Rian Malan

At least South Africa has the world’s best murder trials

First Oscar Pistorius, then Shrien Dewani: at dinner parties, talk has been of little else for months

At least South Africa has the world’s best murder trials
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I was astonished, in London the other week, to discover how closely you Britons were following the Oscar Pistorius trial. I was invited to Rosie Boycott’s breakfast club, which meets on Friday mornings in a west London coffee house. The table was full of charming old geezers of approximately my vintage, all clearly Oxbridge men of the most civilised variety and yet as taken with the Pistorius drama as any Hello! magazine subscriber.

Why did the Oscar trial grip the world’s imagination? Some say it is because of the blade runner’s novel handicap. Others put it down to feminism — women everywhere were pissed off by what they took to be the cold-blooded murder of ‘one of us’. My take: do not underestimate the fact that Oscar and his model girlfriend Reeva were young and beautiful and seemed to be living a magical life of fast cars, fancy nightclubs and fashion shoots on tropical islands.

The glamour factor might also explain the world’s fascination with the Dewani murder case, presently playing out in Cape Town. Here again, the protagonists were rich and good-looking and stars moreover of reams of CCTV footage of themselves in their natural habitat — the corridors and reception areas of a five-star hotel on Cape Town’s waterfront.

My favourite bit of CCTV footage begins at 5.17 p.m. on Friday 13 November 2010. The camera is focused on a twilit courtyard. A taxi appears and disgorges a lovely creature who sashays into the lobby of the Cape Grace hotel. This is the newly-wed Anni Dewani, 28. She’s tall, willowy, elegant even in jeans and trainers.

Her husband Shrien Dewani, 30, lingers in the taxi, negotiating some sort of deal with driver Zola Tongo. Within minutes, they reach agreement in principle, and Mr Dewani comes striding into the hotel, looking like a Bollywood idol with his designer stubble and collar turned up Elvis-style.

For the Dewanis, this is day 15 of a nuptial rite that began in India with a three-day party for 500 guests before moving to the luxury Chitwa Chitwa safari lodge in Kruger Park, where a chalet for two costs around £1,000 a night. Shrien and Anni both come from money. He is a chartered accountant whose Bristol-based family owns a string of homes for old people. She is a cellphone engineer and sometime model whose dad owns a large electrical business in Sweden.

Thus far their nuptials have cost at least £250,000, with more to come: a luxury suite in the Cape Grace costs another £1,000 a night, and dinner for two at the posh Sevruga restaurant will set you back at least £75. Halfway through the meal, Shrien leaves the table, allegedly to finalise his arrangement with Mr Tongo, the taxi driver. They agree on a price and set a time for the next day’s meeting.

When next we see the golden couple, they are passing under a CCTV camera in one of the Cape Grace’s faux Victorian corridors. Shrien is an ebullient mood. He darts ahead, laughing, then turns back to face his wife, cocks his thumbs and forefingers into pretend pistols and drills her with both barrels — Bang bang! You’re dead! Anni doesn’t bother to react. After all, it’s just a joke.

Or is it? Twenty-four hours later, she is shot dead in what initially appears to be an everyday hijacking.

Three months ago, you could hardly eat at a South African dinner party for all the shouting about the Pistorius trial. Now the Dewani case has turned into an equally fevered national and international obsession. ‘Why South Africa?’ cry the pundits. Because we’re lucky, say I. There is nothing like a good murder trial to take your mind off unpleasantness like the Islamic State or problems here at home. President Zuma’s lawyer was in the news last week for opining that corruption is a crime only in ‘the western paradigm’. I gnash my teeth and return to the murder mystery.

The Dewani case revolves around a single question: what were Shrien and Tongo talking about as they sat in the latter’s taxi on that fateful Friday evening? Prosecutors depict Shrien as a secretly gay man forced by his family into a marriage that is abhorrent to him. His bride senses this, and confides to her sister that Shrien keeps rebuffing her sexually. By the time they land in Cape Town, Shrien is desperate to put an end to this torment. Knowing that he’s in an anarchic country with one of the highest murder rates ever measured, he takes a chance, and propositions taxi driver Tongo: ‘Can you help me get rid of my wife?’ Tongo says, ‘Of course, sir.’ Later, they agree on a price — around £1,400 — and a modus: Tongo will arrange a fake hijacking, and Anni Dewani will not survive.

Dewani’s supporters concede that their champion led a secret life in London’s gay S&M underworld but otherwise find it hard to believe any of this. Within minutes of their meeting, a suave chartered accountant with a grammar-school education propositions a total stranger to commit murder? ‘Rubbish,’ says Cape Town journalist Lin Sampson.

Her theory of the case unfolds thus: a rich couple arrives at the airport, pockets bulging with hard currency, ears and fingers dripping with jewellery, bound for one of the most expensive hotels in Cape Town. The taxi driver’s eyes gleam. Soon as he’s dropped the Dewanis at the Cape Grace, he informs his friend Monde Mbolombo that he’s identified a potential robbery target and that he can deliver the victims into Mbolombo’s hands the following evening. Mbolombo then arranges for two young thugs to ‘hijack’ Tongo’s taxi and strip the tourists of their jewels and cash.

But something goes wrong and the thugs accidentally shoot Anni dead. This brings out swarms of police who soon arrest all four conspirators. Hoping to save their own necks, three of them say, it’s not really our fault, that rich Indian paid us to whack her.

Why would police buy this story, and give the accused reduced sentences in return for their testimony against Dewani? ‘They have a provincial mentality,’ says Ms Sampson. ‘They think snooty foreigners have impugned the national honour, and want to punish them.’

Last year, a BBC Panorama investigation assessed the police case against Dewani and found it full of gaping holes. According to forensic scientist Jim Fraser, it ‘almost beggars belief’ that Dewani should behave in the manner depicted.

True, but there is much under the African sun that defies foreign comprehension. Our murder rate, for instance, is around 35 times higher than the UK’s. In Fraser’s world, armies of well-trained detectives work on a single murder. Here, a single detective often has scores of cases on his desk. Some get no attention whatsoever, which is why frustrated members of the underclass are constantly beating suspects to death on the streets. A government commission says there are at least five such mob executions every month in Cape Town alone.

Did Shrien Dewani read of such things in Bristol and think, here is a place where life is so cheap it is almost free? Is that why he brought his bride to South Africa, and why he had the gall to ask a total stranger to help murder her?

I hate to think we have fallen so low. I’d prefer to believe Dewani’s version of what took place in the taxi that fateful evening. Yes, he says, we negotiated a deal — but says the service under discussion was not murder. It was a helicopter ride, a surprise for my wife. That’s why he was carrying a large sum in local currency the next evening, when Tongo arrived to carry him and Anni away on the last ride of her life.