Stop accusing rape survivors of lying

Prosecutor Nceba Ntelwa listens to Cheryl Zondi. /Werner Hills
Prosecutor Nceba Ntelwa listens to Cheryl Zondi. /Werner Hills

For rape survivors, retelling their story in court can be daunting and "horrifying" - and sometimes even worse than the experience itself.

So said one of the victims of former tennis champion Bob Hewitt, who was sentenced to six years in jail after being convicted of raping two teenagers and sexually assaulting another. The woman asked not to be named.

She said facing up to the perpetrator and his ruthless defence team was extremely difficult.

She explained: "It was pretty scary and horrifying. The defence became very nasty. I had [Hewitt] staring down at me. His wife was staring down at me. The trial is worse than the experience itself."

She said once she had established a pattern in the defence lawyer's questioning, she gained confidence. Hewitt, once a major name on the international professional tennis circuit, was convicted in March 2015 of raping two teenage tennis pupils and sexually assaulting a third in the 1980s and 1990s.

He was sentenced to six years in jail and started serving his sentence at an Eastern Cape prison in September 2016 after an unsuccessful appeal that went all the way to the Constitutional Court.

Despite being able to hold it together and standing up to the defence during cross examination, the trauma of being "exposed" was there, said Hewitt's victim.

She was speaking in the wake of public anger over how Cheryl Zondi, one of several women who were allegedly raped by Nigerian pastor Timothy Omotoso, was questioned in court during testimony this week.

Zondi has been hailed for her bravery and courage of facing up to defence lawyer Peter Daubermann during Omotoso's trial at the Port Elizabeth high court.

Daubermann, who is representing Omotoso, has since the start of cross-examination been accused of asking Zondi insensitive questions. Omotoso, 60, and his co-accused Lusanda Sulani, 36, and Zukiswa Sitho, 28, face a litany of charges ranging from sexual assault to rape and human trafficking.

"I can relate to her. My heart bleeds for her. Why do we have to prove that we are not lying?" asked Hewitt's victim.

"As much as I held it together, the experience was traumatic. The attorney kept on saying I consented. This business of us having to prove we are not lying has to stop.

"The trauma does not just end inside the courtroom. I was told by people outside court that I liked what happened to me. You can't come back from that."

This is a similar experience to what is happening in the Omotoso case, where the pastor's vocal supporters have been present inside and outside court.

She urged victims of rape due to testify in court to stick to their story - even if they are accused of lying.

National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Luvuyo Mfaku said the victims were prepared for trial by the court preparation officers. "This programme rendered by court preparation officers empowers victims and witnesses to have the confidence to appear in court and give their best evidence, preventing secondary traumatisation and safeguarding their rights."

Court preparation officers, according to Mfaku, provided witnesses with tips before court, during court and post-trial. "Fears and concerns about testifying will be addressed with the aim to reduce secondary victimisation," Mfaku said.

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