Activists to Mthethwa: “Who gave you the right to kill a sex worker?”

| Ashleigh Furlong
Protesters from the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce outside the Western Cape High Court earlier today. Photo by Ashleigh Furlong.

On Monday the murder trial of renowned artist Zwelethu Mthethwa was postponed again in the Western Cape High Court. Mthethwa is accused of murdering Nokuphila Kumalo, 23, who was a sex worker in Woodstock, on 14 April 2013.

Possible evidence in the trial includes footage of the murder that was apparently captured on CCTV, a tracking device in Mthethwa’s Porsche, as well as there apparently being an eyewitness.

The postponement on Monday was due to the technical nature of the evidence and the defence’s difficulties in accessing the information that they need. Mthethwa’ s case has taken over two years to make it to trial due to the trial first being moved from the regional court to the high court and then postponed due to there not being a judge available to hear it.

Today’s trial was not much better, with confusion reigning due to a postponement for a different case that needed to be heard first. Following this, Mthethwa’s case was also postponed to till tomorrow afternoon (2 June) as the defence’s lawyer, William Booth was attending a funeral on Tuesday morning.

Kumalo’s mother, Eva said that she had already given Mthethwa over to God. Eva and Mthethwa were waiting not four metres from one another in the corridor outside the courtroom in the Western Cape High Court, but Eva mostly ignored Mthethwa. “He’s smiling today,” she commented as Mthethwa laughed.

Eva recalled how the detective came to her and showed her photos asking if the woman in them was her daughter. She identified Nokuphila by the diamond birthmark on her thigh. Initially Eva was worried that she would not have enough money to bury her daughter but her family helped her out.

“It [the trial] has been very long. I’ve lost three jobs already because of going to court,” Eva said. She said that she was grateful to the people at the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) who have consistently supported her. “The SWEAT people make me brave,” said Eva.

Activists from SWEAT have made their presence known at Mthethwa’s previous court appearances and today was no different. They held signs reading slogans such as, “Justice 4 Nokuphila” and “My work should not cost me my life”. When Mthethwa left court, members of SWEAT surged around Mthethwa, shouting, “Who gave you the right to kill a sex worker?” Mthethwa was followed down the street by a horde of activists and photographers, vying for photographs or comments from him.

Eva Kumalo. Photo by Ashleigh Furlong.

Violence against sex workers is a long-standing problem and is difficult to address as sex work is criminalised in South Africa. According to SWEAT, sex workers report violence from both clients and the police but there is limited ability for recourse as sex workers often fear the police, especially if it is the police who are the accused.

Sally Shackelton, executive director of SWEAT, believes that if they receive enough reports of sex workers experiencing violence from the police, as an organisation they should be able to frame it as a “systemic problem” and address it as such.

Stacey-Leigh Manoek, an attorney at the Women’s Legal Centre (WLC) believes that if it were not a well renowned artist who was accused of killing Kumalo the trial would not have been as prominent. “We know that sex workers are murdered quite often and their cases never reach this far, and never really with this much publicity,” said Manoek.

Correction: The article originally stated that the murder took place on 13 April, but it took place on 14 April.

Attitudes towards women are also to blame for police violence towards sex workers said Shackelton. “The narrative is that sex workers are bad women and bad women deserve to be punished. And that the police are almost gender police,” she said..

Mthethwa has had an illustrious career both in South Africa and abroad with his work being showcased in New York and Madrid. Everard Read, the gallery that represents Mthethwa in Cape Town and Johannesburg, has refused to distance themselves from Mthethwa, stating on their website that they express their condolences to Khumalo’s family and see Mthethwa as innocent until he is proven guilty.

Advocate William Booth and Zwelethu Mthethwa. Photo by Ashleigh Furlong.

TOPICS:  Crime Human Rights

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