The Nedbank Running Club athlete speaks about being raped, her road to recovery and how she supports others, and the impact of delivering talks to convicted rapists.
Time truly is a healer. At least for Ntombesintu Mfunzi, 39, it is. Four years after a rape ordeal that could easily have ended with her dead, Mfunzi has not only got over the experience but is a source of hope for other rape survivors.
"It's different now that I am healed," says the road runner from the Eastern Cape. "In the past, the period of 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence used to leave me moping and tearful. Actually, the month of November used to be very tough for me."
And rightfully so, for it was on 12 November 2016 - 13 days before the start of 16 Days of Activism - that Mfunzi was raped en route to a race in Ntsimbakazi village in Tsolo, Eastern Cape. The man, who it later turned out was a serial rapist and killer, pretended to be a good Samaritan by offering to help Mfunzi find her way again after the runner got lost on a misty Friday afternoon.
Instead, he lured her into the bushes and hit Mfunzi with a hammer before raping her. The man told Mfunzi, "Sister, I don't know why but I just cannot get myself to kill you. I feel pity for you," and allowed her to leave. He is now serving 22 years in jail.
"I really believe God saved me that day," says Mfunzi. "And I believe He did so for a reason. He wanted me to be a source of hope for other survivors."
In her book Yoyisa (Overcome), Mfuzi explains how she got over her ordeal to win the Mirtha Payisa Run for Diabetes. "As I lay in bed on that fateful November Saturday night in 2016, winning that race a third time was in jeopardy. Yes, the counsellors at the hospital had advised me to run despite what had happened to me. The doctor had given me tablets that he felt would help ease the pain on my back.
"But was I in shape - both mentally and physically - to race, let alone win a half marathon (21.1km)? For the previous two editions, I was driven by my desire to uplift the community and inspire them to a healthy lifestyle. This time around, did I have any motivation? While in bed, after crying the whole night without getting any sleep, I told myself that 'the devil is a liar; I am going to run and I will defend my title'."
Mfuzi has since found herself playing the role of "therapist and psychologist" for women who have been raped, who get in touch with her on Facebook.
"Because I have openly shared my rape ordeal on social media, there are many people who have confided in me about their own experiences. Some said I was the first person they were telling about their having been raped because they believed I would empathise with them. I am not a trained psychologist, but all I do is share with them how I have dealt with my situation."
And how did the Nedbank Running Club athlete with a top-10 finish at the Two Oceans Marathon, who has represented South Africa at many international events, including the World 50km Championships, deal with what happened to her?
"For two years I went to therapy, and there were times when I even had to take medication for depression. At first, I was in denial about what had happened. It took me long before I could open up to the therapist. I used to mope about, crying every day, feeling sorry for myself and not going to training. When I was at my lowest after the rape, my coach always encouraged me to keep running and I can safely say that helped keep me alive."
It is for this reason that Mfunzi advises survivors not to give up on life. "You must have something in your life that you can hold on to, something to live for. For me, it was my running. But for some it could be a child, a mother, a job... anything. You will draw strength from not wanting to leave that thing behind. Hard as it might be, do not sit at home crying and feeling sorry for yourself because that only serves to aggravate your situation.
"I am preaching to women that they need to always remember that they did not ask for it. I tell them that life goes on even after rape, and that being raped should not be a death sentence."
Speaking to rapists
She knows, though, that it is easier said than done. "Being raped makes you feel worthless, because after that ordeal the only thing you have on your mind is that you're nothing. You look at yourself in the mirror and hate what you see because the rapist has made you feel negative about yourself.
"It is even harder to get back into a relationship with a man after you have been through this. It takes a lot to fight that negativity, but you have to tell yourself that, 'I can rise above this. Yes, I've been raped, but nothing of myself was killed.' That is what I did. I chose to be a victor and not a victim."
Mfunzi struggled to date afterwards, fearing that the man who raped her would tell her suitor about what had happened and that they would be put off because they would think she was "worthless". That was before her rapist was sentenced. She eventually started dating again.
A correctional services employee in Port Elizabeth, Mfunzi has spoken at prisons about her experiences, where she felt she made some positive impact.
"I have chosen to mainly address juveniles who are in for rape, because I believe they can still be redeemed. And there have been some positives out of the talks, because at one of them a young man stood up and spoke of how he had raped his cousin, and expressed his remorse and thanked me for making him realise just how bad his actions were."
Mfunzi attends events during the 16 Days campaign, where she gives formal and informal talks. But she could not do so in 2020 because of the restrictions brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
"The lockdown has made it hard for me because, unlike last year , there have not been any events for us. Normally, I would be going to marches, races or other events and talking about my experience to encourage other survivors."
That, though, has not stopped her from doing her bit to help raise awareness about the scourge of gender-based violence. Mfunzi has been posting messages of encouragement for survivors on her social media platforms.
"That's all we can do right now. We must keep talking about this and making perpetrators aware of the damage their actions leave on us. Awareness is key. And for the survivors, it is important that they are always reminded that rape is not a death sentence."
She has come a long way since that November day when she could so easily have died, and is writing a book about her rape and its aftermath.
"I'll always remember November because of what happened. But it does not make me sad like it used to. Now, it is a time of celebration for me. I celebrate that I am still alive because that man almost killed me that day. Now, when it is November and these 16 Days of Activism come along, I just want to do positive things. I just want to be out there sharing my story and encouraging other survivors that they must be victors and not victims."