Protesters outside Mthethwa's trial

Members of SWEAT and other protesters outside Zwelethu Mthethwa’s trial in Cape Town (all photos via SWEAT/Facebook)

Earlier this month, the murder trial of South African artist Zwelethu Mthethwa began in Cape Town. Mthethwa, who has pled not guilty, stands accused of kicking and beating to death a woman named Nokuphila Kumalo, a 23-year-old sex worker who was found on the side of the road. The incident took place on April 13, 2013.

One of the most prominent aspects of the trial has been a group of (mostly) women who’ve demonstrated outside the courthouse on all of Mthethwa’s court dates for the last two years, dressed often in orange and holding handmade signs. Many of them are members of the organization SWEAT (Sex Workers Education & Advocacy Taskforce), which advocates for the rights of sex workers in South Africa. Last year, I emailed with the organization’s human rights defense officer at the time to ask how they got involved, and she explained that “no one at SWEAT knew Nokuphila personally, but she was known in sex worker networks within the area where she was murdered.”

So, SWEAT — along with other South African organizations like Sisonke and Sonke Gender Justice — have taken it upon themselves to keep the case visible and in the public eye. SWEAT has also connected with Nokuphila’s mother and other family in an effort to make sure they’re fully informed during the legal proceedings. And now that the trial has begun, SWEAT has been sending its human rights defenders to court most days.

Being so far from the trial myself and wanting to better understand the situation in Cape Town, I emailed with Cherith Sanger, an advocacy manager at SWEAT, and her colleague Ishtar Lakhani.

*   *   *

JS: How did SWEAT become involved with this case?

SWEAT: We became aware of the case through the media, and Nokuphila Kumalo was reported to be a sex worker by the media. Central to SWEAT’s work is the protection of sex workers’ human rights and advocating for law reform for the decriminalization of sex work. This case illustrates the dangerous environment that sex workers are forced to work in and how the criminalized context leaves sex workers vulnerable to high levels of violence.

JS: How do you see your role in the case? Put another way: why do you feel it’s important to show up and protest every day of the trial? And are there precedents for this kind of case in South Africa that uninformed audiences should know about?

Protesters from SWEAT, as well as Sisonke, Sonke Gender Justice, and other organizations, outside Zwelethu Mthethwa's trial in Cape Town (all photos via SWEAT/Facebook)

Protesters from SWEAT, Sisonke, Sonke Gender Justice, and other organizations outside Mthethwa’s trial

SWEAT: Our presence both inside and outside court serves multiple functions. With a criminal justice system that is constantly failing South Africans, it is important for us to monitor the proceedings of the case and ensure that stigma and discrimination that is experienced by sex workers on a daily basis is not reiterated by the courts and their officials. Our presence outside the court is to ensure that the case remains visible in the public’s eye and to ensure that Nokuphila’s life is not made invisible, as well as to reiterate our important messages that we are all equal before the law and that justice delayed is justice denied. Finally, it is also important for us to show solidarity with sex workers in South Africa. The South African law that criminalizes sex work serves to push sex workers to the periphery of society and make them invisible.

For precedents, refer to the DeJager case.

We want to ensure that the fact that the deceased was a sex worker be formally put to the court and be taken into account during sentencing (if the accused is convicted), as we believe that as a sex worker she formed part of a group or category of people that has historically experienced and continues to experience unfair discrimination, i.e. sex workers are a marginalized and vulnerable group of people living in South Africa.

JS: I’ve read many news reports from afar, some suggesting that this case has polarized South Africa. What is the atmosphere like on the ground?

SWEAT: There has been quite extensive media coverage on the trial from the start, and it has continued till the last court date, about two weeks back. People generally seem to be aware of the case because of media coverage, but we are unaware of whether people are dead against him or not. I strongly believe that Mthethwa needs to be presumed innocent and treated as such until and if he is found guilty in a court of law based on evidence and a fair trial.

JS: What will SWEAT do in the case of a not-guilty verdict?

SWEAT: If Mthethwa is found not guilty and a fair and proper trial was followed, we will respect the judgement. However, if we feel at the end of the trial the accused was unfairly acquitted then we will support an appeal. In addition, if the accused is found to be not guilty we will also support the continued investigation to bring the deceased murderer to justice.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...