justice for women

Star Witness

  • Most South African rape victims suffer in silence, with little hope of justice
  • Not Cheryl Zondi. She became a national sensation when she came out fighting in the trial of her tormentor
  • Now she has to go through it all again

By Haji Mohamed Dawjee

The first I hear of Cheryl Zondi is the sound of her heels on the tiled floor.

She’s wearing a black and white jumpsuit with tassel earrings and carrying a handbag, which she places neatly on the corner of the table.

“I passed everything,” she says, beaming. “Received my results two days ago.”

We’re in the waiting room of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL), on a balmy Friday morning in Johannesburg.

Zondi’s university exams were delayed as a result of the extraordinary events that saw her go from a typical 22-year-old student to one of the most talked-about women in South Africa. She lost an academic year, but now finally finds herself ready to graduate with an international diploma in marketing management from the city’s leading university.

“I wanted to be a brand,” Zondi says, “so marketing seemed like a good choice. But after all this, I’m considering a degree in human rights law.”

“All this” is shorthand for Zondi’s involvement in a court case with elements so dark and unnerving that even in this crime-saturated country, it has dominated headlines for months.

Graça Machel, Nelson Mandela's widow, with Cheryl Zondi

Late last year Zondi testified, as the first witness, in a case playing out in the Eastern Cape High Court in the ordinarily sleepy coastal city of Port Elizabeth. In the dock is a well-known pastor, Timothy Omotoso, who alongside two co-accused is on trial for a total of 97 charges – among them rape, sexual assault and racketeering. Zondi’s decision to testify in an open court and waive her right to anonymity is a first in South Africa, and may prove to be a game-changer in a country plagued by rape and the abuse of women.

Zondi displays the same energy as any young woman of her generation. During our conversation she checks her phone every now then almost involuntarily, and is quick to digress into conversation about Beyoncé and Cardi B. She enjoys parties and music and, like most South Africans, she thinks local hip-hop star Cassper Nyovest is a beautiful man who gets better looking every year.

I notice that she’s brought a notebook with her as well.

“I write songs, poems, essays,” Zondi says by way of explanation. She pauses, then adds: “I unpack my inner world on paper, but Letters from Sherry hasn’t been updated in a while”. Letters from Sherry is her blog, and the last thing she uploaded on her blog was an essay on her first experience of abuse.

She pauses once more to look at her phone.

“I have to constantly update my mom on where I am, else she gets worried and might call the FBI or something,” she laughs.

When Zondi was 14 years old she met a pastor in Secunda, about 130km east of Johannesburg. Secunda is a small town, known for its oil refineries and mining, and little else. That is, until Timothy Omotoso turned the soil and built his church.

Women in Secunda, where Omotoso built his church

“I remember the colour scheme was navy blue and white. There were lights everywhere, and it was unlike any church I had ever laid my eyes on before then. Cameras recorded everything, and when I stepped in it felt like I was on a beautiful reality TV show,” Zondi says.

Omotoso was originally from Nigeria. What drew her most to his Jesus Dominion International church was the fact that it was filled with so many young faces.

“My friends and I went church-hopping, and we ended up finding this one through a youth group. We started by going to the mid-week services. It was vibrant. I loved it.”

It’s not hard to imagine a 14-year-old Zondi excited at the idea of God and entertainment in the same building. No old faces. Just fun – just singing in the choir, the promise of a gospel career, and closeness to a man who said he dined with David, slayer of Goliath, every night.

So enthralled was Zondi that a single midweek service turned into a four-day-per-week commitment. A spell was cast. Every conversation that didn’t involve the word “Christianity” started to feel satanic. Zondi says her evangelism became so maniacal at one point that her mother, who never went to church with her, started to pitch up at services and drag her out.

But Omotoso’s control had already rooted itself deeply in what Zondi refers to as the “stubborn mind of a 14 year old desperate to be close to God”. It’s a hard thing for her to admit, I can tell, by the way her composure starts to falter for the first time since we began talking. Her hand reaches to scratch her face.

Zondi inhales. She begins: “After I was at the church for a while, the pastor started being really inappropriate. He asked silly questions about what I was getting up to with boys. He would talk to me about sex and relationships.”

Zondi raises her hands, shakes her head. “I was 14. I knew nothing about boys, I had never had a boyfriend,” she says. But she never said how ridiculous these questions sounded to her teenage ears when she was talking with the pastor.

“It’s so scary to say anything to someone you view as bigger than you. Holier. So much stronger, so close to God. So…. powerful.”

