South Africa: Husband arrested for bride's murder

Editor's note: This article is part of "Underworld: a global crime blotter," a semi-regular series covering crime and punishment around the world.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The arrest in England of Shrien Dewani puts a new twist on a crime story that has gripped South Africa and the world.

At first the murder of Dewani's wife seemed to be a story that preyed on the worst assumptions about South Africa: A newlywed couple goes to Cape Town on their honeymoon, take an unfortunate trip into an impoverished, crime-ridden township late at night and their taxi is carjacked by gunmen. The beautiful young bride is robbed and killed while her husband, forced out of the vehicle, is left grief-stricken and heartbroken.

But in a gruesome turn of events, Dewani, 31, was arrested today in England on suspicion of conspiring to murder his Swedish wife, Anni, 28, who hours after the carjacking was found shot dead in the neck in the abandoned vehicle.

Shortly after her murder, Dewani told reporters that Anni had requested a late-night visit to Gugulethu township because she had wanted to see “the real Africa.”

His arrest follows the sentencing yesterday of taxi driver Zolo Tongo, after a plea bargain deal that saw him turn state witness. Tongo, in a lengthy confession, described how Dewani offered 15,000 South African rand (about $2,165) for his bride to be killed, paid in U.S. dollars. Tongo was sentenced to 18 years on charges of murder, robbery with aggravated circumstances, kidnapping and obstructing the administration of justice.

South African taxi driver Zola Tongo convicted in Cape Town of plotting the murder of Anni Dewani. Tongo testified Shrien Dewani hired him to murder his wife. (Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images)

In his confession, Tongo said that he was waiting for fares at the Cape Town airport last month when Shrien asked him to drive him and his wife to the five-star Cape Grace hotel.

“After we arrived at the hotel, Shrien Dewani approached me alone and asked me if I knew anyone that could ‘have a client of his taken off the scene,’” Tongo said. “After some discussion with him, I understood that he wanted someone, a woman, killed.”

Tongo also recounted that on the night of the murder, while the couple ate supper together at a restaurant near Cape Town known for its sunset view, Dewani had checked in with him to make sure the hit men were ready. An attempt earlier that evening in Gugulethu had failed when the men didn’t show up.

Two men, Xolile Mngeni, 23, and Mziwamadoda Qwabe, 25, are facing charges of murder, aggravated robbery and kidnapping.

The conviction of Tongo and arrest of Dewani follows weeks of rumors in the local media and rampant speculation among South Africans about apparent holes in the carjacking story: Why was the car abandoned? Why was Dewani spared injury? Why were there conflicting versions of the story? Why did he hire a publicist soon after the murder? And why had he not returned to South Africa to identify suspects?

The big question still to be answered is, if what Tongo said is true, what was Dewani’s motive for having his new wife killed? There have been rumors that Dewani’s family business was in financial trouble, and that on the plane to South Africa, Anni Dewani was in tears and refused to sit with her husband.

But through his high-profile London publicist, Max Clifford, Dewani has fiercely denied that he was involved with Anni’s murder. Clifford also said that his client had been trying to contact the South African police for weeks with no success.

According to Clifford, “all he wants is truth and justice to come out.”

At the bail hearing today, Dewani's lawyer argued that the allegations by South African police had been made to protect the country’s tourism industry. The British tabloid the Daily Mail has reported that South African police have been under pressure to pin the murder on a non-South African, and accused police of leaking their suspicions about Dewani to the media.

Dewani was initially granted £250,000 (US$395,000) bail but following an appeal from the South African authorities, who are seeking to have him extradited, will be held in custody pending a High Court hearing in the next 48 hours.

South Africa, which has one of the highest crime rates in the world, is sensitive about critical portrayals of the problem, particularly by the British media. Ahead of the soccer World Cup in July, the British tabloids caused a storm in South Africa with their warnings of violence. One paper said that English soccer fans risked getting caught up in a “machete race war” and a “bloodbath” if they attended the tournament.

However, statistically it is poor, black South Africans who are far more likely to be the victims of crime, not foreign tourists.

Sharing the front page with the Dewani story today was the tale of a home-grown arranged murder, orchestrated by a woman convicted yesterday of having her husband ambushed, bludgeoned with bricks and pushed into the trunk of his car before it was set on fire.

Also fighting for space were other murder stories, including one about a charge of attempted murder against a security guard who shot an alleged illegal miner yesterday, and the death of a police officer in a shoot-out while on routine patrol.

Patrick Craven, spokesman for South African trade union federation Cosatu, said that he was worried about South Africa's reputation and feared it was attracting “those with criminal intent.”

“The murder appears to have been planned in South Africa on the assumption that hijacking and murder are believed to be so commonplace that it would be easy to stage a murder and then claim that it was just another normal criminal act,” he said in a statement.

“The implication is that this would seem credible given the high levels of crime in the country," said Craven. “This has enabled the international media to continue with the sort of negative propaganda about South Africa's crime levels which they were spewing out in the run-up to the World Cup.”