Table Talk

Cheryl Zondi: I am standing for something real

Cheryl Zondi was just an ordinary person when she stepped into the witness box. When she stepped out, the country knew her to be an extraordinary woman

16 December 2018 - 00:00 By ZIMASA MATIWANE and BELINDA PHETO
Cheryl Zondi spoke to the Sunday Times this week. She told of her ordeal in the witness box, her broken-home childhood, her ambition to become a singer and public speaker, and her decision not to accept witness protection.
Cheryl Zondi spoke to the Sunday Times this week. She told of her ordeal in the witness box, her broken-home childhood, her ambition to become a singer and public speaker, and her decision not to accept witness protection.
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo

When Cheryl Zondi was a little girl she loved public speaking and was passionate about standing up for the marginalised.

Little did she know that these two passions would be excellent training for the bigger battle she would face later in life.

"I didn't know that while I was enjoying speaking and addressing people it would come in handy one day. Now I believe that I am standing for something real, something I have experienced, something I know that others are experiencing," says the second-year marketing student.

Zondi became well known in October when she was one of the first rape accusers to have her testimony broadcast live.

South Africans sat glued to their televisions as she faced an invasive cross-examination in the full glare of the media spotlight. She received overwhelming public sympathy as the nation watched her ordeal.

In the dock were 60-year-old pastor Timothy Omotoso and his co-accused, Lusanda Sulani, 36, and Zukiswa Sitho, 28. They face 97 charges, ranging from sexual assault to rape and human trafficking.

Zondi, now a University of Johannesburg student, told the court of the alleged sexual assaults. She said they started when she was 14, a year after she had joined the flamboyant pastor's church in Mpumalanga.

Zondi spent three gruelling days on the stand facing deeply intimate questions. She had to respond in graphic detail while Omotoso's defence lawyer asked her how by many centimetres Omotoso had penetrated her after she said he had only partly penetrated her.

After her time in court, Zondi posted a heartfelt letter on Facebook thanking 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.

The outspoken 22-year-old says she always had strong opinions. "While I was in high school, I was a gay rights activist. I hate seeing other people being ill-treated and my view has always been that you don't need to be in a situation to have an opinion, or stand against something wrong."

Even before her court appearance she received death threats. Anonymous callers warned her that God would kill her because she was going against a "man of God".

Her courage has come at great personal cost. Since her testimony she has lived with 24-hour private security protection and has moved to a secret location, away from her family and friends. "I miss going to the mall, going out for movies and just being with my family and friends."

She said that though testifying was one of the hardest things she had done, she was comforted knowing that it was to protect her and her loved ones.

Zondi endured intimidation and character assassination on social media, including a text message sent the day before she was due to testify, saying her days were numbered. But she began to fear for her safety on October 23, when she was told about the alleged hit on her, she told the Sunday Times.

"At that point it sank in that my life was in extreme danger. That is when my life really changed because I now have to take extreme safety precautions, live in fear and extreme paranoia."

Cheryl Zondi's face became known throughout the country when she was the state's first witness in the rape trial of pastor Timothy Omotoso. Her testimony was shown live on TV. With her is the prosecutor, Nceba Ntelwa.
Cheryl Zondi's face became known throughout the country when she was the state's first witness in the rape trial of pastor Timothy Omotoso. Her testimony was shown live on TV. With her is the prosecutor, Nceba Ntelwa.
Image: Werner Hills

Law enforcement was aware of the threat yet it still needed a call to justice minister Michael Masutha for the state to offer her protection.

"I was kept waiting, no-one was getting back to me for a week and a half. The whole time I lived in fear and my family didn't know what to do. That is when I moved out of [university] residence and private security was organised," she said.

She turned down an offer of witness protection. It would have meant moving to another province, using a fake identity and dropping out of university. There was no guarantee she would be able to communicate with her loved ones.

"Dropping out of school was a big issue for me. I would also be cut off from my support system. Isolating someone who went through a traumatic experience is re-traumatising for them.

"I don't want to die but the conditions made [the offer] impossible to accept."

She has also had to postpone her studies because of the pressure of the trial. The university will give her an opportunity in January to write the outstanding modules from her second year.

I don't want to die but the conditions made [the offer] impossible to accept
On rejecting witness protection

Zondi was born and grew up in Evander in Mpumalanga. She was a happy child who excelled academically and enjoyed extramural activities such as singing, dancing, and imitating Beyoncé.

"I was a very competitive child in school. I was always among the top three achievers throughout my school years."

Zondi becomes sombre when she remembers the difficult aspects of her upbringing.

Without going into details, she said her parents divorced when she was eight and her mother, an English teacher, had a tough time having to raise her elder brother and younger sister as well as herself.

"Difficult as it was, my mom made sure she gave us a good education and supported us in everything that we did."

One of Zondi's fondest childhood memories is speaking in front of the late anti-apartheid stalwart Ahmed Kathrada.

"I always had a passion for public speaking, so I was chosen by my school to represent it in a district competition where we had to prepare a prayer for SA, and I came out the winner."

Zondi launched a foundation last week to support victims of sexual abuse which she said aims to "turn pain into purpose".

"We want to remove the stigma carried by victims and survivors. They should not feel ashamed or alone."

The hard work begins in January with public campaigns at universities, high schools and even primary schools.

Cheryl Zondi at the launch of her foundation. With her is Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, the chair of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities.
Cheryl Zondi at the launch of her foundation. With her is Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, the chair of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities.
Image: Thulani Mbele

She will work closely with student representative councils, the Total Shutdown movement and the Congress of South African Students.

Although Zondi has had to make major adjustments to her everyday life as a safety precaution, she doesn't spend time wallowing in her situation.

"I have been reading, and have just finished Looking For Alaska by John Green. Music is also keeping me company and I do other girlie stuff."

Zondi said it was her love of music that made her join Omotoso's Jesus Dominion International church in Secunda when she was 13. She said she had been working towards a solo career since 2013.

"I write songs. I find lovely ways of expressing myself, through writing music, poetry, essays, speaking."

She will work with Idols twins Anele and Neliswa Mxakaza on music projects.

The twins went on television to reveal their alleged experiences with Omotoso after having previously lived in one of his homes for a year. Neliswa said Omotoso "got on top of her and did his business", then prayed for forgiveness.

Zondi says the three young women will work under the mentorship of Lindelani Mkhize, the founder of the gospel group Joyous Celebration.

I did not think long and hard about not revealing my identity, but I still wouldn't change that decision

Zondi said although it had not been easy she had no regrets about testifying publicly against Omotoso.

"I did not think long and hard about not revealing my identity, but I still wouldn't change that decision.

"I asked myself if I wanted to be a poster girl for rape. But looking back at what my testimony has done, I have no regrets as I believe my testimony encouraged more victims who suffered the same kind of experience to come out.

"I wanted other survivors to see hope walking in front of them."


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