Whenever Omotoso phoned – and he phoned a lot, she says – Zondi would have to answer his call on her knees.

“That was his order. And I would always have to answer. Sometimes it would be at two or three in the morning. I would always answer. Because I was scared. I was scared of his threats. I was scared of going to Hell.”

Among the pastor’s long list of bizarre standing orders was a requirement that Zondi report her grocery list to him.

“Milk, bread, cheese,” she says. “I had to text him a list of everything I was going to buy at the shop. Report every minute of my day. And if I didn’t find what I was looking for, if I came home without the milk for example, I had to report that too.”

And what if you didn’t do those things, I ask.

Zondi’s response is matter-of-fact: he would find out. Somehow he always found out. And to disobey Omotoso was to disobey God.

Timothy Omotoso during the trial at Port Elizabeth

In October last year, during her time on the witness stand, footage surfaced of a teenage Zondi confessing to church congregants that she could control tokoloshes: evil spirits in Zulu folklore summoned by malicious people to curse others.

In the video, the microphone she speaks into looks far too heavy for her tiny frame. She is wearing a purple top and a pink cardigan, the hues of a little girl. Next to her, Omotoso looms large in a black jacket, his striped shirt harnessing an overhanginging belly. He is pushing her for details.

Zondi tells congregants she has a position under the sea, where her spirit travels to do her job of controlling tokoloshes.

“We all know that every three hours the powers of darkness meet,” she states confidently.

The 14 year old on that clip speaks with the same assurance as the 22 year old sitting across from me. Her hand gestures match the ones on the screen and she smiles the same smile. But those are the only similarities. The girl then is not the woman now.

Zondi says in hindsight it’s clear that she was groomed to entertain Omotoso in the name of God: “I would do anything to cause excitement for him.”

The Secunda branch of Omotoso’s church is well known for having crazy things happen, Zondi tells me.

“People were always sharing stories about finding monkeys in their fridges and we were coaxed into believing these things. He used these stories as a means of control. To instill fear and patriarchal power,” she says.

We take a detour into the terrain of male-dominated religions, even pausing to talk about the curse of the jinn in my own Islamic community and how male Muslim leaders are the ones tasked with controlling and curing the women who are possessed. And it’s always women.

It doesn’t take a lot of convincing to believe that Omotoso is a master manipulator. If you’re desperate to serve in the eyes of God, to worship and find a path to heaven in the way that an innocent 14-year-old Zondi was, you’re vulnerable to a “super-Christian” like Omotoso. You’ll believe him when he says he flies up to heaven and keeps the company of angels. And that he is your direct line to the divine.

“He was so good that even adults, people capable of critical thinking, would believe him,” Zondi says. “He has your mind in his hands. If he tells you to kill someone you will, because he’s convinced you you’re doing it for God.”

Belief is not a logical thing. “Predators like Omotoso are not common thugs that rape you and leave you alone. A thug takes what he wants and goes. The worst they can do is threaten you if you don’t keep quiet. But Omotoso owned my life.”

Omotoso during his appearance on charges of rape and human trafficking

The calm strength with which she shares these details is somehow unnerving. I hadn’t been expecting such a sense of steadiness and empowerment, and found myself wondering what I had been expecting. But Zondi cuts through my thoughts with one of her own.

“Being on my menstrual cycle was my favourite time of the month, because it gave me a break from him,” she says.

This merciful abstinence came at a price. Once a month, at least, she found herself grovelling for forgiveness, crying hysterically while rolling on the floor, because when he was upset with her, or disappointed, when he couldn’t get what he wanted, then Omotoso’s anger felt like Armageddon.

“I would have to apologise for being on my menstrual cycle because then he couldn’t be on me. And the only way to get him to forgive me was to give him sex again.”

The majority of the abuse took place at Omotoso’s mission house in Durban, a busy port city on South Africa’s east coast. The only inhabitants were Zondi, a group of other girls on occasion, and sometimes a visiting barber who cut the pastor’s hair and from whom the girls were instructed to hide. “We were never allowed to lay eyes on him,” Zondi explains.

Zondi was first convinced to visit Omotoso’s home under the pretext of a singing lesson.

“I remember thinking: it’s such a privilege to be in the same house as this man of God. I remember thinking: I am going to drink anointed water,” she says.

It wasn’t long before Zondi was expected to spend most of her weekends there. His usual practice was to force himself on her on a Friday night, twice on Saturdays and once on Sundays.

