Why would shuttle operator Zola Tongo, currently serving 18 years for his role in the murder of Anni Dewani in 2010, not recognise her as the same woman he had picked up with her husband Shrien the previous night? Was he too preoccupied trying to hustle for business, did she simply not make enough of an impression in her casual clothes or is it all part of an elaborate and convoluted lie? By MARIANNE THAMM.
Until shuttle operator Zola Tongo encountered honeymoon couple Anni and Shrien Dewani outside the arrivals hall at Cape Town International Airport on 12 November 2010, he had led a relatively typical life for an average South African man.
Tongo – who was 31 at the time of the commission of the offence -was raised by his grandmother while his mother, a domestic worker, cleaned other people’s homes for a meagre income that he had also helped to supplement. He had completed Grade 12 at Malibu High in Blue Downs and was clearly intent on creating a better life for himself, his family and other dependants. In 2010 Tongo was the father of six minor children, one aged 10, three aged five, a three-year old and a four-month-old infant.
Before he began working in 2010 as a shuttle driver for an “executive chauffeur drive service and tour operator” Platinum Escapes, Tongo had tried his hand selling insurance, had driven a taxi and had eventually bought a private vehicle, registered to his then girlfriend, to start his own business. He had no other criminal convictions.
On the night he met the Dewanis, Tongo was moonlighting from his job with Platinum Escapades. He had not yet obtained the necessary permit, which is why he parked the vehicle away from the other “legit” operators. He was standing near the arrivals hall with fellow shuttle operator, Ta Vuks, who was smoking a cigarette when Shrien Dewani, pushing a trolley of luggage, approached him around 4.45pm. Tongo had made sure to dress neatly that night. He spoke English and his car was “clean”. He had also made sure that he knew enough about his city to whet the appetite of these potential clients and for them to use his services after this trip.
And so the two men, apparently complete strangers until that moment, entered each other’s orbit. According to the prosecution the one man, Dewani, was allegedly seeking to have his young wife murdered in a faked hijacking. The other, Tongo, just happened to be the right man, in the right place and the right time to help realise the appalling plot.
However, according to the defence, Shrien and Anni Dewani were the unfortunate victims of a calculated and deadly conspiracy concocted by four South Africans, Tongo, hotel receptionist and “fixer” Monde Mbolombo, tour guide Mziwamdoda Qwabe and the alleged gunman Xolile Mngeni.
Tongo is a self-possessed and confident man. He cuts a controlled and composed figure in the witness stand. He seldom smiles and often glowered at Dewani’s senior counsel, Advocate Francois Van Zyl, at the start of what turned out to be a grueling cross-examination yesterday. Tongo is giving his testimony flanked by burly correctional services guards dressed in bulletproof vests.
Tongo offers his replies in “pure” Xhosa, which even skilled interpreter, Nombulelo Mekhi, at times has trouble understanding. When she asks him to repeat an answer Tongo does not make it easier for her and curtly and often impatiently repeats his original statement. He is a man who is aware of the rules, not only of the court but also of the prison that has been his home for the past four years.
“Life is very hard and difficult,” he offered.
Tongo also spoke of how prisoners “graduated” to different groups for good behaviour.
“When you arrive you are an A or a B group. After six months, when you behave, or when your case officer or unit manager gives you an A, if you have done nothing wrong, you get privileges,” he told the court.
Tongo is compliant to a certain extent, but not unconditionally. He is unafraid to assert himself, telling Van Zyl that he does not like his second, Western name, Robert. Van Zyl is leading this apparently insignificant line of questioning because Dewani has stated that Tongo introduced himself as “Robert” the evening they first met.
“Christo [the owner of Platinum Escapades] is the only person who calls me Robert and he knows I don’t like it,” said Tongo.
When Van Zyl points out an inconsistency, Tongo seldom concedes, preferring “if you put it like that”. When confronted with the myriad mistakes he made in his original statement compared with his testimony in court, he said, “People can make mistakes, even you made one earlier.”
“Yes, but I am not under oath,” Van Zyl shot back.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the case is, of course, how Dewani was, in a ten-minute conversation, able to broach the subject that he wanted his wife murdered in a staged hijacking and that he was willing to pay for this.
Yesterday Tongo wrapped himself into an ever-tightening knot trying to explain how the Bristol businessman had initiated the conversation.
“The gentleman paid me R300. I didn’t have change so he said I could keep the R50 as a tip. And then the gentleman said to me that he had a business proposal and I smiled as I thought now that the hunger was over.”
Tongo said he had handed Dewani his business card and that Dewani had gone into the Cape Grace to check in with Anni while he waited in the parking lot. Dewani returned a short while later and told him that the “job” he had wanted “done” was for “someone taken off the scene, a business associate who was arriving the following day”.
Van Zyl questioned Tongo about whether he was aware that Anni and Dewani had recently married and were on honeymoon in Cape Town, to which the driver enigmatically replied that he was not. Tongo added that Dewani had told him that the person he wanted killed was a woman.
During his testimony yesterday Tongo did not mention the R15,000 Dewani had allegedly offered for the hit and when Van Zyl pointed this out, he corrected himself.
When Van Zyl asked for his reaction to Dewani’s shocking request, Tongo replied, “I said I did not associate myself with things like that but I would ask someone in the township who might know.”
“But Mr Tongo, it was an extraordinary request. You had never had such a request before! This is a very serious thing he is asking you to do,” said Van Zyl.
Tongo did not reply.
After Dewani had made the alleged request, Tongo said he had taken his phone number and had later called to establish “how did I go”.
On the fateful Saturday night when Tongo had collected Dewani and Anni, now dressed in a black cocktail dress, from the Cape Grace for their tour of the city’s sights, Tongo told the court that he did not recognise her.
Anni, said Tongo, had been casually dressed in jeans and takkies when he had initially picked the couple up at Cape Town International airport. The woman he picked up with Dewani on Saturday night, he said, “did not look like the lady he was with at the airport”.
“Who did you think she was?” asked Van Zyl.
“I thought she was the business associate,” replied Tongo.
Tongo had clearly noticed Anni when she was dressed up. Why did he not pay her any attention at the airport? Was everyone just too busy negotiating the trip to the hotel and dealing with the luggage? Did Tongo unconsciously not “see” Anni because she had not “stood out” or looked “beautiful”, as he told the court? Or is he just telling an elaborate lie to deflect the truth of what really happened?
Tongo is clearly a traditional South African man. His interaction with Ms Mekhi clearly highlights that he does not consider or regard women the same way he does men. Which makes it all the more significant that the judge in this case is a woman, not obviously, but in terms of framing the established narratives in the court which is populated overwhelmingly with men, apart from co-prosecuting counsel, Shireen Riley.
Zola Tongo is going to be a tough nut to crack but Van Zyl is going about extracting the truth like a dentist yanking out an impacted, stubborn wisdom tooth. Van Zyl is quietly spinning a web around the convicted Tongo. Tongo knows he’s doing it but at this point is a few steps behind Van Zyl, who is slowly and methodically dismantling his version of events that weekend.
Earlier, Van Zyl reminded Tongo that the charges that he had originally faced called for life imprisonment and that his sentence had been reduced to 18 years because he had handed himself to police.
Why did you decide to co-operate, plead guilty and testify?
“One, because what I did was wrong. Two, I was a fool and three, I was misled,” Tongo told the court.
Van Zyl’s cross-examination will continue today. DM
Photo: Zola Tongo (C) covers his face as he attends a session at the Cape Town High Court, Cape Town, South 07 December 2010. EPA/NIC BOTHMA