CHARMAIN NAIDOO: The outrageous grilling of Cheryl Zondi
'Watching the proceedings in that courtroom made me feel like we were in another time, a darker time before we demanded sensitivity for victims'
There was something utterly repulsive, yet mesmerising about the show that Nigerian pastor Timothy Omotoso put on in Port Elizabeth this week. He is in court facing 60 (or so) charges that include kidnapping, human trafficking and sexual assault.
Yet his demeanor is that of a man vaguely bemused by the proceedings, and more than a little annoyed at having to be a part of it.
The media refer to him as charismatic – a word that relates to the charismatic movement in the Christian church as much as it means charming, fascinating and full of character.
There was no lack of fascination, or character as Omotoso strutted his stuff in the PE High Court.
His wardrobe choices were more Real Housewives of Lagos reality star than man of God.
Omotoso turned up, variously, enrobed in a gold jacket, a florescent blue suit, the jacket embossed in heavy gold brocade and a turquoise ensemble. He topped that off by arriving at court one day in the most curious white shirt with a deep ruff that stood up and over his jacket, engulfing his ears. It was a look that would not be out of place in a Christopher Marlow production in Elizabethan times.
The Omotoso fashion show moved through the week from Chicago gangster to vaudeville entertainer to mid 16th century dandy.
His wife Taiwo, wrapped in bright cloth – a nectarine orange dress and headscarf, multicoloured ankara fabric with a turban in the same fabric wound round her head, a turquoise two piece that matched her husband’s garish suit – sat in court and made loud disparaging asides like a disaffected character in a Shakespearean play.
Judge Mandela Makaula had to issue a cease and desist order to Taiwo, whose comments were directed at the beleagured star of the proceedings, Cheryl Zondi – the woman whose claim that she had been sexually abused by the pastor was being ridiculed by his wife.
Cheryl is the first witness in the trial that has shaped the public discourse for a host of reasons.
First there is Omotoso’s lawyer Peter Daubermann whose fascination with the minute detail of his client’s sexual relations with Cheryl Zondi is salacious and, quite frankly, prurient.
He’s asked the kind of licentious questions that force rape victims to relive the horror of their attack, and that ultimately have no bearing on the case. One question that has incensed women - well right-thinking people – was asking Cheryl how many centimetres of penetration she had experienced. What possible reason is there to ask such a question other than to rattle the witness, to humiliate her. A more sinister possibility is that it was meant to frighten Zondi into withdrawing the charges or to terrify potential witnesses.
Doberman is a breed of dog that, dogipedia says, can be dangerous. Apparently Dobermans have an undeserved bad reputation because of their service to the police and military. And, it adds, because they look so competent.
The dogged Omotoso lawyer Peter Daubermann did look competent in court, until he got outside and had to be escorted to his car by policemen. Then he looked scared, and with good reason.
After he’d asked Cheryl Zondi his voyeuristic questions, Twitter user Just_Thembi tweeted his address and cellphone number to her more than 380 followers. They re-tweeted and their followers did the same … and so on.
This case has caught the public imagination because there is so much drama: the televangelist preacher, caught with his pants down, accused of rape and kidnap and selling people; the lewd lawyer; the vulgar Chaucerian wife and the brave, inspiring young woman having to relive the horror of her nightmare experience.
I’m sorry that the conversations I have heard about this trial are focused on the soap opera aspects.
This is an important case, and I suspect that the lawyer Daubermann’s treatment of the young woman in the witness box will have repercussions.
Young women in similar situations will think hard before allowing themselves be subjected to such gratuitous questions.
Cheryl Zondi has accused Omotoso of sexually abusing her since she was 14 years old – the rapes having taken place in PE, Cape Town, Bloemfontein, Nigeria, Israel and Durban.
Her motives for not screaming, for not calling for help, for accompanying the pastor on trips thereby “accepting the risk of being raped” are being questioned.
Daubermann has flat out asked her if she had consented to these acts, paying little heed to Zondi’s explanation: she was a child and terrified.
It has been written that Cheryl Zondi’s handling of the cross-examination has been praise-worthy; her answers have been measured; she has stuck to the facts without embellishment; she has not fallen apart.
But women in a similar position who do not have her strength will shy away from exposing themselves to such treatment from a hostile lawyer.
I think this case has set us back.
Watching the proceedings in that courtroom made me feel like we were in another time, a darker time before we demanded sensitivity for victims having to testify in sexual assault cases.
I hope that Peter Daubermann, especially, is prepared to take responsibility for setting rape trial ethics back several decades.