Cape Town - Framing Shrien Dewani for the murder of his wife was a Cape Town taxi driver’s best option after a plan to kidnap the honeymoon bride and hold her for ransom “went off the rails”.
It was disclosed in the Western Cape High Court on Wednesday that an inmate at Malmesbury Prison, where Zola Tongo is serving 18 years for his role in the killing of Anni Hindocha, will testify that the shuttle operator had lied about Dewani’s involvement in exchange for a shorter stint behind bars.
Tongo avoided a life sentence after entering into a plea agreement with the State.
Francois van Zyl, SC, for Dewani, told the court that Tongo confided in an inmate named Bernard Mitchell that he “and his friends” had picked out the couple as an easy target. They were planning to stage a hijacking in Gugulethu, kidnap Hindocha and hold her for ransom.
But the plan went awry after the two hitmen quarrelled over one’s desire to rape the honeymoon bride. In the scuffle that followed, Hindocha was shot dead and the vehicle abandoned.
Tongo dismissed the allegations as “lies”, “double lies” and “nonsense”. He told the court that he had never met nor heard of Bernard Mitchell.
It was the taxi driver’s seventh day on the stand. He had undergone a gruelling cross-examination as Van Zyl picked holes in his plea agreement, affidavit and evidence-in-chief.
On Wednesday, he didn’t look at the lawyer, keeping his eyes trained on the judge as sections of Mitchell’s statement were read out in court.
Mitchell is serving a life sentence for a robbery and murder committed in 2000. According to the Department of Correctional Services he is now at a Joburg prison and spent only a year in Malmesbury in 2011.
Van Zyl said the pair were showering together at the prison when they struck up a conversation.
“Mitchell asked you to tell him whether it was true what he heard people say about the murder. At first, you did not want to talk, but he convinced you that you could trust him.
“He asked you: why was the woman killed? She was such a pretty girl. Why didn’t they just rape her?”
According to Mitchell, Tongo explained what had happened. The quarrel and the accidental shot had “jeopardised the whole plan”. The tactics changed. Now the conspirators were looking at how to salvage their mess. First they discussed blackmailing Dewani by threatening to go to the police and tell them it was his plan to kill his wife.
“Mitchell said you told him you were advised that this was a stupid plan and that it would be better to frame (him)… To tell the police it was Dewani who asked you to kill his wife to take the spotlight off you and the others.”
Dewani stared at the witness, the shifting expressions on his face which have accompanied Tongo’s testimony until now replaced by a look of concentration as he leaned forward to hear the driver’s response.
Keyboards clicked as journalists rushed to capture the trial’s latest twist inside the Western Cape High Court.
For the past week, Van Zyl has been hinting at “another reason” behind the botched hijacking. And while the theory of a botched kidnapping was mentioned by the lawyer during hitman Mziwamadoda Qwabe’s cross-examination, this is the first time evidence has been submitted to support these claims.
Van Zyl said Mitchell would take the stand after the State had concluded its case.
Tongo’s response was brief. He said the confession had been invented by someone who “probably saw (the case) on television”.
Mitchell’s statement provided an explosive end to Tongo’s seven days on the stand. Shortly after lunch his cross-examination was concluded and he was asked to step down by Judge Jeanette Traverso. He walked slowly, a large figure in a white shirt, his expression unreadable. He will now return to Malmesbury to serve the remainder of his 18-year sentence.
Captain Vinesh Lutchman took to the stand and told the court he had barely left Dewani’s side after the hijacking. He was the one who had delivered the news that the Briton’s wife had been found dead, slumped in the back of Tongo’s VW Sharan in Khayelitsha.
In CCTV footage taken at the Cape Grace Hotel, where Dewani had been staying, Lutchman can be seen taking Dewani, family and friends into a boardroom at the hotel to deliver the news. When Dewani emerges he is crying, being supported by someone else.
“When he got to his room, he sat down and cried,” said Lutchman.
He had later driven Dewani to identify Hindocha’s body at the morgue. Van Zyl told the court that Dewani had bought a “thank you” card for the policeman before he left for England.
The case is due to resume at 9am on Thursday.