It seems like every week we hear about another child who has vanished, seemingly without a trace. Their names are repeated in news bulletins, and their faces splashed across newspapers and social media. But as the media circus moves on, so does our attention. What happens to the children who vanish from their homes? How many are found? How do their parents deal with their loss? What do police do when they get the call that a child has disappeared? How can you protect your children? And, if you turn around and your child is gone, what do you do? In this special EWN feature, we examine the issue of missing children, focusing specifically on the Western Cape.
Between January 2014 and March 2015, 118 children were reported missing. Of those, 96 were found alive and two were found dead. That leaves 20 Western Cape families with no idea where their kids are.
No closure. No peace. For these families, the torture is intolerable. They are part of an unenviable club of parents whose children have vanished without a trace.
The two most recent missing child cases to make headlines in the Western Cape were those of Sasha-Lee November and Bukho Mlityalwa. Six-year-old Sasha-Lee went missing while playing near her home in Hanover Park one Sunday afternoon. The police and community immediately mobilised and hit the streets and surrounding areas for days, looking for any trace of the little girl. She has yet to be found. While the search for Sasha-Lee continued, another small child vanished. Four-year-old Bukho Mlityalwa was last seen playing at a park near his house. The child’s mother, Nokubonga, made a heart-wrenching plea for his return. But little Bukho was not seen alive again. His body was found in a dam in Kraaifontein. An autopsy revealed no signs of assault.
“She has a sister. When I phone her she asks me ‘mama, did you get Simamkele?’ I say no. So I don’t even like to phone.”Nosipho Wana
Among the small government houses and dusty streets of Delft lived a teenage girl with big dreams. Lelethu Xabakashe’s schoolbooks paint a picture of a dedicated learner. All of this came to an abrupt halt when the 17-year-old was violently abducted right outside her front door. She hasn’t been seen since. From what her family can piece together, Lelethu managed to get away from her abductors for long enough to scream for help and bang on a neighbour’s door. But the shocked man was too scared to intervene and watched as the abductor carried the teen away. Her older sister speaks to us, sitting next to her mother, who is too devastated to speak. They are both tortured by unanswered questions. Where is Lelethu? Is she eating? Is she warm enough? Who took her and why?
Another little girl who loves school is 13-year-old Simamkele Wana. The little girl’s mother died and Simamkele was living with her aunt in Gugulethu when she disappeared. She went missing just days before Christmas in 2014. Her aunt smiles as she tells us about Simamkele’s obsession with dogs and how she preferred the company of the neighbourhood mutts to that of other friends. Four months after the little girl's disappearance, the pain is still very fresh for Nosipho Wana. She regards Simamkele as her own daughter and is tormented by not knowing whether the child is dead or alive. She has kept all her clothes and school books in the hope that Simamkele will be found.
“The grandchildren always ask when looking at photos ‘where is Shaskia’?”
“I will never give up… until I see something that tells me ok, it’s no more.”
Some areas seem to come up more often when it comes to missing children. Volunteer group The Pink Ladies says Mitchells Plain and Kraaifontein are two major hotspots. It remains rare though, that two children from different families go missing from the very same street. That’s exactly what happened in the case of Kauthar Bobbs and Shaskia Michaels. Kauthar went missing in 2012 as she played in a park near her Tafelsig home. She was just five years old at the time. No trace of her has ever been found. Her mother, Lameez Bobbs, refuses to give up hope. She believes Kauthar is alive and that they will be reunited. Shaskia went missing just over a year after Kauthar. In a cruel coincidence, Shaskia’s grandparents live right next door to the Bobbs family. Shaskia’s mother is broken. She has had difficulty coping with what has happened and could not bring herself to talk to us. But the little girl’s grandmother, Roslyn Faroa, told EWN the hardest part is when her other grandchildren look at Shaskia’s pictures and ask where she is.
“I actually do worry sometimes. Especially when it’s cold”Angerethia Cupido
But not all children reported missing have been snatched. According to Missing Children SA, minors leaving home of their own accord accounted for 51% of cases between 2013 and 2014. Fifteen-year-old Clarence Cupido is believed to be one such child. His mother died when he was very young and the boy wound up in foster care. One day, out of the blue, Clarence’s older brother got a call from social services, asking him whether he and his wife could take the boy in. Sitting in their modest home in the crime-ridden suburb of Wesbank, his brother’s wife, Angerethia Cupido, tells us Clarence had tried to run away before. “He said it was [because of] me. I was the problem – I was too strict with him.” She describes briefly seeing him once in Cape Town, but being unable to persuade him to return home. They don’t know where he is from day to day, but hope that he is safe and not living rough on the streets.
2013-2014: According to Missing Children SA 51% of cases nationally were runaways.