“During the school holidays things would happen any day… every day,” she says. “I’ve lost count of how many times he had sex with me. I walked around with physical scars between my thighs because they became inflamed. He preferred to penetrate me between my thighs. And partially penetrate me internally. My skin would tear and I had to wear tights to keep my legs from rubbing together and get some relief.”

Omotoso’s favourite pay-offline was: You’re youthful to be useful. He expected Zondi to be useful to him in the bedroom. Not fulfilling his needs, not obeying him, came at a price.

“When he wanted something new, he told you. Use your mouth, or, take my hand and play with it, he’d say. When he enjoyed what I was doing, and I was never sure what I was doing, I felt validated. I felt like a good person.”

She can’t believe her own words when she says: “I served him food, perfumed the room beforehand, made sure it was the right temperature and most nights, when he was done, I massaged his feet until my hands hurt, even while he slept. I wasn’t allowed to sleep. Sleep meant I was lazy and useless. He would starve me for punishment. Call me a cockroach.”

Zondi mutters: “A starved body makes for easy mind control.”

Part of Omotoso’s control was to keep Zondi from socialising, especially with other boys. If her phone book happened to contain any male contacts, she had to mark them as family members. He even abused her for making “eye contact” with male celebrities on TV.

“If an attractive man popped up on screen, like Usain Bolt or Kenny Latimore, I had to turn away,” she says. He accused her of lusting after them and not him.

Zondi says in instances like these Omotoso would say things like: “You wanna pump him now?”

There was only one correct response: “I only have eyes for you, daddy.”

After three years in the mission house, she waited one night until everyone was asleep and escaped. Too scared to call the police, she phoned an aunt instead, who picked her up in a cab.

South Africa is a country internationally praised for its secular constitution, but within the confines of our borders it remains a deeply religious country. More than 80 per cent of the population adheres to Christianity, and a significant number of Christians also practise African traditional religions.

The country is currently experiencing a surge in pop-up pastors like Omotoso. Many religious leaders, local and foreign, are unregistered and have been reported as using cult-like methods to lure congregants.

The CRL has started to investigate some of these institutions, after complaints about several pastors accused of using dangerous healing methods. One allegedly asked worshippers to spray Doom (an aerosol pesticide) in their eyes, or drink dishwashing liquid to rid them of their sins and cast off evil.

Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, the CRL’s chairwoman, says that when questioned on such practices these pastors tend to respond with: “We account to God and no one on earth can ask us questions.”

Civil rights and non-partisan organisations have also been pushing for tighter regulation of such churches because of the potential for criminal abuse. So far their progress has been minimal.

Pastor Paseka Motsoeneng in Johannesburg

In 2011, local gender activists filed complaints with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) after Paseka Motsoeneng – a celebrity pastor more commonly referred to as Pastor Mboro – was shown on a broadcast of one his services digitally penetrating teenage girls in the name of “healing” them. The CGE rejected the complaint on the basis that beliefs are protected by the constitution and “those people exercised their choice to go to Pastor Motsoeneng’s church voluntarily”.

I asked Dr Rafael Cazarin, a research fellow at Sonke Gender Justice, the civil society group that brought the complaint against Mboro, why the sexual abuse of women tends to flourish in church contexts.

Cazarin’s view is that churches are granted power and influence that can wield an ambiguous impact. “It’s in the church community that many people find comfort and safety from social exclusion, marginalisation, prejudice, while being offered the possibility to positively transform their financial, health or psychological states,” she says.

“Religious leaders take advantage of the power that comes with their positions, as these are rarely contested by the community due to their divine nature. Altogether, these leaders are protected by the institution, their position, their peers and their divine power. The combination of these ‘walls’ makes enough room for abusive behaviour.”

Predatory churchmen are common in South Africa; survivors willing to hold them to account, much less so.

On 16 October 2018, Zondi stepped into the witness box at the Eastern Cape High Court in Port Elizabeth, her grey dress giving no hint of the bold testimony to come.

“That day, I could hear my heart beating in my ears,” Zondi tells me.

But she kept her composure and only cried the small tears in the eyes of the public. The big tears she saved for the safety of her own home. “I would let rip once I was in my mom’s arms, and cry like there was no tomorrow from the pain and humiliation,” she says.

Zondi testifies during the Omotoso trial

The humiliation came from one particular source: Omotoso’s defence lawyer, Peter Daubermann, who has been sharply criticised for his line of questioning during the cross-examination.

