vulnerable it seems.

    • Stigenace

      I cannot understand how, when he claimed to have heard an intruder, he wasn’t asked, as Reeva was not in bed with him, why he didn’t consider that the noise which awoke him was, in fact, being made by his girlfriend. Anybody sharing a bed would assume that the noise which awoke them was made by their absent bed partner. If suspicions about the source of the noise remained, any normal person would ensure they had located their partner before firing off a volley of shots.

      I’m sorry, Damaris, but Pistorius’s account is weak.

      • Damaris Tighe

        Yes, that was my first thought when I head about the shooting. I’m far from versed in all the details, but I later thought that his disability (& physical vulnerability) could well have lead to shockingly poor judgement.

    • jeffersonian

      Nonsense on stilts. He didn’t fire one warning shot. He fired four (4) shots in a tight circle with black talon ammunition. The man should have been found guilty of murder in the very least (and in my view premeditated).

  • Damaris Tighe

    What I noticed most of all from the video is that when they’re not aware of being photographed or filmed, Anni is walking a long way behind Shrien. Not the body language you’d expect from newly weds, but of course it’s important not to add two & two & make five.

  • Lo Bin Sun

    You ask, ‘Why did the Oscar trial grip the world’s imagination?’

    Simple answer to that is best described in an old Afrikaans word : boerehaat.

    The Anglosphere has never come to terms with the Boer War and its outcome, and any Afrikaner misfortune draws ’em in like shit to a blanket. Remember Hansie Cronje?

    As for Shrien Deswani, Durban’s Indian population alone is a million. Not as many as Britain (1.4), but you can see why the fascination / interest.

    • NickG

      The Anglosphere has never come to terms with the Boer War and its outcome

      The ‘Anglosophere’, including the UK itself, is almost entirely ignorant of the Boer War. In the collective national consciousness it figures less than Korea, WW1 and WW2 completely eclipse these.

      22,000 British servicemen died in South Africa during the Boer war, 65% from disease. That was only around one fortieth of those killed in WW1 just twelve years later.

      Having lived 18 years in SA this is not the case there, I was shocked as a ‘Rooinek’ to discover all too many Afrikaaners are still waging the thing!

  • Jim

    The Pistorious case gripped me and my friends because his story seemed so implausible. The Dewani case I have been following ever since he in my opinion feigned madness in order to evade justice. We have all lost people we love, but what was it, three years in a mental institution, really? I half expected him to show up for trial with underpants on his head and pencils up his nose.

    • Jim


  • Ngaire Lowndes

    Know what? It was foisted upon us. I don’t know anyone in my wide circle of friends, contacts and acquaintances who has the slightest interest in the Dewani or Pistorius trials – they have no relevance to our lives, and we cannot understand why Sky News in particular has given them such blanket coverage. Deadly dull, unpleasant, nasty topics, a long way away… we don’t CARE. We don’t WANT to know, but we are bombarded with every tiny scrap of information about these wretched people.
    I’m just looking forward to it all being finished.

    • Stigenace

      I do wonder whether the public interest, such as it is, has been encouraged by broadcasters, Sky News in particular, because they had negotiated broadcasting rights and were determined not to waste what they had paid for. I’m pretty sure they’ve been leading public interest, not following it. As with you, my circle of friends and family has shown little interest in these trials.

  • John Cronin
  • 1498

    I found it very strange that the judge in the Dewani case threw out evidence regarding Dewani’s bisexuality, and said that it was ‘not relevant’ to the case.
    But surely it must be relevant. If he felt trapped or unfulfilled in a marriage then this could have been an obvious motive for his wifes death.
    Very strange decision by the judge. There is more to this case than meets the eye.

    • jeffersonian

      Excellent point.

    • ArthurSparknottle

      No – the fact that he was bisexual is irrelevant when the only evidence against him comes from known criminals and admitted murderers who were offered a lighter sentence to implicate him and then couldn’t put together a story that wasn’t shot full of holes.

      • NickG

        No it provides him with motive.

        • Samson

          How? People who want to f**k other people, of either gender, have affairs, they generally don’t turn their lives into an episode of CSI. Motive implies something much stronger than someone maybe not wanting to only sleep with one person for the next fifty years.

          • NickG

            Most people don’t commit murder, I’ll grant you that. The fact that most don’t isn’t much of an argument when there is a dead body with a bullet wound to the neck.

            In many Indian families homosexuality is frowned upon, marriages are still part of ones duty to the wider family, there is a strong honour incentive for homosexuals to hide their inclinations. It’s not difficult to see a gay man boxing himself into an untenable situation with an unconsummated marriage a misled wife and two families with expectations of grandchildren.

            Now I don’t know that’s what happened here, but Dewani’s homosexuality undoubtedly provided motive.

          • Realismista

            Motive for leading a very discreet double life and for a strained marriage.

    • Samson

      Bisexual people want to and do get married. Getting married if you’re straight doesn’t stop you wanting to f**k half the people on earth.

