South Africa

The Killing of Anni: A semantic battlefield where words get in the way

By Marianne Thamm 22 October 2014

Day two of week three of the Shrien Dewani trial in the Cape High court revealed how language is essentially a code. Where some see a ruthless killer, others might observe a grieving albeit conflicted widower. The filters we bring to what we perceive influence our choice of language and unconsciously what we possibly want others to believe. In the Shrien Dewani case the prosecution and the defence speak different languages. By MARIANNE THAMM.

There is really no equivalent word for it in English – “drafstap”. Translated one would be forced to use the rather clumsy “runwalk”. Describing it one could try “to walk briskly” or perhaps “at a trot”. And so it was that Cornelius Jacobus Mellet, a sergeant with the uniform branch of the SAPS who was stationed as a clerk at Harare on 13 November 2010, described Shrien Dewani’s actions after he had driven him back to the Cape Grace shortly after the hijacking that night.

At the time Anni Dewani was still missing and a police broadcast had gone out that a hijacking and robbery had just occurred. After allegedly being forced out of the taxi, Dewani had found his way to the police station after being helped by a local resident Simbonile Matokazi. A Colonel Basse had accompanied Dewani to the Harare station at the time.

In the charge office Dewani, said Mellett, had repeatedly requested that he be taken back to the hotel. He had seemed emotional but was able to recount the events that had just taken place. Mellett said his primary concern at that point was to get an accurate description of the vehicle as well as the registration number.

During his evidence-in-chief Mellett told the court that he had found it “strange” that Dewani did not mention his wife at the time. The word “strange” was also used earlier in the day when Sneha Mashru, Anni’s cousin, was cross-examined by Dewani’s defense advocate Francois van Zyl. Mashru said she too had found Dewani’s behviour after the murder “strange” and had commented that he did not appear to be mourning in a fashion she had expected.

Dewani, she said, appeared “cold” and she told the court how he had seemed to have a normal appetite and was apparently working on organising the funeral to the last detail on a spreadsheet. She also said that Dewani had remarked to his father that he needed to have his suits altered for the funeral. This “strange” behaviour, Mashru told the court, had aroused her suspicions further.

Van Zyl, a stickler for language, told Mashru yesterday that Dewani had not been working on a “spreadsheet” but on a “word document” and that it was not he who had originated it but work colleagues who were arranging Anni’s funeral.

On Monday Van Zyl had suggested to Mashru that she had originally become suspicious of Dewani after “rumour mongering” in the media that Dewani might have been viewed as a suspect. What Van Zyl was attempting to “frame” for the court was that the witness, Mashru in this case, had been influenced by these rumours and had based her assumptions of his behaviour on this information.

However, Mashru proved to be an impressive witness seldom deviating or wavering in her testimony. It was clear that Anni’s cousin was aware of Van Zyl’s strategy and she offered that her suspicions and doubts surrounding Dewani had been triggered long before the night her cousin had been murdered.

Yesterday Mellet offered his own opinion as to why he had found Dewani’s behaviour “strange” on the night of the hijacking.

“It was strange to me. I am a married person and for many years. I would be very worried about my wife if she got lost or disappeared. He did not ask what police were doing within their powers to find his wife. He was nervous. He was sweating. He was very nervous,” said Mellett, reading from a statement he had made.

How you view Shrien Dewani at this stage of the trial depends on whether you believe (not think) he is guilty of masterminding his wife’s murder. If you are of the opinion he is guilty, then Mellet’s observations might confirm your suspicions. Yes, indeed, why would a man whose wife had just been kidnapped not be frantic and ask over and over for someone to help?

Mellet said that Dewani had begun to sweat profusely as he drove him back to the hotel.

“He was sweating and he was very nervous. When we got to the hotel he fetched a key from the porter and then started to run. I am not sure where to,” Mellet told the court.

Later he said, “He looked panicked and literally ran down the passage to his room.”

In the meantime Mellett said he had accessed CCTV footage of the couple leaving so that he could see the make and registration number of the vehicle, which he then passed on to his colleagues who were now frantically searching for the vehicle and Anni.

Why would Dewani run to his hotel room? What was he trying to hide? Or was he hiding anything at all?

Enter Dewani’s defence advocate, Francois van Zyl, whose job it is to contextulise Mellet’s apparent observations that night.

