That murder accused Shrien Dewani could have allegedly found someone willing to help assassinate his wife Anni only 15 minutes after landing in South Africa from the UK is one of the more startling allegations in the case. In 2005, Dina Rodrigues, the only daughter of a wealthy Cape Town family, quickly recruited four men at a local taxi rank who were willing to murder six-month old baby Jordan Leigh Norton. But the ease with which those who plot murder can locate a hired gun is not unique to South Africa. It is a global phenomenon and an ancient one. By MARIANNE THAMM.
Assassins have always been with us. Hired killers have existed more or less since we’ve been able to walk upright and wield a club or sharpened stone as a weapon. Throughout the ages, hired assassins have been procured to dispose of emperors, presidents, kings, holy men and women and anyone else the conspirator might view as an obstacle.
Many governments today practice a semi-public “legalised” form of assassination couched in language that seeks to disguise the nature of these murders. The Obama administration employs what it calls “Targeted Killing or Selective Assassination” to eliminate perceived enemies. The killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 is one such example.
Some assassins are driven by political loyalty or religious zeal, there are those who do it for the money, some have been enticed with a refrigerator as was the case in the 2005 attempted assassination of Durban man, Ivan Gower-Winter, some do it professionally and there are others, usually psychopaths, who just do it for fun.
The preoccupation with the hired killer or assassin is reflected in countless literary works, including the Bible as well as thousands of films, graphic novels and RPG – role-playing electronic games, one of the most popular being Assassins Creed.
The most recent South African case in which it is alleged that hired killers were procured to murder someone is of course that of Shrien Dewani, currently being heard in the Cape High Court.
The state’s case is that Dewani offered to pay R15,000 for his wife Anni to be murdered in the course of what would be set up as an attempted hijacking during their honeymoon in Cape Town in 2010. It was the driver, Zola Tongo, currently serving 18 years for his role in the murder, who, after Shrien had allegedly broached the subject as his wife was checking into the Cape Grace Hotel, who immediately contacted the “link” man, Monde Mbolombo, who worked as a receptionist at another local hotel.
CCTV footage of the initial contact between the men shows how within seconds of Tonga arriving at Mbolombo’s place of work in Century City, he [Mbolombo] enters an office and calls the two “hitmen”, Mziwamdoda Qwabe, a qualified tour guide, and Xolile Mngeni. About twelve hours later Anni Dewani was dead.
Shrien Dewani has argued that he has been set up and that he and Anni were victims of criminal South Africans. He has claimed that the South Africans had targeted him and his wife because they appeared to be wealthy tourists and because they wanted to rob them or hold Anni hostage and ask for a hefty ransom later.
If Dewani is indeed guilty of procuring the hit men to murder his young wife we can only imagine how the discussion played out or how it was that the new groom felt comfortable enough to request a complete stranger to commit such a heartless and callous crime.
Tongo’s original statement offers some insight but very little nuance into that original “verbal contract”.
“On 12 November 2010, I was waiting for fares at the Airport when approached by Shrien Dewani, who requested me to convey him and his wife, Anni Dewani (the deceased), to the Cape Grace Hotel (the hotel) in the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. After we arrived at the hotel, Shrien Dewani approached me alone and asked me if I knew anyone that could “have a client of his taken off the scene”. After some discussion with him I understood that he wanted someone, a woman, killed. He said he was willing to pay an amount of R15,000 (fifteen thousand rand). Shrien Dewani said he had US dollars and could pay in US dollars. He also asked if I knew of a place where he could exchange US dollars for rands without producing his passport and could get a better exchange rate than the Bureau de Change gave [the] client.”
In August 2013, convicted killer Dina Rodrigues, who is serving a life sentence for masterminding the killing of six-month-old Jordan Leigh Norton in 2005, applied to the Supreme Court of Appeal to have the sentence reduced. The application was subsequently dismissed.
Rodrigues’ affidavit, which offered a full confession for the first time, sets out how she went about organising the killing of the child her boyfriend, Neil Wilson, had with his former girlfriend, Natasha Norton. Rodrigues had maintained her innocence throughout the lengthy trial.
In her statement Rodrigues plays the victim, saying she had led a “protected” and “sheltered” life and that she was immature and still lived at home at the time of the murder “despite being more than old enough to have moved out years before.”
Later she offers some insight into what motivated her to plan the murder of the baby.
“In my efforts to seek ways to release myself from the emotional pain from which I often suffered, I began to plot the child’s demise in my imagination. I made broad hints to Wilson of my thoughts, thoughts which I now realise were sick in nature. I asked him how much he would ‘pay to get rid of the problem’, or words to that effect. I was so blinded by my own resentments that I misinterpreted his reaction, in particular his failure to condemn the sick thoughts which I was harbouring, as a form of agreement with and support of my desire to rid us of this obstacle to our happiness.”
Rodrigues came from a wealthy family and had had no dealings or encounters with the “criminal underworld”, yet she drove to the nearest taxi rank and almost immediately found a willing participant.
“I have never had conscious contact with criminals, let alone contact with assassins, and I certainly did not know how to hire a killer. In my naivete, I decided to go to a nearby minibus taxi terminus to ask around for someone who would kill for payment, and did so. It now also seems unbelievable to me that I made the decision… Only an utter fool and a lunatic would go to a public place and openly seek a killer for hire,” she said.
