The Grammar of Violence by Margie Orford

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Late last year a beautiful young woman called Anni Dewani visited South Africa. She was here with her new husband, bride and bridegroom on honeymoon. They did the classic tourist triangle. Jo’burg. Kruger Park for the big five, then Cape Town for wine and sea and sun and good food.

But on the 13th of November, a Saturday night, the taxi she and her husband were travelling in was hijacked. The taxi-driver and the husband were forced out of the car, they claimed.

The hijackers –there were two, maybe three, it was unclear – abducted the lovely bride.

The husband, distraught, knocked on one door and then another. Eventually someone opened up. The cops were called. They arrived.

They searched for the VW Sharan.

It was daybreak before she was found. Shot dead. The bullet fired at close range into the back of her slender neck.

The husband appeared in the press, distraught.

Another victim of the horrifyingly random violence of South Africa.

And yet…and yet.

I watch this grief stricken man and I think no. This is not making sense. This is not adding up. Because the body – poor dead lovely bridal Anni’s body is found in the car. On the back seat. There’s blood all over the show.

I know hijackings. There are so many here in this country whose murder statistics make most wars look feeble. Why, I ask myself, would someone hijack a car and kill a woman and not take the car. Why would they kill her inside the car? It is messy. That makes it harder to sell.

The widower talks to the press. Anni, he says, had wanted to see the ‘real’ Africa. He had tried to dissuade her but she had insisted. So they had driven through Gugulethu in search of a Mzoli’s, a restaurant that is on all the township tours. A restaurant the Jamie Oliver visited and sat on a coke crate in the sun and said how delicious the freshly slaughtered meat was…

And I think why would a man whose wife has just been shot like a dog imply that it was her fault. How unchivalrous.

Gugulethu is notorious. Why would the taxi driver take them there? Mzoli’s closes at sundown. Because of the crime in the area…

There were other things that did not make sense to me. The husband , forced through a window , was unscathed. Not a scratch. The same with the taxi driver. South Africa is a violent place. It is not easy to be left unscathed.

The stories did not add up. The words did not match the events as they unfolded in the press.

Why not?

Partly because there is so much crime here – one learns to read it, to interpret the events, the evidence, the comments made by police. Partly because you want to avoid trouble – don’t drive down that street; don’t stop at those traffic lights.

But also because there is, I believe, a grammar to violence. It is a language. A conversation. Not one we might not choose to have, but one that we understand nevertheless. There is a syntax of pain and fear that is etched into the cells as much as it is etched into our hearts.

And one reads it instinctively, this dialogue of terror.

This grammar that is written in the bodies of victims.

This particular language of violence.


South Africa has a notorious reputation. Our murder statistics make most wars look silly. Rape is pervasive. Domestic violence the norm rather than the exception. Robberies, muggings, assaults rarely warrant a news report. Car hijackings are frequent, always accompanied with the threat of violence. Who argues when there’s a gun pressed against your temple?

It is a morally painful thing to make sense of violence. So it is usually dismissed as random, senseless, incomprehensible, and mad. But it isn’t.

It makes sense.

And what this distraught husband was saying did not.

He flew back to England just as the whispers of disbelief swirled into the press. He was looking less and less innocent as cops and journalists picked apart the sequence of events described and the statements Shrien Dewani had made.

Then the taxi driver was arrested. He pleaded guilty and, in return for a reduction of sentence – eighteen years instead of twenty-five – he said that the groom had paid him to organise the murder of Anni, his new wife. The judge accepted this verdict and he got his eighteen years. Not a nice thing in a South African prison.

Dewani was accused of murder. Shrien Dewani hired Max Clifford, a British publicist whose presence brings a whole new language of spin and obfustication to bear on a complex situation. The South Africans are seeking to extradite him. I am sure Dewani will be standing trial in Cape Town very soon. The trial will, I am sure, rivet South Africa as much as it will fascinate in the UK and elsewhere.

What did Dewani; if he is guilty, not understand. What did he misread, because he was right about a couple of things.

It is true that South Africa is a country where you can hire a killer for a few thousand rand. Firearms are cheap and easy to find. To someone unfamiliar with the particular grammar of violence used in South Africa would be right in thinking that it would be easy to find a thug or two to take somebody out.

What was misread was this: randomness, especially random violence, is very hard to fake. And just because a great number of people are murdered every year does not mean that those deaths are senseless.

The language of Anni Dewani’s murder did not ring true. The crime scenes did not read like a hijacking. The statements given to the cops by those involved did not cohere.
Those same cops – goaded as they were by the press frenzy unleashed by the murder – were determined to find out what happened. To rework the components of this horrible murder into a different sentence.

The question I get asked most often is why, in a country stalked by violence, do I choose to write about it. My answer is always the same: writing about violence, looking up close at the victims, the perpetrators and the cops, has made me understand that the violence we experience is part of a social discourse and that we can make sense of it. And that when you speak its language the violence is far less frightening.

But for Anni Dewani and her family, there is no sense. She haunts me, that beautiful young woman shot dead in a Cape Town street like a stray dog.

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