Members of the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) celebrate the sentencing of Zwelethu Mthethwa outside the Western Cape High Court on Wednesday. Photo: Ashleigh Furlong

Zwelethu Mthethwa Sentenced to Eighteen Years in Prison for Murdering Sex Worker

South African artist Zwelethu Mthethwa, who was convicted of beating the twenty-three-year-old sex worker Nokuphila Kumalo to death in April 2013, was sentenced to eighteen years in prison at Western Cape High Court on Wednesday, June 7, Ashleigh Furlong of Ground Up reports. “The court needs to send a clear message to the community and all would-be criminals that violence against women will not be tolerated,” said Deputy Judge President Patricia Goliath.

Mthethwa has maintained his innocence since the beginning of the trial nearly four years ago but chose not to testify in court. While his car was placed at the scene of the crime in Woodstock, a suburb of Cape Town, by CCTV footage, Mthethwa’s psychiatrist took the stand to declare that the artist was under the influence of alcohol and did not recall any of the events that took place that night.

The minimum sentence for the crime of murder with intent in the form of dolus eventualis—meaning the perpetrator’s objective awareness that his actions would result in the death of an individual—is fifteen years. In response to the defense’s argument that Mthethwa should not serve time because he is unlikely to become a repeat offender and he will not be able to contribute to society, the judge said that Mthethwa’s reputation as a well-known photographer, whose striking portraits of South Africans have been exhibited internationally, “does not earn the accused a special sentence.”

Members of the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) and Sisonke National Movement of Sex Workers, who have been present at nearly all of the proceedings over the course of the trial, celebrated the ruling. “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 workers but women as a whole in South Africa,” Kholiswa Tyiki, a communications and membership officer at Sisonke, said 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.”

Earlier this year, Gulam Petersen‚ a transgender sex worker and a friend of Kumalo said, the victim was “just the girl next door who wanted to provide for her family. She had one son and she wanted to support him. We don't do things that suit our lifestyles‚ we do things that put bread on our tables.” Kumalo died of cardiac arrest after suffering such severe blunt force trauma to her head and torso that her liver was nearly torn in two.

Mthethwa is represented by Jack Shainman Gallery, and his works can be found in the collections of institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Centre Pompidou, and the South African National Gallery. After the artist was convicted, many South African art institutions declared they would stop showing his work. His defense lawyer William Booth said that he will appeal both the conviction and the sentence.