CAPE TOWN — Just over three years ago, on April 14, 2013, 23-year-old sex worker Nokuphila Kumalo was found dead in Woodstock, a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa. The accused murderer? Internationally acclaimed photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa.
I remember first hearing about the case in 2013 and immediately searching the web for more details. A huge fan of Mthethwa’s work, particularly his photographs, I was appalled at the idea that a man I had looked to with such respect might have been responsible for such a heinous crime. I envisioned Mthethwa’s South Africans: a prideful, respectable people whose modest surroundings only served to illuminate their beauty. Mthethwa once stated that the reason he photographs humble, marginalized people is to “portray these people in a different light … as decent human beings. People like any other people.” The idea that a man whose life’s work is to create a respectable view of people who might be seen as “lesser” could be responsible for the brutal killing of a woman whom society also deems as “lesser” was heartbreaking. I scoured the internet in hopes of finding more information about the trial that would help disprove these accusations.
The information I was searching for was nearly impossible to find. Mthethwa, who is represented in South Africa by Everard Read and BRUNDYN+ galleries, and internationally by Jack Shainman Gallery, has been a celebrated figure in the contemporary art world for many years. Yet there has been little mention of the alleged crime in arts outlets. (See Hyperallergic’s past coverage here.) Coverage in international dailies isn’t much more substantive.
Living in New York, I couldn’t understand how it was possible that there could be so little information about a murder case involving such a high-profile figure. It doesn’t help that in the three years since the allegations, the case has been postponed over and over. It took a year and a half for the trial to even make it to court, as it was moved from regional court to Western Cape High Court. Then the beginning of the trial was pushed to June 2015, because no judge was available to preside before then. Next then there was a sick interpreter who was unavailable to translate the Shona testimony of a Zimbabwean witness. Then the forensic pathologist needed more time to review evidence she’d received only the night before. Delay after delay after delay.
Upon receiving news of the first seven-month postponement, a representative from South Africa’s leading sex worker human rights organization, SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce), reportedly exclaimed, “Never! What can happen in that time?”
The prosecution has stated that the main evidence for the trial includes two things: CCTV footage that apparently shows Mthethwa kicking Kumalo to death with a booted foot, and a tracking device from Mthethwa’s Porsche indicating that he drove from his home to the scene of the crime at the time of the murder. The artist has denied these claims and continues to maintain his innocence. When I first learned about the details of the case, I couldn’t understand how, in the face of what appears to be such clear, compelling evidence, a case could result in these endless uncertainties.
Then I moved to South Africa.
This is a country where 40% of women are likely to be raped in their lifetime, and only 11.1% of them report these incidents. It’s a place where a Dudu Mazibuko, a mayor in the Kwa-Zulu Natal province, introduced a scholarship for young women who are able to prove their virginity. Where even women of the highest class are treated as lesser than their male counterparts — one can draw the obvious conclusion about what that means for the societal view of sex workers.
It’s also a country where a monthly income of 25,000 rand (about US$1,717) puts one in the top 1%, and the average domestic worker makes about 5% of what her employer makes. Where a 100 rand (about US$6.87) bribe to a police officer can get you out of a DUI. Where just about anything can be bought — from a working visa to silence, to maybe even one’s freedom.
Eva Kumalo, the victim’s mother, has lost three jobs since the trial began. Mthethwa is still represented by the same three galleries. BRUNDYN+ featured his work in their Art13 London booth just last month.
The trial will supposedly resume on April 28. SWEAT has committed to demonstrating outside of the Western Cape High Court for the duration of the trial, no matter how long it takes. In a recent conversation I had with Lesego Tlhwale, a SWEAT spokesperson, she said, “There are many cases of sex workers being killed that haven’t reached high court level. Zwelethu’s status as an international artist increases the status of the crime. People wonder how an artist can do such a thing. We will continue to be active. Not just in this case — whenever there is a case. We will have a presence.”