The trial next door: Oscar Pistorius gets the headlines, but what about Thato Kutumela?

Two model girlfriends left dead, yet public attitudes and media attention to these crimes could not be more different

Tom Peck
Sunday 16 March 2014 01:00

Thato Kutumela has spent days sitting in a court room identical to the one beamed all over the globe.

The rooms are mere metres apart, but while one has had the eyes of the world upon it, with Oscar Pistorius, the first double amputee Olympic sprinter, facing a charge of murder in front of live television cameras, the other has had nothing of the sort.

Like Pistorius, Kutumela, 28, used to have a model girlfriend, until the morning of 21 April, 2011, when he raped her, strangled her, covered her naked body with a blanket, put on his Woolworths uniform and went to work. Kutumela has already been found guilty. Pistorius has not, and denies the charges against him.

In Kutumela's case, the court is merely hearing a mitigation of sentence hearing – extraordinary circumstances aimed at reducing his time in jail.

It would be an exaggeration to say that no one cares. The death of his girlfriend, who was five months pregnant, was reported in many of the country's papers. That Zanele Khumalo was a beautiful, young model helped. So too, probably, did the fact she lived in a comparatively well-developed suburb of Pretoria.

Thato Kutumela has been found guilty of killing Zanele Khumalo

But now that the ANC Women's League has become a ubiquitous presence at Pistorius's trial, the convenience of having Kutumela's case next door has also been seized upon. In the previous three years, they have paid it little attention.

Why would they? In a country where three women each day are killed in their homes by their partners, Kutumela's crimes are tragically unremarkable, with a moniker for the purposes of statistical analysis: "intimate femicide". It is a relief, even, that he has been successfully prosecuted and will almost certainly be jailed.

Zanele's mother, Busi Khumalo, has attended every day of her daughter's killer's mitigation hearing. She was in court the day Pistorius's girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp's mother June attended, hoping to "really look Oscar in the eye".

"I feel her pain," Ms Khumalo told local newspaper, The Sowetan. "If I could, I would sit next to her, hold her hand and tell her that I understand. Our pain is so similar."

When Kutumela was convicted late last year, in the same court building, she cried hysterically, collapsed and had to be helped out of court as the judgment was read out.

Kutumela continues to deny that he killed his girlfriend, and has shown no remorse. He maintains that they had consensual sex and that she was alive when he left for work, but the evidence against him is overwhelming. He has also been found guilty of stealing his former girlfriend's nightclothes and underwear to hide the fact that he had raped her.

But unlike his next door neighbour in court, Kutumela's case is not exceptional, and it has certainly not put the pressure on the South African legal system that international attention brings – although the apparent lack of attention regarding the case has angered some.

"What is happening here is that black people are increasingly becoming invisible. Where the hell is the outrage?" asked Sandile Memela, the chief director for social cohesion at South Africa's Department of Arts and Culture. "Here is yet another case of a young, beautiful model who died at the hands of her intimate lover and partner. But because the couple are black, it is overlooked and dismissed as one of those things that happen in life," he said.

"Crimes committed against black people do not grab media headlines in this country, except in the case of false celebrities."

Having the attention of the assorted media outlets focused so heavily on one case means that other cases, and the stories surrounding them, are left unheard, according to Mr Memela. "South Africa's Institute of Race Relations' research says more than 2 500 women are killed by their lovers every year. Who are they? Where do they come from? And why is their story not being told? Instead, we have the media spotlight taking our time and resources to Oscar's trial, with prominent and expensive lawyers fighting it out in court."

The North Gauteng High Court where both cases are being heard is a dusty, shabby, rundown sort of a place. All the world over, in countries rich and poor, the criminal justice system is a public service for the almost exclusive use of its poorest people. In Pretoria, there are not many windows. In the unclean, bare brick corridors outside, a woman with a steel trolley sells packets of crisps and cans of soft drink. A millionaire Olympic athlete and global superstar is unlike the usual customers. There are no seats on the toilets and the cubicles do not lock.

"Why does this court case deserve more attention than the similar one next door?" Mr Memela asked, writing in South Africa's Daily News. "Is it because Oscar is a celebrity and Reeva is a white model? It is time that we asked tough questions of ourselves in this country. We demand equality of treatment."

Mr Memela said he believed "black life has become very cheap" in South Africa and that "nobody cares what happens to black people".

"This is structural racism. I don't think this country is living up to its ideals of justice and equality for all. Everyone has a right to be respected and treated with dignity," he wrote.

"As a country we seem to have chosen to ignore the agony, pain and suffering of the Khumalo family for no other reason than that they are black."

Kutumela's hearing has been temporarily adjourned, but he will be back for a second sentencing hearing on 27 March, by which point Pistorius himself is likely to be in the witness box, and the focus of the world more intent than ever.

Perhaps the cameras should turn in the other direction, if only for a moment.

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