[FEATURE] Remembering Courtney Pieters, one year on
It’s been a year since the rape and murder of three-year-old Courtney Pieters shook the nation. In the wake of the murder, a number of promises were made to the community of Elsies River. EWN returns to find out whether they were fulfilled.
Three-year-old Courtney Pieters was her mother’s “meisie pop”, an energetic child who loved to play outside with her friends and siblings.
“I always gave her the name ‘Meisie pop’. I’d say ‘Meisie pop!’, then she’d laugh.”
WATCH: Courtney Pieters, one year on
Juanita Pieters fondly remembers how her youngest daughter would greet her in the evenings when she’d return home from work: “She would stand at the top of the stairs and shout ‘Mommy!’ every evening… so happy to see me.”
She and Courtney were more than just mother and daughter.
“Courtney and I were friends. When everyone was gone during the day and the two of us were alone… That’s why I miss her a lot, because she was my friend. She kept me busy whole day.”
It’s been a full year since Courtney’s murder, but her mother’s pain remains as acute as the day she heard her little girl was dead.
“If only I can hold her one more time, I’d be so happy. But that won’t happen again...we’ll meet each other again one day...”
On 4 May last year, Pieters began a frantic search for her daughter.
Courtney had disappeared from her Pluto Street home in Elsies River, setting in motion events that would change her family’s lives forever. Ten days later, the little girl’s body was found in a field in an industrial area near her home. She had been raped and murdered.
The story of the little girl’s rape and murder dominated the Western Cape media, becoming a rallying point across the nation.
Amid the media attention, politicians descended on Elsies River, making various promises to the community: a house for a family in mourning, more boots on the ground, and an additional police station among them.
Then-president Jacob Zuma was one of the people who visited, spending time with Courtney’s mother, and making the promise of a new home for the family. His police minister at the time was Fikile Mbalula. He visited several times, promising to address the policing situation in the area once and for all.
FILE: Jacob Zuma addresses the media outside the home of the murdered three-year-old Courtney Pieters. Picture: Cindy Archillies/EWN
A year on, some of those promises have been kept. The community has received a mobile police station, which frees up police officers at the main station to deal with crime instead of administrative duties like affidavits.
The Pieters family also received a house in Delft, promised to them by Zuma.
But the Elsies River Police Station commander, Brigadier Sandile Sonjani, says the key to making a real dent in the crime rate in the area is personnel.
“We have not yet received the numbers we were promised. I should think that it is due to the high demand of human resources elsewhere and maybe also because Elsies River [as the provincial commissioner told me], we have reduced the level of crime very well with what we are having.”
There are currently about 210 officers stationed in the area, three-quarters of whom are operational. They serve a community of more than 100,000 residents. That means there are more than 636 residents for every operational SAPS member in the area.
Sonjani says they’ve received 12 additional police vehicles, boosting their fleet to 56 vehicles.
The brigadier is hopeful that current Police Minister Bheki Cele will deliver on the promises made by his predecessor.
“The area that needs further attention is the question of human resources. I’m hoping that the minister will make good on that side.”
Western Cape Community Safety MEC Dan Plato had himself promised to ensure his national government counterpart kept his promises but now, with the recent changing of the guard, that has been delayed. He says it’s one of the issues he has raised at national meetings with the minister and other MECs. However, Plato is still hopeful Cele is the right man for the job.
“Bheki Cele takes serious note of the issues in the communities and I think we have a national police minister we can walk a long way and I’m very hopeful about that. He seems like someone understanding of policing and understanding the real issues regarding policing in the Western Cape.”
Meanwhile, Cele says Elsies River is just one among many areas in the Western Cape in need of bolstered police resources.
“We are not only going to be picking only one [area], we are pulling resources. There will be definitely actual resources, both in personnel, finances, and any other equipment to work on the matters at hand.”
Elsies River community members are divided on whether policing has improved in the area since a year ago.
Resident Jacobus Steyn says there’s been a noticeable difference in policing: “It’s very quiet now. They [the police] operate here, I am very happy that they are doing their duty now like they're supposed to do.”
Another resident – and former neighbour of the Pieters family - Carmelita Thompson disagrees. She says she hasn’t seen a big difference in the way police operate in the area: “I didn’t see any changes of that but we as a community, we work together but I don’t think they [the police] give a [thought] to stand with the community here.”
Elsies River Community Policing Forum deputy chairperson Imran Mukaddam says the satellite station was well received when it was first handed over by Mbalula last year.
