This 22-year-old is challenging South Africa’s normalization of rape culture
Cheryl Zondi is a 22-year-old University of Johannesburg student studying social work. On October 15, Zondi began what would be a three-day-long trial at Port Elizabeth High Court based on her allegations that her church leader, Pastor Timothy Omotoso, raped her between the years 2010 and 2015. While Zondi’s trial has not yet concluded, it has already demonstrated that women are still subjected to excruciating emotional and psychological labor should they attempt to seek justice after sexual assault in South Africa. But it also offers some evidence of hope that South Africans may finally be starting to acknowledge the high prevalence of gender-based violence that surrounds us.
On the witness stand, Zondi recounted how she was first sexually abused by her pastor at 14 years old, and then continually abused for the next five years. Zondi revealed that she knew of other young girls within the church who were also victims of the same man’s actions, and articulated that the group knew the repercussions of speaking out were too great for any of them to consider doing so at the time. She recalled how she grappled with speaking out against a man whose perceived moral compass garnered him respect and unmitigated power in her community.
Zondi’s story is unfortunately hardly uncommon in South Africa; Gender-based violence (GBV) has long been a problem in South Africa. A study conducted in 2012 by the local NGO Gender Links found that 77 percent of women in Limpopo, 51 percent in Gauteng, and 45 percent in the Western Cape had experienced some form of GBV, with sexual violence being the most common form. Between 2012 and 2016, the South African Police Service has reported that between 53,617 and 70,813 women have reported experiencing sexual offenses each year. As is the case in many other countries, it’s also probable that these numbers are even higher, considering that factors like fear of stigma, retaliation, and/or repeated trauma dissuade many survivors from reporting their rapes to local authorities.
Zondi’s cross-examination perfectly illustrated why women are so afraid to speak out. In a line of questioning that clearly sought to break down Zondi’s will and character rather than seek to uncover the facts, the defense told her that her version of events was “so improbable, it can’t possibly be true.” She was asked how many centimeters into her vagina her rapist penetrated her and, in a vivid illustration of the defense’s ignorance of the dynamics of consent, especially considering that Zondi was a minor at the time of the incident, he asked, “Why didn’t you ask him to stop?” Zondi’s inability to recall intricate details, such as the day of the week and time during the day when her violations took place, was used to discredit her. Her decision to return to her church to confront her rapist and demand an apology a year after her departure was sharply criticized by the defense. They concluded that Zondi deliberately put herself in danger’s way and was never actually afraid of her alleged rapist.
This is not the first time a South African accuser of rape has been publicly disbelieved. To take one high-profile example, in November of 2005, a woman accused then-Deputy President of South Africa Jacob Zuma of raping her at his Johannesburg home. Zuma was a father figure to the accuser, Fezeka Khuzwayo; he supported her family financially while they were exiled from Swaziland and throughout the apartheid struggle. During the trial, hundreds of Zuma supporters gathered outside the courthouse to hurl insults at Khuzwayo. Zuma was ultimately acquitted and Khuzwayo was granted humanitarian asylum in the Netherlands in 2009, after Zuma supporters burned her home down. Khuzwayo was considered by these supporters a pawn in a political plot against Zuma’s ascension to the presidency. Zuma was elected president in 2009.
Zondi’s ordeal demonstrates how South African law as it stands alienates women from seeking justice, and effectively supports the violence so often synonymous with the machinations of patriarchy. But her decision to speak out against a man who is afforded undue privilege by virtue of his purported role as a moral compass, knowing full well that society would seek to punish and silence her for doing so, has also inspired many. Zondi’s testimony particularly shed light on how the cultural dominance of religion in impoverished communities often leads to violations in women’s human rights. As South Africans’ living rooms were ignited with her pensive, heated answers to questions, we felt the urgent need for open conversations about such violations in private and public, despite the discomfort that often follows. It was through Zondi’s voice that young women began to imagine themselves as part of a reality in which they too might be able to consider themselves survivors instead of victims.
Every day of the trial, news outlets across the country provided livestreams and bursting commentary about new developments. South Africa’s largest movement against gender-based violence, “#TheTotalShutDown,” put its weight behind Zondi; members of the movement gathered outside Port Elizabeth High Court with messages of support ahead of her appearances. The Minister for Women in the Presidency, Bathabile Dlamini, joined the court proceedings and voiced her support for Zondi as well. Nomsisi Bata from the Commission for Gender Equality lauded Zondi’s courageous testimony, highlighting the support from various communities as important to embolden other victims to speak without fear. The country’s top legal minds added their voice to some of the legal shortfalls that leave women vulnerable to such harm.
The shame that encourages victims’ silence, the reluctance to report a crime out of fear of reprisals, the doubt that the police will effectively investigate a report anyway, are all phenomena becoming clearer to the public thanks to Zondi and the women who came before her. It is for this reason that Cheryl Zondi will be remembered in history as the one who emboldened an army of women to hold their fists up and refuse to die in silence. South Africa salutes her.
More articles by Category: Gender-based violence, International
More articles by Tag: Africa, Gender Based Violence, Rape, Sexualized violence, Women of color