Imibuzo Season 1 episode 4 recap: The cult of Pastor Timothy Omotoso

By Gen Terblanche30 May 2023

Imibuzo Season 1 episode 4 recap: The cult of Pastor Timothy Omotoso

On 20 April 2017 sensational footage hits the news and social media, showing police and officers from the Hawks unit swooping down on Chief Dawid Stuurman International Airport in Gqeberha to arrest Pastor Timothy Oluseun Omotoso of the Jesus Dominion International Church, and hustling him out of the women’s bathroom where he’d fled to hide. The state has since brought 97 charges of rape, human trafficking and racketeering against Timothy Omotoso and his two co-accused, Lusanda Sulani and Zukiswa Sitho. Timothy Omotoso has been behind bars for six years now. His ongoing trial has been postponed until 7 August 2023, and a new prosecution team has been appointed from the National Prosecuting Authority. 

The Timothy Omotoso case isn’t just a sensation because of the abuse of trust that the pastor stands accused of, but because of what it exposed about the second violation of rape and abuse victims by both the legal system and the public. When early portions of the trial were televised in October 2018, key witness Cheryl Zondi received death threats, and as the trial continued, Omotoso’s supporters accused young witnesses of being “manipulative” when they cried on the stand under brutally insensitive cross examination from Omotoso’s legal team.  

Now streaming on Showmax, South African true crime series Imibuzo takes you inside the stories of crimes that rocked the nation. In episode 4, Imibuzo features interviews with one of the pastor’s accusers, Nozipho Chiliza, along with National Children and Violence Trust chairperson Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva (the former chairperson of the CRL Rights Commission), gender activist Pam “Maroh” Mabini, and journalists covering the story, including Jayed Paulse of the SABC, freelance reporter Nosiphiwo Manona, and Luvuyo Mehlwana of the Daily Sun. 

Recap: What happened in Imibuzo episode 1 

Recap: What happened in Imibuzo episode 2 

Recap: What happened in Imibuzo episode 3 

Watch the trailer for Imibuzo 

Pastor Timothy Omotoso: Abuse by invitation only 

According to Jayed, Jesus Dominion International Church didn’t just fling open its doors to the public, it had a reputation for being exclusive. Membership was by invitation only. “I think Pastor Tim Omotoso wanted it that way, because of obviously the alleged atrocities that were occurring within the church. They wanted to contain what was happening,” she says. Jayed states that church leader Pastor Omotoso was even more exclusive when it came to selecting his dancers and singers. “Zukiswa Sitho and Lusanda Zolani, being his hench ladies, could not just bring anyone to him. They would have to follow a meticulous criteria, a meticulous list that fits his description of his perfect women: light-skinned, beautiful and an hourglass figure,” says Jayed. 

SABC reporter Jayed Paulse in Imibuzo episode 4 on Showmax
“They would have to follow a meticulous criteria, a meticulous list that fits his description of his perfect women: light-skinned, beautiful and an hourglass figure,” says reporter Jayed Paulse

Dressed and groomed for “Daddy” 

“When the pastor preached, he used to mention that he had been sent to help young girls in South Africa,” says Nozipho Chiliza, who became a member of the church’s dance group after learning about them from a former roommate. “I knew that the pastor stayed in uMhlanga. One night, there was a night vigil. As we were about to walk out, he just pointed at me and said, ‘Can you please come to uMhlanga next week?’ I was like, ‘Gosh, me?’ People were screaming and excited for me.”

Nozipho’s group leader told her to pack a bag and the next week, she went to the Jesus Dominion International Church’s Durban mission house in uMhlanga, unaware that she was walking into a trap.  

Jayed fills in some of the background of what Nazipho encountered. “Allegedly, once you were a part of the church, he would often give the girls – and I’m talking about girls as young as 14 years of age – money. He would give them accommodation. This is where they stayed with him in the house in uMhlanga. And there you would only wear the outfits and the clothing that you purchased with the money that he gave you to gatherings,” she explains. That clothing was not church appropriate.  

Nozipho recalls, “There were a lot of girls in one room and we’d sleep on sponges on the floor. In the morning when we woke up, we’d have to go and greet the pastor in his bedroom. I had short pyjamas. And most of the other girls had similar pyjamas, so as I was putting on my gown, they told me not to. They insisted that I go in my short pyjamas. That’s the first thing that shocked me. I thought we’d greet and leave. I asked myself what the others were doing in there for so long,” says Nozipho. “There was a bit of a queue inside the bedroom. When I got inside, he was laying on his bed and then he would give you a hug, and spank you maybe or ask you to dance for him. ‘Funny’ things like that,” Nozipho says. 

