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For the first half of our first week at the Women’s Legal Centre, we dealt with such abstract and sweeping concepts as equality, human rights, and justice. We worked with the Centre on their cases and projects from afar, careful not to overstretch our limited qualifications and experience. However, our understanding of justice in South Africa shifted from abstract generalization to a concrete reality when we witnessed Wednesday’s sentencing of world-renown artist Zwelethu Mthethwa for the murder of a sex worker named Nokuphila Kumalo.

Sitting in the balcony designated for the general public, we were surrounded by the sex workers and advocates that the WLC works with on a daily basis. The sentencing was a cause for celebration for those working on the side of gender justice, and the euphoria from this audience when Mthethwa was sentenced to 18 years of prison, three years longer than the minimum sentence, was both contagious and confusing. Along with the three other American WLC interns, I looked around after the announcement instead of celebrating immediately. 18 years seemed like nothing for someone who beat a woman over 60 times and then failed to express any remorse or even testify throughout the course of the lengthy trial. But according to Constance and the other sex workers, this was a small victory on the way to larger policy and social change, helped in part by WLC’s focus on strategic litigation, in which cases are chosen based on their ability to make greater social change.

According to Western Cape High Court Judge Patricia Goliath, Mthethwa’s “impressive CV, his artistic talent, and the financial and emotional support he offered to disadvantaged students and others in the community” were considered when weighing the benefits to society that would result from his imprisonment. In the end, Judge Goliath expressed that the deterring effect that Mthethwa’s imprisonment would have on society outweighs any benefit from his contributions to society. Still, the mention of Mthethwa’s accomplishments unsettled me. Does one’s credentials, one’s ability to contribute to society, make him superior to others? Is anyone above the law, and are some people less deserving of punishment?

Judge Goliath recounted that Kumalo’s liver was virtually torn in half, and that she suffered from various rib fractures and blunt force injury to the face. She maintained injuries from 60 of Mthethwa’s kicks, in between which Mthethwa paused and then chose to continue multiple times. Nokuphila Kumalo’s lifeless body was kicked repeatedly next to Mthethwa’s Porsche. What a portrait of South African socioeconomic inequality, of the violence and discrimination against women and especially against vulnerable groups like sex workers, perpetuated by the rich and the elite.

I’ve only spent a week at the Women’s Legal Centre so far, and already I have grasped the immense power that litigation and the law can have on social justice and on people’s lives. The cheering sex workers in the balcony of the High Court on Wednesday were not just celebrating their success in attaining justice for Nokuphila Kumalo, but also the prospect that their work and livelihood and agency could eventually be considered equally as human and as honorable as the next person’s. I hope that I will be able to witness more victories like Mthethwa’s sentencing, in the pursuit of the decriminalization of sex work in the law and the ultimate goal of equality among genders.