Cheryl Zondi on taking back her power and finding purpose in her pain

Cheryl Zondi (Photo:Getty Images/Gallo Images)
Cheryl Zondi (Photo:Getty Images/Gallo Images)

It could be any day now. She knows she’ll soon have to sit across from her alleged abuser and again detail the years of torment she suffered at his hands. But she’s ready for the fight, Cheryl Zondi says defiantly.

Cheryl became a symbol of hope and strength after her compelling testimony against Nigerian Pastor Timothy Omotoso in 2018. Unfortunately, the presiding judge, Mandela Makaula, had to recuse himself from the trial due to a conflict of interest, forcing the case to start afresh. And since then, it’s been delay after delay.

The case was due to start again on 7 October but was later postponed to early January 2020. Cheryl’s said she is ready to face the barrage of questions from the defence.

“I am going to fight till the end… with everything I have, until no fight is left in me,” she has vowed.

FIGHTING SPIRIT

We catch up with Cheryl at a girls’ seminar, Battered and Bruised Still I Rise: Young girls in conversation with Jackie and Cheryl Zondi.   The 23­year ­old is the main State witness in the trial against Omotoso, who faces various charges including human trafficking and racketeering.

Last year in the Port Elizabeth High Court, Cheryl gave a detailed account of the alleged abuse and in the process, won the hearts of many South Africans. She understands that she’ll be reliving the trauma when she goes on the stand again. 

“At some point I was wallowing in self­-pity, but I’ve passed that stage.  I know it was not my fault,” she tells Move!. As part of her journey, she’s started doing motivational talks.

“I’m turning my pain into something positive. I’ve realized that I enjoy [public] speaking and as a result, I’m doing motivational talks about abuse. I’m receiving good feedback and I’m glad that through my pain I found my purpose in life. I’m hoping that I’ll grow.” 

She’s currently completing a marketing degree at the University of Johannesburg and plans on becoming a human rights lawyer. “I’ve learned. I’ve grown. And I have found my purpose. I’m in my third year of study, hoping to graduate next year. My next goal is to study an LLB so that I can become a human rights lawyer.

That way I can assist other women who find themselves in the same predicament.” She’s already been subpoenaed for court and therefore can’t talk about the case or the abuse, she says. 

“The worst is that it went on for a long time without being noticed and exposed. As a result, I carried the abuse with me for as long as I could.” In the first trial, which started in October 2018, Cheryl broke down on the stand. But that won’t stop her from testifying again.

“I’m going back there to the witness box to give my version. I know what I’ve been through because it’s my experience and it’s my honest truth. Therefore, I have no reason to be afraid. I’ve been made aware that the case will be starting afresh, which means I have to give my evidence all over again. I’m ready to do it again because my silence would be selfish.”

FACING REALITIES

It is an awkward and difficult position. “I know it’s going to be draining and strenuous for me but I’m ready. In fact, I’d testify a hundred times to ensure that perpetrators are brought to book. “I also understand that the system wasn’t anticipating this. I know that it’s probably going to be much harder this time around, with pressure and public scrutiny but I won’t back down. I want people to be accountable for their actions.”

The whole ordeal has left her with permanent scars. “I haven’t healed because it (abuse) still haunts me. I’m still bitter, angry and I regret it. I still experience all those dirty feelings that you’d get after going through such pain. Its’ a painful past which I cannot change but live with.” But she won’t let the pain break her.

“I appreciate that the experience has given me strength. I’ve managed to turn my anger into positive energy. I’ve learned to look at it with gratitude because without that experience I wouldn’t have become the person I am today. I wouldn’t have the right mes­sage for other victims out there.”

PUBLIC SCRUTINY

When she first stepped into the witness stand, thousands of women and men lauded her for her strength and poise. But even with all that support, she was still victimized, Cheryl says.

“I feel victimized all the time. I’ve fallen into public scrutiny and there seems to be a lack of understanding around the issue of abuse.

I’ve been judged by people who don’t even know my story, people who feel that they can express an opinion about me. From time to time I’ve had to defend and protect my character.

“In my opinion, the perpetrator should be the one defending his char­acter but that’s not the case,” she says. “I’ve been traumatized but I didn’t allow that to define and determine my destination.” She just wants justice to be served.

“Being on the witness stand is never easy but I’m sacrificing myself to see that justice is done.”

“At this stage it’s not just about me. It’s about the victims who suffer in silence. It’s about us taking back our power from the perpetrators. It’s about justice being served. I understand that I have become the voice of many young women out there.”

FINDING PEACE

She’s not sure if she will ever heal from the experience of both the alleged abuse and the trial. “There are just too many reminders around me.

For example, as women we are raped and killed almost every day. I guess it’s a journey that I must travel steadily and with caution. I know it’s going to take time. “Each day I go to court I’ll have to relive it.

I’m forced to emotionally and mentally go back there as I have to recall each and every single detail of the incident.” She’s pained that violence against women and children is nothing new. That it’s been happening for so long. “I believe that best thing we can do as women is to fight this head on.

We need to live without fear and oppose gender-based violence. One day this will be over, but I’d like to be remembered as someone who fought with resilience, selflessly. “I’d like to be remembered as some­one who was beaten and abused but God showed up for me and other victims.

“I’d like to look back on my life and be proud of the sacrifices I’ve made for my country and other women. “Even if I don’t get the results that I’m hoping for, I’d be at peace knowing that I tried my best. Knowing that I fought until there was no fight left in me.”