Opinionista Xhanti Payi 19 November 2014

Dewani: The cost of shame; the lessons for our nation

Shrien Dewani’s sexuality has been deemed inadmissible in his murder trial. But it’s deeply relevant – and not in order to demonise him, either.

African courtrooms haven’t known such drama as we have seen this year – at least not televised or reported in such vivid detail in our media outlets.

There was blood and gore as we saw pictures of Reeva Steenkamp’s open head as a bullet from her lover’s gun pierced it. All the while, our imaginations called up her ringing voice as described by witnesses. Bloodcurdling screams!

And what of the testimony of a medical professional on another lover’s bullet, through the hand of another, allegedly piercing the neck of his wife, Anni Dewani, who perished within seconds as she lounged over the backseat of a taxi?

That wasn’t all we heard. Not the usual shooting and murder so often reported in our news. The Dewani murder trial took us to places we seldom go. We heard of gigolos and saw pictures of men in leather; there were websites with men seeking men, and the level of detail we were exposed to we should probably never know unless it is our own private life.

It was shocking. It was shameful. And in some ways, perversely entertaining.

But the Dewani case was a thing of embarrassment and shame from the start. South Africans learned with horror that it was apparently so easy to organise a murder within our borders.

That a foreigner could allegedly arrive on a crisp day in our beautiful Cape Town, and within minutes organise a hit on his new bride? There it was, on international media, for all to see. Horror, shame.

Somehow this story was different. Not a typical femicide, although Anni Dewani’s husband, Shrien Dewani, stands accused of her murder.

This story is more visceral, and invites more shock and scandal. It is shameful in its images and our imagination.

Dewani, as the State would have it, sat at dinner before his new bride, and looked her in the face, as they enjoyed dinner hours before she would die. And in the State’s version, he knew that this would be her last supper. But in his mind, a failed attempt, as the State alleges in evidence now before the Cape High Court, would not save her from death. She was going to die, and he had arranged all of it. The first attempt failed. Unnoticed. Then again, but this time successful. Not a matter of an attention-seeking teenager cutting her wrists in pretense of a suicide. This was going to happen.

Many people have protested against discussion of Dewani’s sexuality and behaviour – the revelations of his bisexuality and social reactions to it. They say that it has nothing to do with the case.

But did he arrange for the murder of his bride? And does his sexuality have anything to do with it?

It is not an altogether irrelevant question, nor does it reverse the gains achieved by the struggle for equality and rights for the LGBT community. The question, in actual fact, may achieve quite the opposite.

Many young gay men and women commit suicide over anxieties about their sexuality. Some gay people have considered committing suicide rather than face the prospect of being discovered to be, or live openly as gay. Some have hatched elaborate plans to hide the shame – including getting married, having a child and then getting a divorce later. This would satisfy the family pressure to get married, and the social shame of not being married and rumours of being homosexual. And once they are divorced, they would forever be single, living under the guise of a broken heart and mistrust of love and marriage.

There are many gay men who are married to women, living miserable lives and inflicting misery on their partners. Some of them are even emotionally abusive.

All these speak to the same issue of what people will do to hide their shame. Of what gay men and women will do to hide their sexuality for which they suffer shame and self-hate in a homophobic world.

As the general public, we may not understand the fear and anxiety of being gay and the lengths some will go to hide it from friends, family, colleagues, and even the strangers known as society – but we have to recognise that it is there.

This is why Dewani’s sexuality is important. Not so much to demonise it, but to understand why he may have committed this crime given the revelations of his being, and the things that happened during that period and hours before and after Anni was killed.

The goal is to understand why Dewani may have committed this crime, and if it could have been prevented.

More importantly, it should be a wake-up call, a message to a society that so demonises humanity and human emotion that it drives people to such behaviour. We should be able to ask ourselves how the shame of sexuality has created such monstrous behaviour as is alleged of Dewani.

It should not matter that Dewani is gay or bisexual – not in law, not in society. But in the current context, and the immense pressure people feel to lie about who they are, and the lengths they would go to perpetuate or hide those lies, his sexuality is important.

Why would it have been important to note Dewani’s sexuality and report on it if he had admitted to it in a suicide note? The only difference now is that he didn’t take his own life to escape the shame of his sexuality, but allegedly that of his young bride. He intended for the same outcome, just a different victim.

That is the fundamental importance and tragedy of Dewani’s sexuality.

If the prosecution in this case is to be believed, Dewani tried suicide twice that day. He succeeded the second time. What he attempted to demolish was who he really was, and remove it from the face of the public and society. What he achieved was the demise of Anni.

Someone had to die that night to hide the shame and humiliation we have now come to see in the papers presented in court and on our newsstands. It didn’t have to be so. But it is.

In her poem, ‘On The Pulse of Morning’, Maya Angelou says, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” These are wise words as we consider how we might look at preventing such a senseless death just because shame had to be hidden.

Of course, Dewani may just be evil, and this would have nothing to do with shame or sexuality. Spouses have been known to arrange their partner’s killing for insurance payouts, and if he is guilty, that it could be the case here – or any number of other reasons. Of course, he could be entirely innocent of the crime he’s accused for.

But these questions are worth asking, and the debate is worthwhile if we are a society that wishes to learn from our tragedies, and prevent them from occurring again. DM

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