Justice for Murdered Sex Worker Four Years Late

On March 16, prominent South African artist Zwelethu Mthethwa was convicted of murdering 23-year-old sex worker Nokuphila Kumalo with intent. The conviction comes nearly four years after her battered body was found in the Cape Town suburb of Woodstock.

Protestors
Members of SWEAT protest outside the Western Cape High Court during Zwelethu Mthethwa’s trial. Source: goo.gl/lfzhnT

The ruling was passed down in the Western Cape High Court by Judge Patricia Goliath after the case suffered numerous delays. The Judge also denied Mthethwa R100 000 bail application and sent the 57-year-old directly to Pollsmoor Prison. Mthethwa’s lawyer argued that the artist would be willing to pay R200 000 bail and comply with any other conditions in order to “make long term arrangements for all aspects of his life,” including organising a meal plan with prison authorities that complies with his gluten intolerance. According to prosecutor Christenus van der Vijver the court would be setting a “dangerous precedent” if bail was granted to someone based on the fact that incarceration is an “inconvenience.”

Four years prior to his sentencing, Mthethwa was arrested after his vehicle was placed near the crime scene and CCTV footage of the attack seemed to show him as the perpetrator. Although Mthethwa’s lawyer tried to prove that the footage was not credible, Judge Goliath ruled that the grainy footage of a male assailant stomping on Kumalo’s head coupled with the fact that both Mthethwa and his car were placed at the scene of the crime proved to the State that Mthethwa was guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

Throughout the trial, Mthethwa chose not to testify or hand in a plea explanation, opting instead to plead innocent and have a psychiatrist claim he was unable to recall the events of the night in question. In return, Judge Goliath called into question his desire to remain silent while simultaneously referring to his claims of memory loss as a “fabrication”.

The sentence acts as a victory for Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), who have campaigned throughout the trail for a conviction but feared the worst from a legal battle between a deceased sex worker and a well-resourced, world-renowned artist, according to an interview with the director of SWEAT Sally Shackleton. The death of Kumalo is another in a long line of crimes against sex workers in a country where the police are often the greatest perpetrators of violence against those accused of sex work, according to a Cape Town based study by SWEAT and SA Crime Quarterly. It is estimated that 6340 arrests for sexual offences were made between April 2014 and March 2015 costing taxpayers about R14 million.

Mthethwa faces a minimum charge of 15 years in prison for murder with intent. Sentencing will occur on April 20, 2017.

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