Cheryl Zondi, the 22-year-old student who opted to testify in open court against the “man of God” she accuses of repeatedly raping her, received threatening calls in the weeks leading up to the trial.
Anonymous callers warned Zondi that “God would kill her”.
The University of Johannesburg (UJ), where she is a second-year marketing student, has now helped Zondi to find alternative accommodation, and security measures have been beefed up to ensure her safety
“She was threatened that God will kill her because she goes against a man of God, and things along those lines. We realise that the support for the accused is very strong,” said Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, chair of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural‚ Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL commission), which has been supporting Zondi.
After her harrowing testimony this week, Zondi returned to Johannesburg to start exams tomorrow. UJ spokesperson Herman Esterhuizen said the university would continue to support this “exceptionally strong, smart woman”.
“We have also given her the option to reschedule her tests and exams should she want to,” he said.
Zondi has become one of the first rape accusers to have her testimony broadcast live and to face invasive cross-examination in the full glare of the media spotlight.
In the dock is pastor Timothy Omotoso, 60, and his co-accused, Lusanda Sulani‚ 36‚ and Zukiswa Sitho‚ 28. Together they face 97 charges ranging from sexual assault to rape and human trafficking.
The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) said it believes Zondi has changed the face of the sexual assault case. “Cheryl has set a precedent, and we can only pray other victims will be encouraged by this,” said NPA Eastern Cape spokesperson Tsepo Ndwalaza.
“She wanted to tell her story, and she is a very strong young woman. We salute her.”
Zondi’s courage has encouraged another victim to consider having her testimony broadcast live.
Zondi told the court she was just 13 years old when she joined a branch of Omotoso’s Jesus Dominion International (JDI) church in Secunda, Mpumalanga.
Zondi spent three gruelling days on the stand facing deeply intimate questions.
She had to respond in graphic detail to defence lawyer Peter Daubermann. He asked Zondi repeatedly by how many centimetres Omotoso had penetrated her after she said he had only partially penetrated her.
Graphic details emerged of how the then 14-year-old girl was allegedly forced to perform lewd sex acts on the pastor, who then recited Psalm 51, which begins: “Have mercy on me, O God.”
Zondi told the court how at first she was in awe of Omotoso but soon became disillusioned when she realised the acts he made her perform were nothing more than predatory sexual assaults.
“He is a liar, an abuser — a predator who doesn’t care about anyone,” she said.
Daubermann said: “Every time you went to his room, you knew what was going to happen. You knew what you had to do. You knew what to do on every occasion after that … You didn’t protest at any stage — correct?”
“No, I didn’t … He would say that God was not pleased with me. The man would say, ‘Cheryl, you know what you are supposed to do to me and you are not doing them, and God is not pleased.’ ”
Protesters threw water at Daubermann outside court this week and chanted “Stand in defence of Cheryl!” as he made a hasty exit.
Daubermann told the Sunday Times he was appalled by the public’s behaviour and described the group of people who heckled him outside court as hooligans. “For the public to intervene in a trial that is running before the high court amounts to an attack on the administration of justice in the country.”
He said he had taken “measures” to ensure his security during the trial and would raise his concerns in court tomorrow.
Psychologist Professor Saths Cooper, attached to the universities of Pretoria and Limpopo, said religious leaders exuding “Godlike” power “know to find the vulnerable ones. That is also why they flourish in poorer areas.”
Cooper said that once in the inner circle, followers lose their “sense of individuality, become subservient and cannot act independently”.
“To break away from this is near impossible, as the victim needs to be able to draw on what self-worth they have buried. Cheryl
Zondi is testimony to this,” he said. “For anybody who asks ‘Why did the woman not just walk away?’, remember their whole being has been stripped. They basically became an extension of another person.”
The CRL commission’s Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said that early in 2017 the commission started hearing allegations of sexual abuse in the church.
“A lot of women came to us, they had nowhere to go. Some just wanted to talk as they could not tell their families or partners. It was difficult for them to come forward, some were still in the church.”
That year, several women laid criminal charges against Omotoso.
Zondi, together with twins Anele and Nelisiwe Mxakaza, who auditioned for Idols in 2013, approached the commission earlier this year. Just a year before, the twins were still fiercely defending the pastor after their mother removed them from his house in Umhlanga, KwaZulu-Natal.
“They said they were tired of being faceless, nameless victims. They wanted to tell their story. Cheryl said she needed her life back, and to take back the power,” said Mkhwanazi-Xaluva.
“It’s the religious indoctrination, then the threats. It is never ‘I will kill you’, it’s always ‘God will kill you if you don’t do what I say’. At that stage they absolutely believe this is the man of God.”
In a heartfelt letter posted on Facebook on Friday, Zondi thanked South Africans for their support.
“I am so overwhelmed! I do not know where to begin. I cannot believe the amount of support I am receiving, let alone the fierce, passionate level of support that is being shown by the multitudes of women and men alike, both young and old,” she wrote.
Responding to questions from the Sunday Times, Omotoso’s church said: “JDI supports our Senior Pastor and father, Rev Tim Omotoso. We are not involved in any threats or intimidation of witnesses and do NOT encourage or condone such behaviour.”
Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter, Ndileka Mandela, told the Sunday Times one of the reasons she remained silent for five years about being raped by her boyfriend was to avoid the kind of humiliating questions Zondi faced this week.
“I really feel pain for this young woman, and I am so proud to see how courageous she’s been on the witness stand and the strength that she has shown,” said Mandela.
Mandela, 53, who disclosed the alleged rape a year ago, told the Sunday Times that the thought of being grilled in court about her sex life — and the harm this might cause her children — made her stay silent.
“I knew that it would be difficult for me to prove the rape. In court your sexual behaviour becomes the focal point, and I wasn’t prepared to take my children through that.”
Omotoso’s trial continues tomorrow when another witness is expected to take the stand.
The NPA’s Ndwalaza said the prosecutor, advocate Nceba Ntelwa, had met the young victim to give her a sense of “both the positives and negatives” of having her testimony broadcast. “He asked her to go home and talk to her mother before she makes her decision.”