The marathon sex trial of Rivers of Living Waters Church leader Bishop Bafana Stephen Zondo, is far from over, with the charismatic clergy is expected to present his defence this year on 10 mostly rape charges.
All of Zondo’s alleged seven victims have testified before the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria since the start of the trial towards the end of 2021.
The prosecution is expected to wrap up its evidence when the trial resumes on February 19. While it is not yet definitive that Zondo will take the witness stand in own defence, he is expected to do so.
Armed with one of the top criminal advocates in the country, Piet Pistorius, the court was on numerous occasions told that Zondo will testify that his alleged victims are all out to either extort money from him or that they blacken his name so that they could start their own church.
While the charismatic church leader claimed that he was before court on trumped-up charges, it seems as if his woes are continuing, as he appeared last month (December) in the Sebokeng regional Court on five more counts of rape.
In this unrelated case, some of his former flock claimed that they fell prey to him between 2013 and 2018. This trial was postponed to March 12.
Meanwhile, during his high court trial, Zondo did not provide an explanation of his plea of not guilty, but it was clear from the defence’s line of questioning of the witnesses that it believes the charges were trumped-up in a bid to extort money from the wealthy preacher.
Other complainants were accused by the defence of trying to sow division within Zondo’s highly lucrative church because they wanted to break away and start their own church. Pistorius said they wanted to cast Zondo in a bad light so that other members would join their new church.
All these allegations were denied by the complainants, as well as by the witnesses called by the prosecution.
The first woman who took the stand claimed she was 7-years old when she was raped by the then teenage Zondo.
According to her, she was afraid of him and had therefore carried her “dark secret” for nearly four decades before going public with it.
Another testified that in 2008 Zondo raped her at a hotel in Johannesburg.
According to the prosecution, he allegedly raped two more women in Evaton, where his church is based, in 2013 and 2015.
He is accused of raping another victim in 2016 and and other woman two years later.
In defending the accusations by the alleged child victim, Pistorius maintained she had seen an opportunity to make money.
He said Zondo denied ever touching her as a child. According to him, the woman and her family wanted R1 million from the bishop in return for withdrawing the charges, which she had only instituted against him last year.
But both the woman and her brother insisted that it was Zondo and “the uncles” who, during a family meeting, offered her a host of gifts in return for withdrawing the charges.
The woman, who broke down in tears several times while testifying, said all she wanted from Zondo was an apology.
Another alleged victim who described her role in the Rivers of Living Waters Church as a “prayer warrior” told the court that the day their leader – Zondo – “shoved his private part into her mouth, she could see he is not a man of God.”
The woman, who claimed that Zondo sexually violated her in December 2018 in an office at the church, was grilled by Pistorius about her allegations.
The elegant looking woman, who is highly qualified and is a state employee, broke down as she testified that while Zondo prayed for her in his office, she felt him shoving his private part into her mouth.
Pistorius told her that her allegations were simply not true. He accused her of being part of a group who did everything in their power to discredit Zondo, as they wanted to start a new church.
Pistorius said that according to Zondo, the group – in which the woman was said to be very active – tried to recruit members of his church to join the church they wanted to establish. Thus, Pistorius said, they did everything in their might to cast Zondo in a bad light.
The woman testified that Zondo gave her and other “prayer warriors” at his church a list of names of people who caused trouble, and who needed to be prayed for.
Pistorius said Zondo would deny this, but the woman said the list of names included his competitors in the church business, such as Shepherd Bushiri. Pistorius said he was very glad that she had mentioned this. “This is exactly what this case is about.”
Pistorius said the Rivers of Living Waters Church was very big – both within South Africa and outside its borders. At any given time there are at least 5 000 people attending a service on a Sunday.
Those attending the services included high-ranking politicians and celebrities, he said. A top politician, whose name he will not mention at this stage, frequented the church which Zondo heads.
“I put it to you that jealousy of the accused and his church is rife,” Pistorius said. He noted that Zondo managed to build a huge church from very small beginnings.
“Let me be very straight with you. You and others worked actively to bring division within the church, as you and others planned to start a new church. He (Zondo) not only has a large following, but the church is extremely well off, financially,” he said.
As in the cases of many of the other alleged victims, Pistorius questioned the woman as to why she only decided to open a case of sexual abuse against Zondo three years after the alleged incident.
She replied that she decided to speak out after she was summoned before the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities. The commission was investigating similar claims, and the woman said her name somehow came up.
“After I appeared before the commission, I realised I also need justice,” she explained.
One constant since the trial started in November 2021, was the following Zondo had from Church members – both inside and outside court. Those outside court have been singing and dancing since the start of his trial. These intensified on each break when Zondo approached them.
While they carried placards declaring “Hands off our bishop”, some even prayed in tongues.
The trial was, meanwhile, earmarked over the past few years by several delays, which included that at the start, Zondo changed his legal representation “due to a break in confidence”.
Many months were also spent on the court’s chief interpreter, who had to analyse several of the transcriptions, as the Zondo camp claimed that some of the evidence was not correctly translated.
It is, meanwhile, not known how long the trial will last this year, and how many witnesses Zondo will call to testify on his behalf. But it is clear that Zondo will do all in his power to clear his name, because if convicted, he faced a very long jail term.