Cheryl Zondi has asked the public protector to investigate South Africa’s witness protection programme.
Zondi, the first witness in the rape trial of televangelist Timothy Omotoso, announced on Tuesday that last month she laid a complaint with public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, “asking that the witness protection programme be thoroughly investigated and changed”.
The announcement was made the launch of the Cheryl Zondi Foundation, which aims to provide support and legal counsel to people speaking out against sexual abuse. Mkhwebane attended the press briefing.
The National Prosecuting Authority’s witness protection programme is supposed to offer a safe space for individuals to share information that could help investigators crack criminal activities. Zondi has been one of the most public complainants in the Omotoso matter.
The trial against Omotoso and his co-accused, Lusanda Solani and Zukiswa Sitho, began in October. Omotoso has 63 charges against him, including racketeering, rape, sexual assault and human trafficking, all of which he has refused to plead to.
He is accused of having trafficked more than 30 girls and women who were from branches of his church to a house in Umhlanga, KwaZulu-Natal, where he allegedly sexually abused them.
Zondi was the first witness cross-examined by Omotoso’s lawyer Peter Daubermann. During the cross-examination, Zondi revealed shocking details of her alleged physical and psychological abuse at the hands of Omotoso and his co-accused.
Daubermann was lambasted by members of the public for his grilling of Zondi, during which he suggested she was a willing participant in the alleged abuse. The other complainants have yet to take the stand.
“Having gone through it myself, I realised the gap that exists in the support for victims and survivors of this special, complex kind of abuse,” Zondi said on Monday.
Zondi said she and the other survivors “have firsthand experience of the great lack in psychological and legal support of victims who have been abused in sacred spaces and the religious sector”.
She explained that people who speak out against religious leaders often find themselves in a very difficult and vulnerable position, because of the threat of violence presented by fanatical followers.
“You’re immediately exposed when you speak out to a whole other dimension of danger, danger from nameless people, faceless people — people who are willing to do anything to support their leader,” Zondi said.
She added that her own experience made her realise that “the system does not work for victims”, adding that young victims are especially put at risk by the state.
Zondi said: “When a young person helps clean up the country by getting rapists off the street, it is then the responsibility of the state to protect that person and protect that person’s rights.”
She said that is “neither just nor is it constitutional” to ask rape complainants to radically alter their lives after speaking out.
Asking young people to “drop out of school, move somewhere far away and forget their identity” are all ways of making “cleaning up the country more convenient for the state”, Zondi said.
“Dropping off the face of the earth and cutting off all communication with family members sounds more to me like punishment,” she added.
At the briefing, Mkhwebane said she is engaging with the department of justice to reform the witness protection system. The way the system is structured, it does not protect the victim, she said.
“We will try our level best,” Mkhwebane said, adding that she regards the failures of the system “a crisis”.