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Murder Trial of Artist Zwelethu Mthethwa Begins in South Africa

Protesters outside Zwelethu Mthethwa's trial last week (screenshot via Twitter)
Protesters outside Zwelethu Mthethwa’s trial last week (via @SonkeTogether/Twitter)

After two years of postponements, the trial of artist Zwelethu Mthethwa finally got underway last week in Cape Town. Mthethwa pleaded not guilty to the murder of a woman named Nokuphila Kumalo.

The crime for which Mthethwa is being tried took place in Woodstock, a suburb of Cape Town, in April 2013. On the side of a road, a man beat and kicked Kumalo, a 23-year-old sex worker, to death. The incident was captured on CCTV, which led to the identification of Mthethwa as a suspect. The renowned photographer has proclaimed his innocence from the start.

Following years of postponements and protests, the trial began in Cape Town on June 2, eNews Channel Africa (eNCA) reported. State prosecutor Christenus van der Vijver said the state would build its case on the CCTV footage, which allegedly helped police track down Mthethwa via his car. “Evidence would be led on the reliability and authenticity of the footage, as well as the vehicle’s tracker system,” eNCA writes.

However, Mthethwa’s lawyer, William Booth, “is contesting the admissibility and reliability of the CCTV footage,” according to IOL News. A CCTV specialist was brought into court on Monday and testified that the video could not have been altered in any way.

Van der Vijver also plans to call a forensic expert to analyze the gait of the man in the video versus Mthethwa’s.

As with the trial’s earlier court dates, protesters from two local organizations, the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) and Sonke Gender Justice, have stationed themselves outside the courthouse. The groups are advocating for sex workers’ rights and justice for Kumalo (). “Sex workers are marginalized, treated as second-class citizens, and subjected to high levels of stigma and discrimination even at the level of law enforcement,” Cherith Sanger, advocacy manager of SWEAT, told the Daily Maverick last summer.

Zwelethu Mthethwa, Untitled (from the "Sugar Cane" series) (2007), c-print (photo by cliff1066/Flickr)
Zwelethu Mthethwa, Untitled (from the “Sugar Cane” series) (2007), c-print (photo by cliff1066/Flickr) (click to enlarge)

In court on Tuesday, Booth complained that the mostly female protesters were harassing Mthethwa and said the artist “had felt intimidated and would need protection when he arrived and left court if the behavior did not stop,” according to eNCA. The judge responded by telling the court that “Mthethwa’s dignity must be respected as he is innocent until proven guilty.”

It’s unclear to what degree the case against Mthethwa has affected his work or the market for it. A story in the Daily Maverick last August suggested that it hadn’t and likely wouldn’t; the piece quotes one art auctioneer, Stephan Welz, as saying, “If Zwelethu does go to prison he might produce something really interesting” (Welz later apologized). According to his biography on Jack Shainman Gallery’s website, Mthethwa has shown his work — large-format, colorful portrait photographs of working-class black South Africans — very little since 2013. Hyperallergic reached out to Jack Shainman Gallery for comment on the case but has not received a reply.

If found guilty, Mthethwa could face a minimum of 15 years jail time, Times Live reported.

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