Midnight molestation 

The next night, Nozipho would be woken up between midnight and 1 am for a “special” meeting with Omotoso. “I’d see it happen during other nights, I just didn’t understand,” says Nozipho. Again, she was not allowed to put on her dressing gown. She was led into Omotoso’s room, where he was lying in bed, then taken to go wash her hands in the bathroom, before being led back to the bed by her (female) group leader, and told to massage Omotoso’s feet.  

“The other girl (her group leader) was massaging his entire body. Then he said thank you and mentioned the group leader’s name. So she stood up and walked out of the room. I was left alone, and I didn’t know what was happening. He noticed that I was nervous, and he told me to relax and continue massaging him … his entire body and not just his feet. I tried to go higher up and massage him. He was covered in a duvet cover and he suddenly just took it off, only to find that he was naked,” Nozipho reveals. “I got scared and froze. I was afraid to even touch him.” 

Young performer Nozipho Chiliza in Imibuzo episode 4 on Showmax
“I just remember him praying and asking God to forgive us for the sins we were about to commit,” says Nozipho Chiliza, a talented young performer who was targeted for abuse.

Adding to her confusion, she reveals, “He just took the Bible and placed it on my head. I just remember him praying and asking God to forgive us for the sins we were about to commit,” recalls Nozipho. “Thereafter, he asked me to suck him. I just jumped out of bed, stood by the side and told him I wasn’t going to be able to do it. Then I left the room. When I got back, I found the leader seated in my room. She asked me why I came back so early. I just kept quiet and slept on my sponge,” she says. The incident alienated Nozipho from the church and she soon stopped attending.. 

Jayed adds that the abuse that the dance and choir girls and young women suffered wasn’t just sexual. “You had to stay inside the house. If you were a part of Grace Galaxy, you had to rehearse continuously, only receiving a meal once a day. We heard the horrific testimony of the first witness, Cheryl Zondi, saying that sometimes she never ate at all.” But for some though, even this was better than life at home.

Jayed explains, “Many of them came from disadvantaged backgrounds, so to stay in a house with your fellow female congregants, and to worship the Messiah and possibly have a career in singing, and possibly have wealth and prosperity, and the blessings of the man they called ‘Daddy’, that was enough for them, irrespective of what was happening inside the house.” 

A cult in faith’s clothing 

Nonetheless, there were whispers. “We had several complaints from ordinary citizens,”says Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva. “They came to say there was something fishy going on in that church. The girls who were in Omotoso’s house, who were there to sing and who then allegedly got violated were very young. One of them arrived there at 14 years of age.” 

Nosiphiwo Manona adds, “The information was mostly about alleged sexual offences. I choose to call it a cult because I’ve been to churches, and I’ve never seen a church that works as the allegations are suggesting that it works.” 

Pam “Maroh” Mabini agrees “We need to understand that we’re dealing with a cult here. When someone controls you and tells you what to wear, and does not want you to be close to your family, and not want you to be friends with whomever, they’re isolating them from the people that they love. When they see that these people are capable of opening your eyes, they distance you from those people.” 

Bouncers at the doors of heaven 

As the whispers of abuse got louder, Jayed was determined to investigate, and she took a cameraman along with her. “I knew you couldn’t just walk in. So when we went there, we were very smartly dressed. I believe that they only let us through because of the aesthetic. Because of the way we were dressed. Because of the way we spoke. Money talks and they allowed us to go through,” she says. 

Even then it wasn’t easy. “When we got there, there were bouncers at the front door. And they questioned where you’re from. And we said we’d like to join the church. They said, ‘Okay, if you want to join the church then you need to speak to Pastor Timothy Omotoso or one of his security guards afterward. Because everywhere that Timothy Omotoso went, he was flanked by very boisterous big security guards,” Jayed reveals. Fortunately, her colleague was able to win over the bouncers by telling them things like “We want to come and see Daddy. We also need blessings and healing so let us come through.”  

What Jayed saw was a worship directed not at the divine, but at the pastor who had usurped its place. “They cheered for Omotoso. They cried for Omotoso. They fell at his feet. They honestly believed that Omotoso was their Messiah. And that anything and everything that they wanted. He was a direct link to God and he would provide them with anything and everything that they needed,” Jayed reports.  

