In a packed courtroom yesterday, Thato Mphithi, 24, one of the three men accused of murdering lesbian soccer player Eudy Simelane, was sentenced to 31 years in prison. He had plead guilty. The other three men are pleading not guilty, so the judge postponed their trials till July. In the street outside, the singing and clapping of a crowd of demonstrating activists went on and on throughout the proceedings.
South African trials are run differently than ours. First of all, there is no jury. South Africa also has abolished the death penalty, so the maximum that Simelane's family and activists could hope for was life in prison. The judge did a lengthy summation of prosecution and defense testimony, during which it began to look like he was heading for a light sentence. He mentioned Mphithi's youth, his lack of education, and the fact that he was drunk when he participated in the crime.
The judge also stated that he didn't view sexual orientation as an factor. He cited the South African constitution, which guarantees equal rights for all, including a number of protected groups like sexual orientation. But South Africa has not developed the concept of "hate crimes" motivated by specific prejudices against protected groups, that we have in the U.S. The demonstrating organizations had hoped that this trial would establish Simelane's murder as a hate crime.
However, the judge sentenced Mphithi to 31 years. As spectators left the courtroom, many were bitterly disappointed at the failure to recognize a hate crime. Some saw the sentence as a light one -- with good behavior, the man would be out of prison in many fewer years. However, others felt that 31 years is a stiff sentence.
The activists, who range from LGBT to feminists to members of the African National Congress (the country's dominant party), will now be concentrating on the July trial.
Despite South Africa's glowing guarantees of human rights in their post-apartheid constitution, the country still has a ways to go to bring reality and rhetoric together. (Not to point any fingers, because the U.S. presently has its own gap between reality and rhetoric to deal with.) For example, rape, and the failure to punish it, whether it's committed against lesbians or heterosexual women, is very common in South Africa.
I will keep reporting on this trial, and this whole issue, in South Africa. And I have to say... I'm disappointed at the meager attention that most people in the U.S. LGBT community -- including many of our own media -- have given to this ongoing important story.
Human Rights Watch has covered the trial intensively. HRW's liveblog gives a lengthy description of the proceedings yesterday.