Last spring, South African artist Zwelethu Mthethwa was charged with the murder of a 23-year-old woman named Nokuphila Kumalo. Following Mthethwa’s May arrest and subsequent release on bail, the case was remanded twice. The artist is now scheduled to appear in Cape Town High Court at the end of this month. Mthethwa’s work, most notably his large-scale photographs of working-class South Africans, has been shown at institutions worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the International Center of Photography, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and at the Venice Biennale.
The murder took place on April 13, when a man brutally hit and kicked Kumalo, who’s believed to have been a sex worker, to death on a street in Woodstock, a suburb of Cape Town. Closed-circuit cameras captured the assault and led police to Mthethwa. There is also reportedly an eye witness. The artist denies the charges and claims innocence.
After the story broke in the South African press over the summer, Mthethwa appeared in the regional Cape Town Magistrates’ Court on October 10, represented by “one of Cape Town’s top criminal lawyers, William Booth,” according to the Daily Maverick. At that hearing, the case was postponed to November 25, Die Burger reported, because the prosecutor needed to clarify two issues relating to the evidence. (All information from Die Burger is via Google Translate and consequently rough.) In late November the case was moved to Cape Town High Court and Mthethwa’s next appearance was set, for January 31.
In both October and November, protesters from SWEAT (Sex Workers Education & Advocacy Taskforce) and Sisonke, two groups that advocate for the rights of sex workers and gender justice, were present outside the court. They expressed solidarity with Eva Kumalo, the mother of Nokuphila, who told Die Burger, “I have forgiven the man. I would just like it to finish. I’m getting tired.”
Nosipho Vidima, a lobbyist for Sisonke, told the Daily Maverick that the groups hadn’t yet determined definitively if Kumalo had been a sex worker, but that they would nonetheless be “monitoring the case closely out of concern that Mthethwa’s access to money and people of influence might impact on the way he was treated.” According to a press release from SWEAT, at the hearing in October,
The Cape Town Magistrates Court (room 16) denied this mother an opportunity to see her daughter’s alleged murderer on the stand when Mthethwa’s case was heard privately during the lunch break. Mthethwa was then escorted out of the building through the back exit, avoiding sex workers and the murdered woman’s mother in front of the court.
Mthethwa’s lawyer, Booth, contends that his client is not receiving any special treatment. “I knew that press could be there [outside the magistrate’s court] so I obviously told him to get there early so we can get out of there early,” he told the Daily Maverick.
Yet there hasn’t actually been heavy press coverage of the case; despite Mthethwa’s renown in the international art community, it has remained relatively low-profile, both in South Africa and out. Writing for the Daily Maverick, Rebecca Davis speculates that
There are those who will suggest, however, that the identity of Mthethwa’s victim plays a part, that the murder of an unknown potential sex-worker, however brutal, will not grab column inches in the way of a blonde model. This is the unbalanced economy of the news media, where certain lives are still worth more than others.
The City Press found that very few people would discuss the case with them, from Woodstock locals to members of Cape Town’s art community. “More than one artist said they had been warned to distance themselves from the murder and not jeopardise their gallery connections,” Biénne Huisman and Charl Blignaut wrote.
In the US, neither the New York nor LA Times have mentioned the case, even in passing. Most art-news outlets have written little to nothing on the case, except for The Art Newspaper, which ran a brief item in August (after Hyperallergic’s report). At that time, we contacted Jack Shainman Gallery, Mthethwa’s US dealer, for comment, but never received a reply.