“I think the saddest part was when we actually found somebody’s child, so many times I asked God ‘I have found so much when is it my turn?"Michelle Ohlsson
One of the best known, and most-repeated, names of the Western Cape’s missing children is Matthew Ohlsson. He was nine-years old when he went missing in 1997. He had stepped outside of his family home to bring in a dustbin, and disappeared just metres away from where his mum and sister were watching television. He’s never been seen again. His mother, Michelle, talks freely of her grief. For her, the torture has been prolonged, with Matthew’s case reaching something close to iconic status in the Western Cape. Over the years, there have been reported sightings of the boy as well as leads on his whereabouts. Every time, hope would rise in Michelle, and every time that hope was dashed. Two years after Matthew disappeared, she started Concerned Parents of Missing Children to assist other grief-stricken families. The organisation worked on 400 cases, and it claims to have solved some 90%. Michelle believes many of the missing children are trafficked for labour or sex work. She tells us she will not have closure as long as the case remains unresolved in one way or another.
There could be nothing more terrifying for a parent than to realise their child has gone missing. Dessie Rechner is the head of The Pink Ladies volunteer group, which works with police to find missing people – mostly children. She says there are some dangerous myths around missing children, including that parents should wait 24 hours before contacting police. In fact, she says, parents or guardians should contact their local SAPS branch the minute they realise a child is missing. Rechner says it’s important to insist on help, and on having a Form 55 filled out. That’s the official document needed to register a child as missing. After the Form 55 is completed, police usually set up a Joint Operating Committee (JOC). It decides on where to deploy resources and assigns officers to various vital tasks. They will perform ground searches, starting in the area where the child went missing. It’s usually at that stage that police call in NGO and volunteer groups like The Pink Ladies or Missing Children SA. As soon as it’s been reported to police, it’s advisable for parents to register their children on one of the many websites and directories of missing children. Community liaison officers at the SAPS can help with that. Parents whose children have gone missing should restrict access to their homes, as police could find valuable evidence there. The better the description of the child, the more police will have to work on, so parents should provide details about the clothing the child was wearing when they went missing, as well as all distinguishing characteristics like scars, birthmarks and even particular mannerisms that could help identify the child.
The scary stories, the depressing statistics and the seemingly constant threat to children can be deeply disempowering for parents. But there are some simple tips that the police and NGOs agree on to keep your kids safe.
Make sure your children are aware of their neighbourhood
Set geographical boundaries past which they are not allowed to roam. Teach them to take the same route to places they regularly visit – for instance, a park, or the local shop. That way, if they do go missing, you will know where to start looking. Make sure they know all of the safe havens in the neighbourhood – for instance, the local police station or a clinic, so that if they are ever in trouble, or under threat, they have somewhere to seek refuge.
Make it a rule that your children are not allowed to go anywhere without asking permission from you first. Make sure you know their friends and have up-to-date contact details for them.
Empower your child
Teach your child their own name and address, as well as your name and your telephone number. Teach them about the ‘buddy system’ and insist that they do not venture out without at least one friend accompanying them. Teach them to trust their instincts and to say ‘no’ if they feel uncomfortable in a situation. Practise safety skills with your child and rehearse what they should do in a dangerous situation. That way, the behaviour becomes second nature to them. Work out a family safe word, and tell your child that they should only accompany unknown adults who can give them the correct safe word.
Know what to do in the event that your child does go missing. Most importantly, do not delay in reporting the matter to the police. The most recent photograph of the child will assist the search or investigation, and to this end SAPS recommends that you keep updated pictures of your children. Know where their medical records are located and consider keeping DNA samples on hand. The police will expect the parent or guardian to provide a clear description of what the child was wearing at the time of disappearance and any distinctive features or marks on the child need to be mentioned to the police.
Statistics reveal that most children who are reported missing are eventually found alive. Most of these stories are never reported, but some are so unusual that they grab the public’s attention. One such stunning story was that of Zephany Nurse who was snatched as a newborn from a hospital maternity ward. Years later, in an incredible coincidence, her younger sister started at the school where Zephany was a learner.
Their resemblance was remarkable enough for all their friends to notice. Zephany’s sister went home and told her parents about the older girl who looked just like her. After a meeting with Zephany, her biological father was certain that this was indeed his daughter kidnapped almost 18 years before. He contacted the police and Zephany’s true identity was confirmed.
Another mother whose child was snatched from Groote Schuur Hospital did not have to wait that long to be reunited with her baby. Baxolile Sem-Sem was just 12 days old when he was taken from a crib beside his mother’s bed. Police mobilised immediately and tracked down a 24-year-old woman, who had allegedly taken little Baxolile. The infant was unharmed and was returned to his mother. She spoke to EWN, telling us in isiXhosa that she was half crazed with fear in the days that he was missing. “Even now after I found him, I still think about the emotion at the time and it’s still difficult, but I’m glad that he was found.”
“Even now after I found him, I still think about the emotion at the time and it’s still difficult, but I’m glad that he was found.”Nomveliso Sem-Sem
Twelve-year -old Nicole Van Wyk disappeared from close to her Kraaifontein home in March 2015. She vanished without a trace, but was eventually tracked down by police and returned to her mother, safe and sound. Her mother holds her closer these days, and has a message to all the parents out there whose children are still missing – don’t give up.
Shamiela Fisher / Aletta Gardner / Thomas Holder / Charlotte Kilbane
Amanda Moore / Monique Mortlock / Siyabonga Sesant