The Crucifixion of Cheryl Zondi

Do you remember asking a woman who’d been raped at 14 how deeply her violator’s penis penetrated her vagina?  It turns out we’ve been asking such questions through the system that put Peter Daubermann, defense counsel for Pastor Timothy Omotoso, before Cheryl Zondi, one of the women who’s accused him of rape.

I wonder how many church sermons over this weekend highlighted the parallels between Zondi’s courthouse ordeal and the trial of Jesus.  The bible says blood was applied to the mercy seat covering the stones with the 10 Commandments, symbolising systemic bloodshed under the Old Covenant of recurring sacrifices.  Like a radiocontrasting agent under an X-ray’s penetrating gaze, blood highlights the fractures in our humanity. We have been at war against women since Eve, and just as her alleged offspring (“the Seed of the Woman”) had his humanity erased by the Sanhedrin, Zondi had hers attacked by Timothy Omotoso Ministries.  Just as Jesus stood trial before Pilate, knowing his death was a political necessity before he said anything, Zondi, too, is being effectively tried for being raped no matter what we tell ourselves about this being some kind of truth-finding exercise. Its failure to convict possibly 95% of rapists honours our choice to maintain male dominance; the frequency of sexual abuse in churches suggests such is the rule and not the exception.

Accused persons and convicted criminals have rights, and rightly so.  But we uphold those by trading them off for the victims’ right to bodily and psychological integrity.  Defence attorneys count on the victims’ Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to help undermine their credibility.  Our high-brow justifications for such methods insulates us from realising that our criminal system (the omission of “justice” is deliberate) is the institutionalisation of our unsurpassable hatred of half the human race, where sexual abuse cases are concerned.  This is an Old Testament sacrifice system. Defence attorneys like Daubermann will say they’re “doing their jobs” but that’s a Nuremberg Excuse we’d expect apartheid-era soldiers to tell the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about their crimes against humanity.    

Sheena St Clair Jonker is a lawyer who founded Access to Justice South Africa, a non-profit organisation that specialises in restorative justice.  She said the legal system as it exists is gendered:

“much of our law is based on the experience of … the white heterosexual man.  So for example in family matters a woman is rewarded for acting in traditionally ‘feminine’ ways and punished for acting in traditionally masculine ways.  In a custody suit, if she is a breadwinner, this may count against her.”

Jonker explained that power accrues to the privileged.  A privileged accused has a better chance of acquittal than an innocent accused who is less privileged.  When justice is a commodity, it’s irresponsible to assume that words like “reasonable”, “objective”, “rational”, “factual” and “truthful” aren’t coloured by their users’ unconscious alignment to established power.  How do courts adjust the interpretation of evidence to correct for bias? A very simple reason to develop alternative justice models — a reason to nonnegotiably force our political leaders to use their positions to bring about relief or be stripped of their power as they should have been long ago — is that courts are overloaded with other types of criminal cases as it is.

And no wonder: colonialism used churches to bless white men’s sexual and colonial conquests (the missionary is the military) while punishing sexual autonomy in anyone who wasn’t a straight white man (the personal is the political).  This is why rape victims’ sexual histories are used to undermine their moral right to make their own sexual decisions, lest they enjoy powers reserved for bodies closer to those who have the God-given right to weaponize sex. As I stressed in the book titled You Have To Be Gay To Know God, religion taboos homosexuality because it subscribes to a paradigm in which sex is a tool for male dominance over female bodies.  If you’re a gay, you’re damned; if you rape teenage girls, you’re ordained. It’s the rule, not the exception. If we think our judiciary is wholly immune to this colonial hangover — remember Helen Zille’s tweets — then why do rape trials work more like “kanga”-roo courts (#RememberKhwezi) that use the appearance of law to advance systemic injustice?

The courage to believe Zondi over the system is to partake of her innocence; believing the system over her is partaking of its guilt.  This is the imputation that theologians talk about; they just never apply the principle anywhere that’d risk their power to absolve the innocent from whatever sins the powerful have found them guilty of — like escaping slavery a few decades ago, despite Christ being sold for the price of a slave and despite his identification with “the least of these”, including those incarcerated by worldly injustice systems that pretend to want to jail rapists, but don’t.  

Whenever law and justice wandered from each other, the church has historically seized the opportunity to cheat on its stated commitment to justice by entering trysts with the law and with power.  People of sound conscience are starting to think Cheryl Zondi looks more Christ-like than the typical judge or priest. If you’re a person of faith and this doesn’t cause you to question your role in injustice, are you not beyond salvation?

Siya KhumaloComment