Four convicted in Zoliswa Nkonyana’s murder

A mob murdered Zoliswa Nkonyana, a 19-year-old lesbian in Khayelitsha, South Africa, in February 2006. After a group of straight women taunted her as a “tomboy” in a shebeen, a gang of young men chased her, stoned her with bricks, and beat her with a golf club.  Yesterday, almost six years later, and after more than 40 trial postponements, a court convicted four members of the mob of her murder.

At several points, the Magistrate made reference to Zoliswa’s sexual orientation as being the motivation for her murder. … The Magistrate concluded … that those participating in the assault acted with “common purpose.” All had been involved in the altercation outside the bathrooms at the shebeen, all had been chased her, and all had participated in the assault. Further, Zoliswa was “tiny girl” and it was reasonable to conclude that such an assault on her would lead to her death.

A month ago, a coalition of civil society organizations condemned the justice system’s multiple failings in the investigation and trial:

The manner in which Nkonyana’s case has progressed illustrates severe failures in our criminal justice system, particualy in poor under developed areas such as Khayelitsha where crime is at its worst, and where the Court and Police services are heavily under-resourced. Some of these include:

  • In the five and a half years since the case began, there have been upwards of 40 postponements. A case of this nature should never take this long in a functional, healthy justice system.
  • The main state witness was attacked on the day of the murder and was threatened during the trial. She left the province fearing for her life, and was not given the necessary protection and support.
  • Initial investigations were slow and poorly carried out.
  • In 2008 the State was found to have committed gross negligence for failing to ensure that witnesses were present in court.
  • There has been poor case management as defence attorneys routinely missed court dates without any repercussions.
  • In 2010, four of the accused managed to escape from their holding cells, causing great panic and fear. They were later recaptured but a police sergeant was arrested for aiding them in their escape and defeating the ends of justice.

For one case to be affected by so many failures is unacceptable but not unusual. It illustrates much of what is wrong with the our Criminal Justice System. All of these problems occurred, in spite of constant public pressure, media coverage and repeated calls from a number of civil society organisations for it to be prioritised. … Many other victims of crimes and their families will never receive the same level of support. It has become clear that in many cases, justice is a privlidge dispensed only to those who can afford to pay for it. For the marginalised and the poor there is little substantive assistance to be found from the State. Without prohibitively expensive legal representation, many victims and their families, have little hope of having their cases dealt with in a timeous and professional manner.

This case also shines a spotlight on the intolerance, intimidation and dangerous environment that lesbian and gay people living in informal settlements are facing, including related issues such as corrective rape. It has also illustrated how our Police are failing to protect society’s most vulnerable.