A televised rape trial in South Africa has prompted a furious public backlash after a witness – who says she was raped by her pastor from the age of 14 – was subjected to a lengthy and, at times, aggressively intimate cross-examination by the lawyer representing a 60-year-old Nigerian televangelist, Timothy Omotoso, who denies the allegation.
Over the weekend, Mr Omotoso’s church, in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, was forced to shut its door after angry crowds besieged the building, while a Sunday newspaper reported that the woman who gave evidence against him – Cheryl Zondi, now a 22-year-old student – had received death threats ahead of the trial.
The trial – the first prominent rape case to be broadcast live in a country where more than 100 rapes are reported to the police each day – has attracted huge interest, and raised difficult questions about victims’ rights, impartiality and whether justice is best served by having television cameras in courtrooms.
Anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter, Ndileka Mandela – who said in 2017 that she had been raped by a former boyfriend – is one of many South African women who have voiced support for Ms Zondi, linking her experience to the global #MeToo movement.
Ms Mandela argued that the student’s treatment during three days in the witness box helped explain why so many rape victims stay silent in a nation with notoriously high levels of sexual violence.
“I really feel pain for this young woman and I am so proud to see how courageous she’s been on the witness stand,” Ms Mandela told South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper.
Mr Omotoso and two female co-accused, from the Jesus Dominion International church, based in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, are facing 97 charges, ranging from sexual assault to rape and human trafficking.
They deny all the charges.
The church – one of a growing number of evangelical ministries in the country, promising miracles and prophecies for its followers – is known for its videos of uniformed young women singers, some of whom have appeared on the Idols SA television contest.
Since it began last week, the nation seems to have stopped in its tracks to follow the trial, and social media erupted in support and sympathy for Ms Zondi.
She was the first prosecution witness and told the court, with great composure, that Mr Omotoso – quoting the psalms and threatening God’s anger if she did not comply – had allegedly repeatedly raped her a year after she had joined his church as a child.