Daily Maverick

Op-Ed: The Dewani effect – if only it were fiction

For six weeks journalists covering the trial of Shrien Dewani in the Cape High Court have heard the evidence of around 15 witnesses. At lunch breaks, when we’re not filing, we sit and talk through, once again, the puzzling evidence, searching for some vital or overlooked missing piece. Now we’re certain Dewani did it, then suddenly we’re not so sure anymore. If only this were a fictional tale dreamed up by one of the country’s crime writers. By MARIANNE THAMM.

The designated media benches in Court 2 of the Cape High Court are punishing on the body. The two rows on either side of Judge Jeanette Traverso’s bench, while they offer a ringside seat, are not designed to provide back support. And while the flimsy red pleather cushion offers some respite to the posterior, it is gruelling to sit for six-hour stretches actively listening to witnesses’ testimony.

“You have a masseuse you know?” one of the journalists asks during a break earlier on in the trial.

“No, but I do have some Myprodol.”

But the journalists are not just listening and typing away on our laptops, scribbling furiously in notebooks or live tweeting the testimony. We’re also watching everyone. We’re attempting to read body language or facial expressions or the lack thereof. We’re searching for clues or telltale reveals that will help to make sense of this convoluted case, this brutal killing of a young woman while on honeymoon in our city.

Some of the journalists covering the trial have been following the story closely since 14 November 2010 when Anni’s body was found in the VW Sharan in Khayelitsha. And while they are all steeped in it, few will offer an outright opinion; he is guilty, he is not guilty. The journalists know the investigating officers, the legal teams, they’ve read the thick files of affidavits, statements and court records.

In court we wonder just what Shrien Dewani is thinking while viewing CCTV footage of his last moments with his new wife Anni as they leave the surfside restaurant in Somerset West 20 minutes before the murder. What are Dewani and Zola Tongo discussing in that soundless clip filmed on the terrace of the Cape Grace Hotel on the morning of the killing before both men learn that Anni is indeed dead?

And who are those regulars in the public gallery? And which one of them is tweeting under a pseudonym on Twitter?

There are endless discussions about why Western Cape Deputy Judge President Jeanette Traverso appears to be so hard on the prosecution team, Adrian Mopp and Shireen Riley. From the start the judge has, we agree, been much less forgiving of the state’s attempt at introducing and leading evidence. The judge must know this will be clocked. Is she doing this deliberately? Is she making sure that no questions will be asked when she eventually makes her ruling?

In contrast the defence team, led by the white-haired senior counsel Francois van Zyl, are behaving like the proverbial teacher’s pet. And why not? The Dewani family has the kind of money that buys this type of precise and expert legal defence with submissions and time lines correctly annotated and handed in to the court.

If we were all characters in a fiction crime novel we could perhaps find a way into the inner world of some of the key players. The author would have skillfully conjured for us a clear narrative through the crime, the true nature of the mind of the perpetrators, what it is that drives the heroic policeman unraveling a dastardly plot, of why conspirators would agree to collude in some dark deed. The author would skillfully lead us through the plot, leaving clues in this chapter only to reveal them as a red herring in another.

But there is no one in the murder trial of Shrien Dewani who knows the truth apart from the man in the dock and the four men who have been accused of plotting this killing at his request. There appears to be so much chaos, so many contradictions, so many versions of the truth. No one is directing this narrative. And there are so many missing pieces, so much doubt, and then again, every now and again, less doubt.

“You know, I keep waiting for someone to emerge, some cleaner or desk clerk who had their camera on near the accused and the conspirators and who will be a witness,” court artist Pete Woodbridge offers one morning.

Indeed, we are all looking for that vital bit of evidence that might have been overlooked and that will allow us to solve the mystery. “Yes!” we will say, “it is clear these South Africans plotted this all on their own” or then again, “No, Dewani orchestrated this knowing that while there might have been no ‘master plan’, these co-conspirators would achieve the desired outcome.” Money buys anything; even a haphazard hit on your wife.

And then the questions, the questions.

Why didn’t Dewani mention the helicopter trip earlier to police? The money? Why was he let out of the car unharmed while Anni was killed? Did Xolile Mngeni really shoot Anni accidentally? Is Qwabe really the triggerman? Why did Zola Tongo agree to involve himself so readily in this murder plot? Why did fixer Monde Mbolombo play such a leading role if he was only the link? Why did Dewani fight his extradition? Why would he want to kill his young wife? Were some journalists paid to spin a positive story around Shrien Dewani?

And then there is the evidence of Dewani’s bisexuality, his secret S&M online (and offline) life. A writer of fiction could not have dreamed up this sub-plot that has now been deemed inadmissible.

The only certainty remains that Anni Dewani died at the age of 28 about two weeks after getting married, shot dead in the back of a car in a strange country.

Ultimately it will be Judge Traverso who will author a version of the truth, one obtained through sifting painstakingly through the mountains of evidence, the facts, the probabilities, the lies and the deceit.

An unexpected side effect of weeks of exposure to alleged real killers is what it does to your psyche. The High Court Building is awash with unsavoury characters, people who have murdered others in cold blood, ringleaders of abalone syndicates, fraudsters who have stolen what is not theirs. And there are those who have suffered in the aftermath crime. A distraught family sitting through the details of the murder of a loved one.

Here is Monde Mbolombo, a young man who still works in the hospitality industry. A man who without hesitation, it is clear, involved himself in a plot to kill a stranger. Will he one day check one of us into a hotel? And there is Zola Tongo, the neatly dressed taxi operator. Have any of us been shuttled home by a Zola Tongo? Will one of our daughters one day marry a groom who might kill her?

The exploded view of crime the court offers distorts, eventually, one’s perception of fellow human beings. Being in such close, concentrated proximity to alleged criminals sort of rubs off unexpectedly. Like binge watching episodes of the series Breaking Bad, you eventually realise that your view of the world and fellow human beings has become is a tad jaded and distorted. No one is beyond suspicion; we all have a dark side that we hope is mostly kept private, unfulfilled, even that friendly teller in the bank, that ice cream seller outside the school.

Bring on Idols or The X-factor. Bring on a story about a tree-planting ceremony or awards given for selfless acts of philanthropy. Without the dark, there is, they say, no light. DM

Pic: Gunman Xolile Mngeni who was sentenced to life for his role in the killing of Anni Dewani. Mngeni died last month (Reuters/Sumaya Hisham)

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