Cheryl Zondi faced a grilling from accused Nigerian pastor Timothy Omotoso's lawyer at the Port Elizabeth High Court. Picture: WERNER HILLS
Cheryl Zondi faced a grilling from accused Nigerian pastor Timothy Omotoso's lawyer at the Port Elizabeth High Court. Picture: WERNER HILLS

In a country where an unprecedented number of sexual and gender-based crimes are left unreported, South Africans watched in horror and dismay as Peter Daubermann, the defence lawyer for Timothy Omotoso, eviscerated Cheryl Zondi on the witness stand. Daubermann’s courtroom antics are very much a microcosm of the larger flaws in the SA judicial system.

Zondi alleges that Omotoso took advantage of his position of power and raped her over a period of two and a half years from the time she was 14 until she was 17. I ascribe to the notion that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, but cannot condone such treatment of victims of sexual and gender-based violence.

Daubermann’s stance in the courtroom has undermined the great strides that have been made by many activists in this country, both men and women, who have tirelessly campaigned for victims of such crimes to speak out. It is well documented that victims of rape, or any form of sexual assault, face great stigma and further traumatisation in our judicial system and society at large.

Our judicial processes should not allow further victimisation to occur in the courtroom.

Not only are they questioned on the truthfulness of their accounts of the crimes but are usually also blamed for being the cause of the very crime committed against them. Daubermann’s line of questioning attests to this. In my opinion, what he did was nothing short of asking Zondi if she had enjoyed having sex with Omotoso.

Daubermann was presented with a fearless and articulate woman who stood her ground on the witness stand. She did not crumble, murmur or stammer during her depiction of the painful events surrounding her alleged abuse by Omotoso. This seems to have rattled Daubermann, whose approach demonstrated that our courtroom interventions are not victim-centred but rather make it about the quest to discredit the victim, rather than for the perpetrator to prove his innocence.

Our judicial processes should not allow further victimisation to occur in the courtroom. Victims of sexual and gender-based violence are often faced with multiple levels of stigma and prejudice at a family and community level. These are further entrenched in police processes and courtroom battles. Those victims who are brave enough to overcome all the doubt and fear to report their cases, face further victimisation by the police.

Police officers are generally perceived as being indifferent to the plight of women who are victims of sexual and gender-based violence. These men (and women) are usually the first figures victims encounter in the judicial system, yet many victims relate how unsavoury these encounters were for them. Victims report being asked what their role in the rape or sexual assault was. Questions such as, “Were you wearing inappropriate clothing, did you seduce him or behave in an inviting manner and are you certain he forced himself on you?” are thrown at victims by our law enforcement officers. There is a total disregard for the victims’ constitutional right to dignity.

Police minister Bheki Cele must put in place measures to ensure the six-point ministerial plan designed by the old administration is actually implemented by the new dispensation. The plan sought to improve the interface between victims of sexual and gender-based violence and the police. This will assist in eradicating the prejudices police officers exhibit towards victims who report such crimes.

As Daubermann ruthlessly questioned Zondi, numerous civil society organisations related that this is not an isolated case but is the norm in SA’s courtrooms. As a democratic country, the status quo cannot continue. Our judiciary must undergo institutional reform and transformation to combat the further victimisation of those who seek justice for crimes committed against them, especially those of a sexual nature. Victims should leave the courtroom with a sense that justice will be served, as opposed to having their dignity shredded. In a country that is regarded as the rape capital of the world, the law and its courtrooms must be seen taking a stern stance against perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence.

The strategic goal two of the department of justice and constitutional development is, “People-centred justice services that are accessible, reliable and efficient:  justice services which place victims, vulnerable persons and other court users at the centre of the justice system.” The department must step up its efforts to ensure this goal is reached. Prosecutors and defence attorneys must understand that they have an obligation to question victims in a manner that is not detrimental to them.

Tertiary education institutions must include courses such as gender sensitivity in the design of their curricula to ensure all graduates have a thorough understanding of this subject.

• Ncube (@nonsikelelo2) is with the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.