In Brief

Artist Zwelethu Mthethwa Sentenced to 18 Years in Prison for Murder

“The courts need to send a clear message to tackle the scourge of gender-based violence,” said Judge Patricia Goliath when she delivered the sentence.

Artist Zwelethu Mthethwa has been sentenced to 18 years in prison for the murder of sex worker Nokuphila Kumalo, GroundUp reported. Mthethwa was convicted of the crime on March 16 after a trial that lasted nearly four years.

Kumalo was brutally beaten and kicked to death on the side of the road in a suburb of Cape Town in April 2013; the killing was captured on CCTV footage. Although he maintained his innocence all along, Mthethwa was placed at the scene via his car, and he did not testify in court. He later told a psychiatrist that he could not remember what happened that night. Judge Patricia Goliath rejected the artist’s claim of memory loss in her ruling, calling it “untruthful and fabricated.”

In her sentencing, Goliath similarly rejected the arguments made by the defense that Mthethwa should not be sent to prison. As the Mail & Guardian reported, a clinical psychologist and a social worker were called to the stand, and “both emphasised that if sent to prison, Mthethwa would be unable to support family members and would not be able to contribute to society.” The psychologist, Martin Yodaiken, stressed Mthethwa’s importance to society and deemed him a “significant ambassador to South Africa,” likely referring to the artist’s reputation and success abroad. Known for his penetrating photographic portraits of everyday South Africans, Mthethwa has work in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Centre Pompidou, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and many other institutions.

A portrait of Nokuphila Kumalo commissioned by SWEAT (courtesy SWEAT/Facebook)

Goliath’s response in court yesterday was that Mthethwa’s stature “does not earn the accused a special sentence.” She called the murder “unimaginable” and “horrific” and said: “The courts need to send a clear message to tackle the scourge of gender-based violence. The court needs to send a clear message to the community and all would-be criminals that violence against women will not be tolerated. The killing of women in general will not be tolerated. The killing of sex workers in particular will not be tolerated.”

In his testimony, Yodaiken had also stressed accounts of Mthethwa from his mother and girlfriend that described him as non-violent and respectful of women. Yet GroundUp spoke to a friend of the artist after sentencing who said “the murder case didn’t come as a surprise” and that “there had been previous incident of Mthethwa abusing a woman.”

Activists from South African sex work advocacy groups Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) and Sisonke National Movement of Sex Workers have been an active presence at the Cape Town High Court for the full four years of the trial. “This is a giant step taken by the Judge, which acknowledges that a human being died that night never mind what profession she chose to be in or how low society treats not only sex worker but women as a whole in South Africa” said Kholiswa Tyiki, Sisonke’s communication and membership officer, in a statement. “While we celebrate that today saw the rare success of the criminal justice system in the trial and conviction of the perpetrator, there are still an inordinate amount of cases that will never see the inside of the court.”

Mthethwa was convicted of murder with intent in the form of dolus eventualismeaning he foresaw that his actions might lead to Kumalo’s death but continued with them anyway. The minimum sentence for that crime is 15 years in prison, three fewer than what Goliath handed down for Mthethwa. Defense lawyer William Booth says he will appeal both the conviction and the sentence.

In the meantime, some South African art institutions have allegedly ceased working with Mthethwa, according to an article on IOL, though it cites only one specific example: auction house Strauss & Co will no longer sell the artist’s work. In the US, Mthethwa is represented by Jack Shainman Gallery, which has not responded to repeated requests for comment from Hyperallergic. Sometime between his March conviction and yesterday’s sentencing, Mthethwa’s name was moved from the gallery’s primary artists page to a sub-page titled “Other Work.” His full biography, press clippings, and images of his artwork still appear there.

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