"Wathinta abafazi, wathint' imbokodo": The Heroism of Cheryl Zondi - Nqubeko Mthabela

NOTE: This article was written in early 2019 and the information in this article is a reflection of that time. As of 15 May 2020, the case is still ongoing and issues of sexual abuse have only worsened.

Heroism. A term which is so common in this day and age, but what exactly does it mean? Heroism can be defined as bravery in the face of adversity or doing the right thing when the situation is not conducive to doing so. South Africa has a turbulent history, riddled with injustices, so naturally there has often been a need for heroes to rise up and rectify these injustices. While many of these heroes made an impact, many injustices persist today and there is still a need for acts of heroism.

One of these injustices is the systematically rooted judgment faced by many victims of sexual offences. The emergence of the #metoo movement has given a voice to many victims of sexual violence in the US and other countries. However, this movement has been driven largely through the internet and social media. Unfortunately, South Africa is a third world country where many sexual assault victims do not have access to or interact with these social media platforms. Therefore, the movement has not had such profound impact in our beloved country. Many sexual assault victims must deal with their trauma alone and are silenced by the stigma and backlash they face from society at large. In fact, the accuser is somehow frequently stigmatized more than the accused. All hope is not lost however, as it seems a hero has risen to rectify this injustice. Her name is Cheryl Zondi.

It all began on the 15th of October 2018, when Cheryl Zondi began her testimony against Pastor Timothy Omotoso and his two co-accused, Lusanda Solani and Zukiswa Sitho. Together, they faced 97 charges of sexual assault, rape and human trafficking. Zondi made the brave decision to allow the case to be broadcast live, despite an alleged hit on her, and threats claiming that she would be damned for testifying against a “Man of God”. However, Zondi did not waver. She became the first alleged sexual assault victim to share her testimony on live TV, in a country where 1100 rape cases are reported every day. This startling statistic speaks volumes and is telling of the confidence survivors have that society will support them after their traumatic experiences.

In her testimony, Zondi recounted her dreadful time with the Jesus Dominion Church: how she moved into the church house at the tender age of 14 and experienced terrible conditions, such as being limited to one meal a day and no more than five hours of sleep at a time. Not long after moving in, Zondi became one of the many rape victims of then-50 year old Pastor Omotoso. According to reports, there are over 30 other women who were allegedly trafficked and fell prey to Omotoso’s unlawful sexual acts.

Omotoso went on to continue his abuse of power – his rape and sexual abuse of Zondi continued until she was 17 years old, when she finally managed escape from the house. Zondi explained how the Pastor abused his position of power and made her believe that God was in fact on his side, meaning that if she were to report him for his heinous acts she would be defying God. She delivered a truly moving testimony, showing great composure despite having to relive her traumatic experiences.

Unfortunately, the trial was marred by the cross-examination. This process was a reminder of why many sexual crimes are left unreported – studies suggest that only one in 13 women choose to report their rape cases. During the cross-examination conducted by Peter Daubermann, he bombarded Zondi with insults such as calling her a “good actress” and even asked why she did not scream for help, completely ignoring her previous “Man of God” explanation. It seems that in order for justice to be served, Zondi had to endure a “second traumatisation”. While I believe in due process and the notion of innocent until proven guilty, the cross-examination conducted by Peter Daubermann was brutal and clearly crossed a line.

It was implied during cross-examination that, as a minor, Cheryl was a willing participant in the ordeal. To add to that, in order to unnerve her, Daubermann would make Zondi describe the smallest, most unnecessary details of the rapes, even going as far as asking how many centimeters Omotoso penetrated her. It was at that point that Judge Mandela Makaula intervened and reprimanded Daubermann for asking such a ridiculous question. In response, Daubermann had the audacity to accuse Judge Makaula of not being impartial, and of acting “improper” and defending Zondi, rather than acknowledging the absurdity of his questions.

It is cross-examinations such as these that perpetuate the hopelessness felt by sexual assault victims throughout the country. This has exposed flaws within our judicial system where the victims’ challenge of having to face their rapists again is compounded by being subjected to relive their trauma and having their integrity challenged and discredited. It is not surprising that many victims choose not to speak out and rather suffer in silence.

A consolation for Zondi’s extremely unpleasant experiences in court is that the support she has received has been tremendous, and rightly so. With her bravery and strength, she displayed on the stand, Zondi has paved the way for other silenced victims who shall feel silenced no longer. Her heroism came at the right time as well, as sexual crimes against women have been on the rise. A 2018 report by Crime against Women South Africa showed a 53% increase in sexual crime against women from 2015/16 to 2016/17.

We can only hope that Zondi’s heroics result in an increase in rape cases reported by victims. Zondi has even begun her own foundation to aid victims of rape committed in sacred spaces. Hopefully there will be fewer circumstances where a hero needs to rise. It is unfair to constantly expect black women to endure hardships and wear them as a badge of pride.

As men and boys, we often condemn rapists and brand them as scum who should be excommunicated from society. However, it is important that we acknowledge the fact that we live in a patriarchal country with ingrained masculinities that validate the power men feel they have over women. These masculinities perpetuate behaviours and patterns of sexual abuse.

If Zondi’s bravery does lead to an increase in rape cases reported by survivors, it is important that we do not pose as victims to a movement with the purpose of aiding sexual assault survivors. An increase in sexual assault reports does not mean that it is likely that a woman will falsely accuse you; statistics have shown that the chances of that happening are minuscule. A study conducted by the Rape Adjudication and Prosecution Study South Africa (RAPSSA) in 2017 revealed that only 2% of sexual violence accusations reported to SAPS are deemed to be completely false.

It is of extreme importance that we exercise the empathy that is an integral part of the ubuntu we practice in our country, and not rush to find information that one could use to victim-blame. To show compassion towards survivors does not require a great amount of effort – it simply requires a display of humanity.

Hopefully Zondi’s bravery has inspired a renewed optimism for sexual assault victims around South Africa, both men and women. It is essential that this optimism is lasting, and results in the restoration of the feeling towards society that victims have lost – trust.

Signing off,

Nqubeko Mthabela