  • Mc

    Why would one ask a lowly taxi driver to arrange a helicopter flight? One certainly wouldn’t ask a London cabbie to arrange a helicopter tour over the capital – you’d approach your hotel concierge with a query like that.

  • jeffersonian

    “At least South Africa has the world’s best murder trials'”

    Given the verdict in the Pistorius trial and the ominous twist in the Dewani trial (where the judge incredibly dismissed Dewani’s sexuality as a factor, trying to paint it as homophobia, refusing to see that the combination of a conservative culture and a closeted gay man compelled to marry, can be an explosive combination) it certainly looks like the country to go to, if you want to bump off your significant other without too serious repercussions.

  • Mrs.JosephineHydeHartley

    Of course I think Mr.Dewani is innocent. I also wonder if this story about some fake hijacking was ” bought” in effect so as to to affect some sort of target driven model of prosecution management, rather than to serve justice.

  • Ann Iston

    Anytime, anywhere – violent crime knows no boundaries: http://cbsloc.al/1lSmjjU

  • Le Barbouze

    SA certainly has enough murders to keep one’s dinner parties titillated for a long time.

  • ArthurSparknottle

    I never for a moment thought Dewani had organised her murder. The moment I heard that the South African police and justice department had negotiated a plea bargain with a bunch of known criminals to give them a lighter sentence if they implicated the husband, I knew it was a crock of sh it. South African government department desperate not to harm tourism revenues makes a ludicrous bargain with robbing criminal murderers? Yes – that’s exactly what happened in my opinion.

    On the question of why he wasn’t interested in her sexually – well I can’t understand that. More fool him, but that doesn’t make him a murderer. In any case, the guy isn’t an idiot; do we really think if he had been organising murder he’d have let himself be caught so often on CCTV setting it up? It sin’t remotely credible. Now of course we have the sad and undignified situation that always happens in an acquittal; the bereaved family complaining they have been let down because an innocent man has been let go…. It seems time after time in these cases that family members (and they do have my sympathy) would rather someone who hadn’t done the vile deed paid for it nevertheless rather than them not have a bogeyman in jail.

  • Uncle Brian

    I’ve seen this film before. It’s called Fargo.

  • gerronwithit

    Of course he didn’t do it he went to a Grammar school, damn yer eyes!

  • NickG

    Someone intelligent enough to get an accounting degree would not try to organise a helicopter flip through a simple taxi driver in a place like Cape Town. They would do it through the hotel concierge or just google ‘Cape Town Helicopter Tours‘.

    They’d also be unlikely to pay cash in a country where carrying large amounts of cash around is dangerous.

  • davidofkent

    The Pistorius case certainly did not grip me. The dreary dragged-out questioning of witnesses was boring and would never have been allowed in an English court. As for the judge and her tedious explanations, words fail me. Both the Pistorius trial and the Dewani submission showed how good our English system is. Why Sky and the BBC thought we wanted to spend hours being bored by this nonsense is a puzzle to me.

  • jeffersonian

    At one point judge Jeanette Traverso threw out testimony of the prosecution relating to Dewani’s sexual double life as ‘homophobic’. A judge who can’t cognitively grasp that the combination of a gay Asian man, a deeply conservative home society, and the perceived invevitability of marriage can be an explosive one indeed (btw raising this in a murder trial like the prosecution did is not ‘homophobic’) is not commending herself as a legal professional. And one who refuses, for ideological reasons, to engage with certain perspectives, because they might lead to uncomfortoable truths, should not be a public legal professional at all . The parallels between Judges Masipa and Traverso are almost too obvious to point out.

    Just as in the Pistorius trial, incompetence and political correctness has been allowed to tamper with justice.

  • smilingvulture

    why head for a restaurant that township?

  • Bonkim

    More to this than meets the eye.

  • jack

    This case was always about South Africa finding someone from the outside guilty in order to find South Africa innocent. In the Dewani case, South Africa was trying to find a foreigner guilty rather than accept the blame on behalf of its own violent population.

    It is a failing state that is desperately clinging on to the notion of not being responsible for crime committed on its lands. The states absolute desire to find Pistorius guilty was to cover the fact that it was at the very least culpable in the shooting of an innocent person, and that as a state it created the conditions that makes a citizen so fearful that he or she needs to carry a gun.

    In 20 years it will be a cesspit just like Zimbabwe.

  • lindaoutofafrica46

    This article sums it up perfectly. I lived in SA for 30 years and watched the progression of this case from London with amazement at how many people were buying this fantasy. I think Judge Traverso did a great job yesterday. Surely the police and prosecutors must be investigated. I feel great sorrow for the family of the deceased. I hope they will be able to look objectively at the evidence one day and that the two families can make peace with each other.

  • Tony Stark

    In this video we find a brief overview of the 2nd Amendment in historical and political context: http://youtu.be/oWsE9jvwjLA