Gender Activist Pam “Maroh” Mabini in Imibuzo episode 4 on Showmax
“There’s a lot of these so-called pastors that are taking advantage of our people,” says gender activist Pam “Maroh” Mabini.

“There’s a lot of these so-called pastors that are taking advantage of our people,” adds Pam “Maroh” Mabini. “I believe that these people saw a gap where they could make money and extort our people in a church way, a mafia kind of style. I will call it like that.” 

Fleeing the Hawks 

While Pastor Omotoso was preying on the faithful across the country, not just in KZN, the Hawks were circling as journalists and activists called for Timothy’s Omotoso’s arrest (the recording of the arrest plays during this episode of Imibuzo).

“The Hawks had been following Timothy Omotoso across the country. He evaded arrest in Bloemfontein and they were trying to pin him down. But Omotoso had people in high-ranking places, and it was very difficult for the Hawks to arrest him. Every time they got a bit closer, he was whisked away,” says Jayed.  

Daily Sun Reporter Luvuyo Mehlwana in Imibuzo episode 4 on Showmax
“There were some members of the Hawks who also happened to be members of the church,” says reporter Luvuyo Mehlwana.

Luvuyo Mehlwana of the Daily Sun believes that part of the issue was that Omotoso had fans within the Hawks itself. “Apparently, Timothy Omotoso was supposed to be arrested during the 2017 Easter holidays. Unfortunately, they couldn’t arrest him then because there were some members of the Hawks who also happened to be members of the church. They are the ones who leaked the information that there are members of the Hawks that are present in the crusade, who are here to arrest ‘Daddy’,” Luvuyo reveals.  

Silencing the victims 

Anyone tempted to ask why rape victims don’t come forward – or those who think that people withdraw charges of rape because they were lying or exaggerating – should study the trial of Pastor Timothy Omotoso. 

Advocacy groups did their best to help support key witnesses in the trial. “I’ve been there assisting them,” says Pam “Maroh” Mabini. “I’ve managed to get help for some of the victims, in terms of professional help for them to cope. And I was there daily, attending cases to support the victims and their families.” But she and her group were fighting a system that seemed out to destroy not the perpetrator, but his victims.   

Jayed adds, “The #MeToo movement was integral in fighting for the rights of the women, and also calling for more victims to come out, because at the time, we had only 30 women on the indictment that possibly would give evidence in the Timothy Omotoso trial. We had so many big organisations backing them and it was all over the media. And the media was covering the trial live. Why wouldn’t anyone want to give their voice if they were being abused?” she asks. “Just speaking to the state prosecutors, speaking to the Hawks, we know that there are so many more women.” 

The answer was glaringly clear. “Many were also being victimised. After Cheryl Zondi took the stand, many of the witnesses also started backtracking,” Jayed explains. “They didn’t want to come and give evidence in court. Many of them were saying because their family members were still a part of the church. The state prosecutor told the judge and spoke about the intimidation within the church that the witnesses were receiving, that the victims themselves were going through. This is why we saw so many of the women falling back and not testifying in this trial,” Jayed explains.  

Investigative Journalist Nosiphiwo Manona inn Imibuzo episode 4 on Showmax
“I walked away with serious life threats. I had to get bodyguards. An army of bodyguards, not one or two,” says former CRL Rights Commission chair Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva.

Even those supporting the witnesses were victimised. “The work of the CRL Rights Commission was supposed to be very peaceful and calm. I went in thinking, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen here?’ But I walked away with serious life threats,” reveals Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva. “I had to get bodyguards. An army of bodyguards, not one or two.” 

To Thoko there is a clear line where the right to practise our faith ends, and where religious leaders become criminals. “We’re all accountable for what we do in the practice of our culture, in the practice, especially of our religion. You don’t have a right to abuse people all in the name of culture or in the name of religion,” she insists.

About Imibuzo 

Now streaming on Showmax, Imibuzo is a true-crime documentary anthology that will answer your lingering questions about some of South Africa’s biggest news stories from the last decade. 

New episodes will drop every Monday until 10 July 2023. Episode give will cover the Phumeza Pepeta story, with episode six covering Tshepang Pitse and Flavio Hlabangwe.  

Imibuzo is being produced by POP24, part of Media24, who made the reality series This Body Works For Me, which topped the Showmax Top 20 and Twitter trends charts. POP24 also co-produced the SAFTA-nominated true crime anthology Huisgenoot: Ware Lewensdramas

Steinheist: The biggest corporate scandal in Mzansi's history! 

Stella Murders: From the makers of Devilsdorp 

Never miss a beat