In this light a very different scenario emerges. Dewani, said Van Zyl, was anxious to get back to the hotel because he had already given a detailed account of the hijacking and robbery to Colonel Basse. During the robbery both Dewani and Anni’s cellphones had been taken.

The landline in the charge office could not be used to make overseas calls. It required a pin number for local police to make even a local call. Dewani was anxious to get back to the hotel to call his brother and father in Bristol so they could access the information on his Blackberry to locate the driver, Zola Tongo’s number, as well as find the location of the stolen phones using “cell find”.

“This is why he had to get the key. The key to the hotel room was with his wife and he was in a hurry to get back to the room,” said Van Zyl.

Because of the information that was obtained during Dewani’s call to his relatives the stolen phone was tracked to a location in Mfundisweni Street in Khayelitsha. Police then began to search houses in the street.

Van Zyl asked Mellet whether he was certain Dewani had “run” up the passage to his room. He had originally used the word “drafstap”. Mellet confirmed that he had seen Dewani “running very fast”.

Enter CCTV camera footage of the night and the exact moment Mellet was describing to the court.

Dewani and the rest of those present watched the footage from several cameras and which clearly showed Dewani, still dressed in a black suit, walking briskly and determinedly up the corridor.

Van Zyl suggested that Mellet had tailored his evidence-in-chief to create “an atmosphere” in the court. The court also heard that the statement Sergeant Mellet had made to detectives was taken a month later and had been based on rudimentary notes he had made that night in his pocket book.

Van Zyl suggested that Mellet’s choice of words in his statement – that Dewani had said his wife had “insisted” on visiting the “townships” – was his choice and not Dewani’s.

“The word ‘township’ is not in his vocabulary. And I suggest to you that you used the word ‘insist’ and not the accused.”

Mellet conceded that English was not his first language and he might have used the word incorrectly.

Mellet also told the court that he had observed that Dewani had appeared to be too “neat” to have been involved in a hijacking and robbery in a township. In his experience, he said, township “skollies” usually wounded their victims or roughed them up in some way.

When asked by Van Zyl how regularly tourists were robbed in the township, Mellet replied, “Quite a few times. A busload of Germans had been hijacked and robbed and tourists are also robbed on taxis,” he told the court.

So far, no clear or obvious “motive” for Dewani allegedly having arranged the heartless “hit” of his bride has yet emerged. Yesterday Van Zyl told the court that Dewani had spent hundreds of thousands of pounds renovating his home in Bristol as well as a flat in London in anticipation for his life with Anni.

What Van Zyl is setting out to prove is that the Dewanis were the victims of a heartless crime orchestrated by South Africans who had targeted them because they had appeared to be rich tourists. That Shrien Dewani had been leading a “secret” life, at this stage, appears completely incidental to it all – it is an aspect no writer of fiction could have made up in their wildest dreams.

A young groom with a conflicted sexual orientation and a secret life arrives on honeymoon with his bride and is targeted by ruthless criminals who in turn “frame” him for the event. Let us try to imagine for a moment that he is not guilty. Would the risk of exposure of his lifestyle – to his family and millions of strangers across the globe – trigger what is commonly termed “a nervous breakdown”?

However, there are still many unanswered questions. Why didn’t Dewani tell the police about the R10,000 he says was in Anni’s handbag that was stolen that night? This was money, his defence team will tell the court, that he was planning to use for a surprise helicopter trip. There is a suggestion that Dewani feels that he is to blame for the hijacking as Tongo had been aware that he [Dewani] had exchanged a large amount of cash earlier in the day. Tongo had in fact accompanied him. But why not leave the money in the safe at the hotel? And how did Tongo know it was in the car?

It is around all of these issues that the prosecution will no doubt attempt to sway the narrative back towards proving Dewani’s guilt. And it is Judge Jeanette Traverso who will have to decipher, or rather translate, the language each legal team uses to prove their point. The trial continues today, where another ballistics expert is expected to take the stand. DM

Photo: British businessman Shrien Dewani sits in the dock before the start of his trial at the Western Cape High Court, Cape Town, South Africa, 06 October 2014. Dewani is facing charges for allegedly masterminding the murder of his wife Anni during a staged car-jacking on their 2010 honeymoon. EPA/MIKE HUTCHINGS / POOL

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