The rains pounded on the windows and the wind shook the doors all night. The storm was one of biblical proportion, a flood to answer the drought that has affected Cape Town in the preceding months. Trees swayed back and forth and sidewalks were more like swimming pools.
And in the midst of it all, we zipped up our jackets and went to work.
Today was the sentencing of Zwelethu Mthethwa, a South African artist who was found guilty of the murder of a 23-year-old woman named Nokuphila Kumalo. The trial had gone on for months, and today, with our coworkers at the Women’s Legal Centre, we would watch the judge dole out the punishment.
Justice waits for no one, and, apparently, for no weather.
Winds gust forth at 55 miles per hour while we sat in the crowded courtroom. The judge began to list the personal circumstances of the accused, naming accolades and accomplishments, his contributions to society, his celebrated existence. She noted that this was his first offense, and that he had no history of aggression. She cited the charities he supports financially and the age of his young daughter.
But suddenly the winds turned in the opposite direction as the judge started to describe the violent nature of the crime: how the victim was repeatedly brutalized, and was left defenseless on the ground. Her petite stature, and her occupation as a sex worker greatly heightened her vulnerability.
The judge paused to ask a rhetorical question: What went wrong?
A woman was dead, and the motive was unknown.
No answers were produced during the silence, only solemn faces which stared back blankly in return.
Between the two competing winds, justice lies somewhere in the middle. Every sentence reaches the point in which the value of two lives are weighed: the victim and the accused. Sentences aren’t made to accommodate public perception, instead they are made to make the punishment fairly fit the crime.
My own idea of justice has been shaped by one of my favorite books, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. In the memoir, Stevenson passionately describes his work fighting for the legal rights of poor clients in the South. He opens the book on with a quote by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument.” This has informed the work I’ve been fortunate enough to do this summer at the Women’s Legal Centre, an organization tirelessly devoted to harnessing the power of love in the work of justice.
We waited for the ruling with bated breath. In that moment I was struck at how often justice is abstract: represented in marble monuments, reflected in symbolic scales, refracted in verse. But as I watched the judge preside over the four walls and three wooden rows of chairs in the courtroom, justice felt as though I could hold it in my hands, follow its lead, clear its path.
She closed the proceedings with a powerful statement: “The courts need to send a clear message to tackle gender-based violence. The killing of women in general will not be tolerated. The killing of sex workers in particular will not be tolerated.”
Immediately, the gavel rung and the sentence was uttered: Mthethwa was ordered eighteen years in prison.
Onlookers cheered, and embraced one another elatedly. I received a hug from a woman whom I had just met. A gathering erupted under blue skies on the steps, celebrating the acknowledged lives of sex workers, people who deserve to be heard, and are the most worthy of justice.
But framing justice as an instrument of love carries with it an important lesson: that love should extend to the guilty and the innocent, the victim and the accused. Watching a man be put behind bars brought with it a complicated host of emotions, and I don’t think I fully comprehend how the balance of lives can be evaluated. But one thing I’m sure of is that the life in question isn’t beyond redemption, or mercy, or forgiveness.
We walked back to the office of the Women’s Legal Centre as the wind picked up, drops of rain just beginning to make their way to the ground once again.
This is only the eye of the storm; there is still work to be done.
This poem was written in the bulletin of the church service I attended this morning; a reminder of the little efforts.
You say the Little efforts that I make
will do no good: they never will prevail
to tip the hovering scale where
Justice hangs in balance.
I don’t think I ever thought they would.
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
in favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my
Bonaro W. Overstreet