Mukaddam says the mobile unit is visible in the area: “It is at hotspots, it is occasionally even at the day hospital. It’s used for affidavits and for people to have access to the facilities that they can’t access at the police service centre.”
Elsies River CPF Deputy Chairperson Imraahn Mukaddam addresses the crowd outside Courtney Pieters' family home. Picture: Bertram Malgas/EWN
Courtney’s case also galvanised the SAPS into changing the way it handles missing persons matters.
At the time of Courtney’s disappearance, the officers who’d handled the initial missing persons report, and the investigation thereafter were rapped over the knuckles by Zuma for taking too long to start the search for her.
But Sonjani has maintained officers followed the correct procedure, and an internal investigation confirmed there had been no wrong-doing on their part: “In terms of our police officers, they are current in terms of knowing what to do because these are issues that we are discussing in every station lecture.”
Sonjani adds standing operational procedure for handling missing person cases, especially when a child is involved, was reviewed after this incident.
“Strict instructions were given that immediately, that case docket must be handed over to the detectives, whereby in the past it was not always the case where it is being investigated by the detectives. Now immediately, the national instruction and the standard operational procedure have now changed to say the detectives must take over the investigation.”
Outside units like the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Units, will also now take the lead operators on missing children cases.
FILE: Elsies River community members gather near the area where the body of three-year-old Courtney Pieters was found. Picture: Bertram Malgas/EWN.
Sonjani says a project spearheaded by NGO The Pink Ladies Missing Children’s Organisation also intensified in Elsies River in the wake of Courtney’s murder.
The monthly event gives parents a chance to register their children on a database at the police station, as Sonjani explains: “One of those is also the taking of fingerprints and storing them. So that we make sure we’ve got a database of our young ones for such an eventuality.”
The parents receive advice from police and they get to keep a one-page document containing the child’s personal information and a photo, which they can bring to the police station should their child ever go missing. Police can then use the information in the investigation.
Sonjani says people still believe the myth that they should wait 24 hours before reporting someone as missing.
“When any person goes missing, whether it is a child or an adult, there is no waiting period. Immediately when anyone finds that a child cannot be found they immediately have to inform the police so that a search party can begin. Because the police can only begin a search party once a report has been filed.”
Police hope these changes will make a difference – perhaps even save lives.
But the progress is cold comfort for Juanita Pieters. A year on, she is still broken by her youngest daughter’s murder.
She told EWN she wishes she could turn back time: “If I could go back and change everything, I would not have gone to work that day... if only I knew what would happen... I would not have gone to work... to this day I still ask myself why I did not stay at home.”
The Pieters’ boarder, Mortimer Saunders, was arrested the day after Courtney’s body was found.
Pieters says she never could’ve imagined that someone who’d lived under the same roof as them could be her child’s killer…
“He went everywhere, searching for Courtney... he even put his arm around my shoulder and said 'Don’t cry, we WILL find her.' Unscrupulous, that’s what he is.”
Saunders’ trial is set to start in the Western Cape High Court on Monday.
FILE: Community members protest outside the house of Courtney Pieters. Picture: Bertram Malgas/EWN
It’s a day that Pieters is dreading in many ways. She’s not sure whether she has the strength to attend the trial: “I told Courtney’s father, I don’t even feel I want to testify because I know I’m going to hear many things that’ll hurt me even more. Just to hear what he did, how he did it, those are things that’ll hurt. So I don’t know how I’ll handle it that day.”
Right now, she’s just trying to live with the pain of losing her “meisie pop”.
“I miss her so much... a lot of times I sit here on the couch... alone... when I miss her like this I just sit hear and cry... it’s not easy to talk about it.”
She says moving to Delft – with her husband, Aaron Fourie, and their three children – has helped a little, allowing the family to distance themselves from the Elsies River home that was so full of painful memories.
Pieters adds support from community members and friends have made it easier for her to adjust to life without Courtney, but she admits some days are painfully unbearable.
“To me it feels as if everything happened yesterday... it’s so fresh and so painful still...”
Pieters hopes the tragedy will serve as a reminder to other parents to be more vigilant around their children. She says the family now makes extra effort to ensure their other children are safe - following Courtney’s murder.
“I don’t want them out of my sight for long... I’m too scared... especially Adrian... he likes playing far away from home with his friends... but I keep an eye on him... I’m too scared after what happened to Courtney.”