It was there that she found taxi driver Sipho Mfazwe, who was HIV positive and 33 years old at the time. Mfazwe, the father of two children, lived a life very different from Dina Rodrigues, and the R10,000 she offered him proved tantalising enough to murder an infant. In his later judgment, Judge Essa Moosa stated that Mfazwe, who had pleaded not guilty, had not shown any remorse.
Mfazwe in turn recruited Zanethemba Gwada and Bonginkosi Sigenu, who were minors at the time, as well as Mongezi Bobotyane. Bobotyane, who plunged the knife into baby Jordan, was 22 years old, an orphan and the father of two young children. He earned a meagre living as a barber shop assistant and had also been enticed by the money.
“He had never earned such a lot of money at one time in his life,” said Judge Moosa, adding that Rodrigues had taken advantage of the men’s’ socio-economic circumstances.
In 2006 beloved songwriter and musician, Taliep Petersen, was shot dead during a break in at his Athlone home. It was only six months later that his apparently grieving widow, Najwa, was arrested as the mastermind behind a robbery she had planned with several other men in which she had wanted Taliep to be murdered. She had offered R27,000 for the hit.
Najwa had manipulated an old family friend, Fahiem Hendriks, who owned a take-away shop, to procure assassins for the job. Hendriks in turn recruited Abdoer Emjedi, Jefferson Snyders and Waheed Hassen, who carried out the murder.
Hassen later felt haunted by having played a role in Petersen’s shooting and wrote a full confession, starting with: “As a Muslim with the fear of losing the love of Allah, I committed this terrible sin by acting out of emotion and greed for money.”
Hassen explained in detail how the hit went down that night including how Najwa, who had left the gates and the front door open, appeared from her bedroom once the men had tied up her husband.
“Then I saw the woman peeping from her room. She then immediately came out with me and Jeff holding him [Petersen] by his arms ‘cause he would not submit, as we wanted to tie his feet. She came to us as if she wanted to guide us through the house and grabbed the man, hugging him as if it was the last goodbye. Tears flowed from his eyes as he realised that she was in on the whole thing. But what seemed strange to me is that with all the drama that unfolded, he head-butted her as if he did not want her close to him at this point in time.”
Afterwards Hassen, Snyders and Najwa Petersen had bound Taliep’s feet with a lace tablecloth.
“After that she grabbed him by the cheeks and she kissed his face,” wrote Hassen.
Hassen said that it was Najwa who had later fired the fatal shot through a cushion he had held over Petersen’s head. Emjedi was jailed for 24 years, Hassen for 25 and Snyders for seven. Najwa was sentenced to life imprisonment. The motive for the killing was a R5.3 million life insurance policy.
While South Africa has had high number of high-profile cases in which the services of hit men or assassins have been used, this is not unique to this country.
In 2004 the Australian Institute of Criminology studied 163 attempted and actual killings between 1989 and 2002 and found that the average price for a hit in that country was $12,700.
“But you can get it as cheap as $380,” CNN International reported.
The study found that the bulk of killings in that country were not orchestrated by criminals but by “angry spouses and jilted lovers”. Other motives were money, silencing a witness, general revenge, drugs and organised crime rivalry.
Last year, David Veness, Scotland Yard’s Assistant Commissioner in charge of specialist operations, told The Independent “up to 20 hit men – possibly more – are operating from the south-east of England.”
Contract killers in that country charge between one thousand and twenty thousand pounds.
The Independent piece quotes author Tony Thompson’s book Gangland Britain where a contract killer recounts that it is relatively easy to find someone willing to kill a stranger for money.
“I mean, you can go down the road and get some coke-head teenager to do it for five hundred quid, but will he do it properly?”
This year, research by the Birmingham City University revealed that the average price of a “hitman” in the UK was £15,180. The highest amount paid was £100,000 and £200 the lowest.
A common characteristic of many “contract” murders is that the mastermind, who is so often wrapped up in their own world, is usually convinced they will “get away” with it. A South African judge who has heard many less high-profile cases in which “quick boys” – as assassins are known in KwaZulu Natal – are used, found that because other people are involved the crime is usually exposed quickly.
Police were able to convict Najwa Petersen on her phone records and in this age of technology and digital footprints it has become increasingly difficult for anyone who hopes not to get their hands dirty, to literally get away with murder.
Sentences in these instances, particularly in South Africa, have been harsh, with the authorities hoping this will act as a deterrent. However, the psychopaths or sociopaths who usually plan these types of murders often have an inflated sense of self-esteem and believe the myth that they are too clever for the system and will never be found out.
The truth, of course, is that there has been a very high success rate in bringing these types of killers to book in South Africa. Whether Shrien Dewani is one of these remains to be seen. DM
Photo: A man holds a 9 mm pistol at the booth of Swiss firearms manufacturer Kriss International SA at IWA & OutdoorClassics hunting and firearms trade fair in Nuremberg, Germany, 07 March 2014. 1,300 manufacturers are presenting their products at the expo until 10 March. EPA/DANIEL KARMANN