Dewani: Tolerance for error

2014-11-30 15:00

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Why was protecting SA’s image more important than solving a crime, asks Dan Newling.

South Africa’s police and prosecution services seemed certain. The public appeared convinced. The press looked to be of one mind: Shrien Dewani did it. But by the end of 2010, I wasn’t so sure.

I’d spent almost every day of the seven weeks since Anni Dewani’s murder working on her story. I’d built up a thick file of evidence: court documents, press clippings and my own notes, photographs and interview transcripts.

I thought that aside from the detectives and the suspects themselves, I knew more about Anni’s case than almost anyone else.

And I knew it contained problems.

For a start, a simple error. In his courtroom confession, taxi driver Zola Tongo said his car was hijacked “at the intersection of the NY112 and NY108 in Gugulethu”.

This location was confirmed by Captain Paul Hendrikse in an affidavit to the same court. It was repeated in an official police press release and, although I wouldn’t learn this until much later, numerous other official police documents.

But this road junction does not exist. The NY112 and the NY108 do not intersect.

To be clear, all the witnesses agree the Dewanis’ hijacking did take place next to the Lwazi Junior School, which is at the corner of the NY112 and the M18 (also known as Klipfontein Road).

It’s just that Tongo, the police and the prosecution all misstated the latter. It was a simple mistake, but one, I thought, that questioned the authorities’ dedication to accuracy.

Then there was Lieutenant Colonel Mike Barkhuizen’s claim in his letter to the metro police that the Hawks had “from the outset” been suspicious of Dewani’s story.

This claim was repeated in an affidavit by Hendrikse to Dewani’s UK bail appeal hearing two weeks on.

Hendrikse explained: “Investigators were puzzled [about]?...?the reasons furnished for visiting Gugulethu.” The couple’s destination, Mzoli’s Place, “was commonly known [to] close [for business] at 9pm”, he wrote.

I found this odd. I found it hard to reconcile the detectives’ claims to have been dubious “from the outset” about Shrien with their decision to let him leave South Africa. Also, I knew that while Mzoli’s Place might stop selling meat at 7pm, anyone who has ever been there after dark would be able to tell you that it routinely remains crammed with drinkers into the early hours.

As for the detectives’ purported failure to understand why Tongo might have taken the Dewanis into Gugulethu, well, that had been answered by the taxi driver himself. It was in order that Anni should be murdered!

There was more. Shrien had himself provided me with an indication of why he might have placed an envelope full of cash in the seat pocket of Tongo’s cab – as payment for the impossible helicopter trip to the top of Table Mountain. In any case, the money element of the alleged murder plot didn’t add up. According to Tongo, Shrien agreed to pay a total of R15?000 to have his wife murdered.

Of this, he said, R5?000 would go to the middle man, Monde Mbolombo, and R10?000 to the two hijackers.

But in the same confession document, Tongo also told how the hijackers would receive not R10?000 but R15?000 and that he would personally net R5?000 for arranging the hit.

So what was the true amount Shrien had promised to the gangsters? R15?000? R20?000? R25?000?

Tongo hadn’t been clear. That his confession was none the less accepted by the police, prosecution service and court system indicated what seemed to be a disturbing tolerance for error. And, in any case, wasn’t R15?000 a tiny sum to pay someone to carry out a murder that would surely attract significant police interest?

Nor had the words and actions of the South African authorities been especially reassuring in my view.

Why, I wondered, had prosecutor Rodney de Kock been so keen to emphasise the crime’s horror and Tongo’s apparent remorse?

How could Judge President John Hlophe have accepted Tongo’s confession in 42 minutes?

How might Hendrikse have thought it okay to try to lure Shrien back to South Africa?

Why did it seem as if South Africa’s politicians, public and pundits all considered the reputational impact of Anni’s death to be more important than solving an innocent woman’s murder?

Then there was the question of probability. According to the South African authorities’ story, Shrien, a Briton arriving for the first time in South Africa, met a stranger, Tongo, whom, 30 minutes after he introduced himself, he asked to murder his wife.

This, I thought, might be considered unlikely. Almost as unlikely, I thought, as the claim that Tongo, a man whose only previous conviction had been for driving a taxi without the proper permit, agreed.

And he did so not for an enormous amount of cash upfront but for the promise of R5?000, payable upon doing the deed.

And while we are talking about probability, what was the likelihood, I wondered, that Tongo may might have been prepared to lie about Shrien’s involvement in the murder in return for a substantial discount off his prison sentence? Quite high, I reasoned.

My concerns about false confessions redoubled when I learnt that Mbolombo, the so-called “middle man” in Anni’s murder plot, plus the two men arrested in connection with hiding the gun, had all been granted complete immunity from prosecution in return for providing testimony against the other alleged plotters.

If getting away with murder scot-free was not an incentive to lie, I thought, then what was?

But fundamental to my concerns about Anni’s case were the 45?minutes I had spent with Shrien two days after the murder.

The Briton, it was true, had made some bizarre comments. He had also acted unconventionally.

But if the South African police were right about Anni’s murder, Shrien had been acting throughout our conversation.

If he had been playing a role, I reasoned, wouldn’t he have attempted a more conventional portrayal of grief? Wouldn’t he, at the very least, have neglected to shave?

Maybe he could have burst into tears. Or maybe (in what would surely have been the most convincing act of all) might he not simply have refused talk to me.

But no. Shrien’s “act” included telling me about an impossible helicopter trip.

About how he believed Tongo’s story. About his belief in fate. Shrien’s very unconventionality, it seemed to me, worked in his defence.

His “grieving-widower act” was so strange, I thought, it might well have been genuine.

This is an edited extract from Newling’s book, Bitter Dawn: Lifting the Lid on the Shrien Dewani Murder Trial (Jonathan Ball)

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