Today, 22-year-old Cheryl Zondi took the stand for the third day in the trial of Nigerian pastor Timothy Omotoso.
South Africans have been following the trial nationwide. I’m in the changing room at the gym, crowded around a TV with a group of women, our eyes locked on the scene unfolding in the Eastern Cape High Court in Port Elizabeth. Cheryl, who agreed to allow television cameras inside the courtroom, gave a devastating account of the sexual assault Timothy Omotoso subjected her to when she was 14 years old and a member of his Jesus Dominion International church.
Zondi’s experience in court is all too standard
Watching the relentless cross-examination of Cheryl Zondi is extremely difficult, and undoubtedly retraumatising for her. The defence lawyer makes repeated suggestions to discredit her integrity – for example, by calling her a ‘good actress’. It’s no wonder so few women in South Africa – a shocking one in 13 – choose to report their rapes, when the means to justice can be so punishing. This is a high-profile example of why we desperately need specialised sexual offences courts in South Africa, asap. The Commission for Gender Equality has applauded judge Mandela Makhaula for intervening in the defence lawyer’s questioning of Cheryl Zondi, calling it ‘secondary traumatisation’. This is precisely what sexual offences courts would seek to avoid.
What is a sexual offences court?
According to Rape Crisis, these courts deal only with sexual offences and provide special services to survivors. These courts are sensitive to the survivor and help to:
- Reduce the trauma of a survivor by preparing and debriefing them for court
- Speed up cases
- Make better court judgements, because the court personnel are better skilled to understand the nature of sexual offences
- Increase reporting of rape
- Increase convictions
The way the Timothy Omotoso trial is currently going is the perfect deterrent for any woman considering reporting a rape or a sexual crime. Cheryl’s dignity, strength and composure on the witness stand recalls the testimony given by Dr Christine Blasey Ford last month at the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, who has since been confirmed as US Supreme Court Justice. Dr Ford’s account prompted an outpouring of support under the hashtag #whyIdidn’treport. Both of these high-profile cases demonstrate how court procedures can put victims at a distinct disadvantage.
The police are part of the problem
Vocal outrage was heard in the court when Cheryl Zondi detailed how policemen would take off their uniform jackets and lay them on the floor for Timothy Omotoso to walk over. This was in response to the question of why she failed to report her case to the police. She said, ‘They were his protocols in the church. They took off their jackets for him to walk on… After that, how can I trust the police?’
This is perhaps an extraordinary case, but police in South Africa are notorious for not taking sexual-violence charges seriously, and for adopting a victim-blaming approach to women trying to report.
Support for #CherylZondi
South Africans are showing their solidarity for Cheryl Zondi. Outside the courtroom, people held signs reading ‘We believe you Cheryl Zondi’. Her determination to tell her story; her refusal to be swayed and her power in the face of a line of questioning which forces her to revisit the trauma she has undergone, is a clear message to survivors.
✊AMANDLA SISTER!!! pic.twitter.com/OA62P226Oj
— Shannon (@Shannon_Dineo) October 16, 2018
When asked why she failed to reach out to family for help at the time, Zondi spoke of the shame that often accompanies victims of sexual violence. When questioned on why she finally decided to go public with her story, she responded, ‘I needed to tell people that this happened to me, and I survived.’
Cheryl Zondi’s fearlesness is bigger than her. She has knocked down the door for every unknown woman/girl and unsung man/boy who have found themselves on the unfortunate side of sexual assault of any form. She is indeed an icon. I thank her. #eNCA #OmotosoTrail #cherlyzondi
— Nyamase (@Nyamase2) October 17, 2018
As she finishes her testimony, the group of us huddled around the TV begins to disperse. We are silent, some of us in tears. I think about Cheryl, on her way back to Johannesburg to write her university exams, and I hope and pray for justice to be served – for Cheryl Zondi, and for all survivors.
Timothy Omotoso faces 63 main charges and 34 alternative counts, which include human trafficking, rape, sexual assault, racketeering and conspiracy in aiding another person to commit sexual assault. Timothy, with the help of two women – Lusanda Sulani and Zukiswa Sitho – allegedly trafficked more than 30 girls and women who were from various branches of his church to a house in Umhlanga, KwaZulu-Natal, where he is believed to have sexually exploited them.