Mngeni hails from an impoverished family in Khayelitsha and has been charged and released on bail in several criminal cases. At the time of his arrest for Dewani's murder, he was already a wanted man after failing to appear in court for possession of the drug ecstacy.
Judge Robert Henney is now presiding over his murder trial in the Western Cape High Court and he asked whether Legal Aid had provided Mngeni's lawyer, Matthews Dayimani, only to be informed he was a private practitioner.
This is the second time Mngeni has used a private lawyer to represent him. When he was first arrested, Mngeni was given access to Legal Aid attorney Kim Kinnear, but after one consultation Mngeni said he would be using the services of private lawyer Vusi Tshabalala, who later withdrew after he was appointed state prosecutor.
Dayimani, from Mitchells Plain, told the Mail & Guardian he was doing parts of Mngeni's case "pro bono" and the rest of his fees were being paid. "Some human rights guys are paying my fees. It is all on the level." He declined to elaborate further.
Mngeni is pleading not guilty to the murder charges, which caused Henney to comment when the trial started: "My goodness, so he is going for the long haul."
Mngeni is said by some specialists to be terminally ill with a brain tumour. The trial is set to continue in the high court until September 27.
Now walking with the aid of a Zimmer frame, Mngeni's face was covered with a blanket when he appeared in court on Monday. He remained draped in the blanket as the proceedings carried on around him.
"My client is not covering his face because he is in fear of his life in prison, as he is staying in hospital," said Dayimani during a court break. "But these camera lenses are being thrust into his face all the time in court and he can't stand it."
The court heard this week that palm prints found on the car in which Dewani was murdered matched those of Mngeni. Because the accused had been arrested previously, his prints were on a database and enabled the police to identify him, said police officer and fingerprint expert Johan Hanekom in his court testimony.
After a long day in court, Dayimani told the M&G that the National Prosecuting Authority was obstructing him by not giving him the documents he needed to represent his client.
"The NPA is using ambush tactics on me; this is ambush litigation," Dayimani said. The state has vigorously denied the accusation, saying all documents had been handed to Mngeni's representative last year.
While Mngeni's trial proceeds, the man whom the NPA accuses of being the mastermind in the plot to kill his wife, Shrien Dewani, is still fighting extradition to South Africa from Britain.
Anni Dewani was shot in an alleged staged car hijacking while on honeymoon in Cape Town in November 2010, but her husband was allowed to return to Britain a few days after her death because he was not yet a suspect.
He was arrested and charged in connection with his wife's murder in London last year, but he is allegedly suffering from debilitating depression, post-traumatic stress and suicidal tendencies and is unable to stand trial. His case has been postponed to September 18 to allow a South African psychiatrist to examine him.
Two men have already confessed to their role in the murder of Dewani. Two weeks ago, Mngeni's co-accused, Mziwamadoda Qwabe, was sentenced to an effective 25 years for his role in the plot after accepting a plea bargain with the state. Qwabe changed his plea to guilty when he changed lawyers after attorney Thabo Nogemane was no longer able to defend him.
"Qwabe's mother was paying my fees and I represented him three times in court before he ran out of money," said Nogemane, who confirmed his client was a first-time offender. "When I was representing him, he pleaded not guilty. I was watching television when I heard he had changed his plea and accepted a plea bargain with the state. I was shocked when he got 25 years."
Zola Tongo, the man who drove the taxi in which Anni Dewani was shot, was the first to be jailed, for 18 years, in a plea bargain he struck with the state in December last year. As part of their plea bargains, Tongo and Qwabe agreed to testify against Dewani and Mngeni.