In a court performance that shocked the nation and helped galvanise public support for Zondi, Daubermann tore into Zondi’s evidence with questioning deemed grossly insensitive and perversely unethical.

During his cross examination, Daubermann required Zondi to recount in graphic detail the events of her first rape encounter, including how Omotoso asked her to pass him the Vaseline, how he rubbed his penis with it and then told her to “do what she wanted”.

Daubermann then pushed on and requested that Zondi further explain to the court what happened next.

The witness said calmly that when she was reluctant to rub Omotoso above his thighs, he jumped on top of her and proceeded to thrust between hers.

As this line of questioning continued, Zondi divulged that Omotoso did not penetrate her all the way, “because I was a virgin”.

Still unsatisfied, and unable to shake Zondi’s confidence, Daubermann then pushed her in plain language: “Did he insert his penis into your vagina?”

He “went into the vaginal opening”, Zondi said.

When Daubermann asked how many centimetres, Judge Mandela Makaula finally intervened to disallow the question.

It’s hard to revisit this with Zondi, but she recalls it all with characteristic composure.

“I was in a state of shock through all of that. It’s painful to have to answer graphic questions and deal with someone who clearly doesn’t care and is constantly trying to belittle your pain,” she says of Daubermann.

And then, for balance, she adds: “But I also understand that this man is here is to do a job. He didn’t come to lose. His job is to win this case”.

Many thought Peter Daubermann's questions grossly insensitive

Sanja Bornman, who manages the Gender Equality Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, says that while Daubermann’s style may seem shocking, it is very common and probably one of the key reasons women choose not to report sexual offences to the criminal justice system.

“Various defence attorneys employ aggression to a greater or lesser extent than Daubermann, but attacks on victims’ evidence are often grounded in rape myths,” Bornman says.

“It’s hard to know whether Daubermann himself is misogynist enough, or ignorant enough about rape, to think his questions have merit; or whether he is harnessing the general ignorance about rape of our society to intimidate and undermine Zondi’s evidence.”

Bornman adds that in her opinion Daubermann’s courtroom abuse of Zondi was the last resort of a defence lawyer with nothing substantive to rely on.

Although many observers felt that Judge Makaula should have intervened earlier to protect Zondi, the issue is now moot.

Earlier this year, Judge Makaula recused himself from the Omotoso trial following a media investigation which suggested that he had a financial interest in a guest house used to accommodate state witnesses. Daubermann had separately requested that the judge recuse himself after giving the prosecution’s star witness what Daubermann termed “special treatment”.

Judge Mandela Makaula recused himself during the trial

The result of the judge’s recusal is that Zondi will have to face a harrowing cross-examination once again. The case will have to re-start, with Zondi delivering testimony once more to a defence lawyer who has already had a practice run.

“(This) is the kind of thing that strikes absolute fear into the hearts of rape victims who may be wondering whether they should report or not. It does not inspire public confidence in the system,” Bornman says.

“However, it could also turn out that Daubermann has again underestimated Cheryl Zondi, and that she will come back even stronger and equally prepared for his tactics. One also hopes that the next presiding officer will be even less tolerant of Daubermann’s disgusting brand of cross-examination.”

We’ve been talking for two and a half hours and in that time Zondi has re-lived years of trauma; of rape, abuse and psychological manipulation. But her eyes remain bright with strength, and her courage still radiates across the table.

“As soon as I think about having to relive this again in court I feel as though I have a heavy load on my shoulders, but then I remember I’ve gotten this far and I cannot stop now,” she says. “The second coming of this trial is just something I have to do. This is all bigger than me now. This has to happen.”

When Zondi was given the option of testifying in open court, she needed no convincing. She also had no idea that she would be the first woman in South Africa to do so in such a high-profile case.

“When I started this, I did it because I wanted to look Omotoso in the eye. I wanted him to see me. I wanted him to see what he did to me. And when I spoke, there was an exchange of shame,” she says.

“Shame doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to him.”

In December 2018 Zondi launched the Cheryl Zondi Foundation,  which seeks to assist victims of sexual abuse and expose abuse that occurs in sacred spaces.

Further reading

  • A 2014 report by Sonke Gender Justice and KPMG put the cost of gender-based violence to the South African economy at up to $3 billion a year, or 1.3 per cent of GDP
  • From Report to Court (2004, updated 2014) is a handbook for adult survivors of sexual violence, written by Cathy Halloran and funded by the UK Home Office