S v Mthethwa: Justice for sex workers in the face of criminalisation
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In 2017 the Western Cape High Court convicted acclaimed painter, Zwelethu Mthethwa, of the brutal murder of sex worker, Nokuphila Khumalo. This profile offers a feminist-legal analysis of the judgment and sentence handed down by Judge Patricia Goliath. Essentially, it explores the various inequalities between Khumalo and Mthethwa and its impact on Khumalo’s vulnerability to violence. The author argues that Khumalo’s dichotomous and disadvantageous position to Mthethwa, due to her sex, gender, the criminalised status of her work and her socioeconomic status, enabled the brutal and fatal attack which Mthethwa perpetrated against her. Ultimately, it is argued that Khumalo’s murder was a consequence of her ‘low’ status in society, based on the various grounds of vulnerability and inequality that enabled her murder. The judgment and sentence provided a sense of justice for Khumalo, her surviving family members and all other sex workers in South Africa; however, true and meaningful justice cannot be delivered under the criminalisation of sex work. It is further concluded that to some extent, the judgment and sentence has ‘humanised’ sex workers by sending the message to society that sex workers have the right to have their human dignity, equality and freedom respected, protected and fulfilled.