South Africa


South Africa’s missing children (Part Three): The ‘unreported’ – SA’s ghost children

South Africa’s missing children (Part Three): The ‘unreported’ – SA’s ghost children
Children who have run away from home or institutions, especially more than once, are often not reported missing, even though being a runaway makes children particularly vulnerable to trafficking.

While the government claims that there is no missing children problem in South Africa, statistics, such as they are, can only be valid if all missing children cases are recorded. But in a country where poverty, fear, mistrust of the police, cultural practices and even parent complicity result in cases going undisclosed, experts fear that missing children are significantly under-reported. It raises the question, how do you find children if no one knows they are missing?

Read Part One and Part Two

The second article of this four-part series on missing children highlighted the challenge of getting accurate statistics for how many missing children there are in South Africa. No updated SAPS statistics were available at the time of publishing.  However, 16,151 missing children have been reported over a twenty-year period, of whom an estimated 4,000 have never been found.  

This statistic is contingent on all missing children being reported though, which in South Africa, is unlikely.

In 2015, Angie Motaung of Bana Ba Kae, an NGO working with children in poor communities whose name means, “where are the children”, was quoted as saying that in Pretoria alone, “there could be as many as 1,000 children missing from homes”.  

It’s an unverifiable figure, but child protection NGOs indicate that missing children and attempted kidnappings aren’t uncommon, and that many missing children go unreported.  

Dr Marcel van der Watt, a former member of the Hawks with almost 20 years’ experience in human trafficking and organised crime, now from the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, says that the official stats are “arguably only a glimpse of the number of people missing” because some parents and caregivers are often reluctant to report a child missing.

He described the challenge of trying to get some parents to open a case so their child could be found. Many, he said, would rather “go to a local church and ask them to pray for the child’s return, or report the child missing to the Pink Ladies or Missing Children SA”. When told that those organisations could only assist them once they have a police reference or case number, many, distrustful, or fearful of being disbelieved or interrogated, still refuse.  

Bianca van Aswegan, National Co-ordinator of Missing Children SA confirms that parents often do not want to report a case to the police. She describes calls she has received about children who’ve been missing for decades, including a recent one where the child went missing in 2000, aged 12.  

The father confessed that they had never reported it to the police.  When she asked why, he couldn’t answer, finally saying, “I thought she would come back by herself”.  

Motaung reveals that some parents have too much else to worry about to report missing children, in particular those in their teens: “they will panic and run door to door when the child is young, but if they are teenagers and the parents feel they can care for themselves, they let it go.”

According to Van Aswegan, other parents choose to look for the child themselves with the help of their community and even on social media, a practice she cautions against because personal missing children posts often attract criminals, who lie about the child’s whereabouts to exploit the family or obtain money from them.  

Others choose to go to the sangoma instead of reporting to the police.

Nor is the fear always unfounded. Tsepiso* was finally persuaded to report her son Tumelo* missing in September 2021 after he disappeared in March 2020.  He was just 18 months old when his father, a local gangster in a Gauteng squatter camp, allegedly trafficked him to Mozambique, without a passport or his mother’s permission, after organising for the relative caring for Tumelo’s children to be wrongfully arrested.  

By the time she was released from prison, little Tumelo, who is HIV+ and has been on antiretrovirals from birth, was gone. 

Terrified of her boyfriend’s retribution and seeming police complicity in her relative’s wrongful arrest, Tsepiso chose not to report Tumelo missing.  But when she did, 18 months after her son’s disappearance, the station commander’s first response was to tell her she could be arrested for child abandonment. 

Older children are also seldom reported missing when parents or caregivers are complicit in a child’s disappearance. This is particularly true with runaways.  While authorities tend to only focus on “pull factors” with runaways, children running away for relationships or drugs, children often leave because of “push factors”, like abuse at home.  

Troublingly, abuse numbers have increased during lockdown. Childline shows a 47% increase in abuse cases reported between April 1st 2020 and 31st March 2021. In the same period, the Western Cape Missing Person’s Unit showed a fivefold increase in reported cases of abuse in foster care. Founder, Candice van der Rheede says that large numbers of children go missing when: “parents are on drugs, the father is being abusive, either hitting them or sexually abusing them.”

But children who have run away from home or institutions, especially more than once, are often not reported missing, even though being a runaway makes children particularly vulnerable to trafficking. It can also act as a cover for kidnapping. 

Tertia* was removed from home at six months after she was raped by her father. On her 13th birthday, she was separated from her siblings and moved to a new Child and Youth Care Centre. She didn’t settle well, bullied and mocked, she fell in with the wrong friends and then ran away. 

She and some friends, all aged 12 and 13, stayed at a pub for three months, drinking and taking drugs. Tertia says that when they returned, they were in trouble.  

Just months later, she was kidnapped from school. In court transcripts, she describes how she “felt hands around” her, she “could not speak” and “did not see a face”.  

She explains that her kidnappers were Nigerians. They gave her drugs. She was beaten. “They sold me”, she continued, “they did so with many girls.” After she had been sold for the first time, she said, “I met all the girls who were there, and then we all had to smoke and go out and work”.

Testimony indicates that she was sold multiple times between Nigerian traffickers, in one instance for R5,000.  

Tertia, who was visibly distressed while telling her story, explained that she knew that “girls who run away and talk to the police, would be killed.”  She lost three friends as a result.

At 15, after being beaten, she and a friend ran away and went to the police. They opened a docket, but Tertia said it disappeared because one of the policemen worked for the Nigerians.  

The policeman picked up Tertia and her friend, Tammy* and took them back to the man they were fleeing.  

Both girls were taken to a bush and asked whose idea it was to open the case.  The friends argued, but Tammy insisted on taking the blame, telling Tertia that she was trying to keep her safe.  

Three Nigerians made Tertia watch while they killed Tammy, cutting off her breasts, her arms, her legs and her head.  

Two other friends were killed in different ways.  

According to van der Watt, who testified during sentencing in 2018, despite Tertia’s testimony, which named up to 20 individuals, and the case being described in the court judgement as having, “unmasked the sordid and sleazy world of drug abuse, prostitution and exploitation”, only one trafficker was prosecuted, and numerous child and adult victims mentioned in court testimony are still unaccounted for.

There is no evidence that Tertia was ever reported missing after she was kidnapped.

Although families are often complicit or negligent, there are times when no one knows that a child is missing, or another child has to report them missing, and they are either too fearful to do so or aren’t taken seriously by the police.  

An informal survey of media reports involving child testimony indicates that children are often not believed, or their testimony disregarded by police. This is particularly true of unaccompanied migrant children and children from child-headed households. Many of these children are already made invisible through their undocumented status, making their disappearance even less noticeable to those in authority.

Parents who are undocumented or illegal immigrants are often especially fearful about reporting their children missing for fear of being targeted or deported. 

Poverty may also be a factor in many children going unreported. Tragically, some experts note that the South African economic circumstances are so dire, that sometimes families don’t report a child missing because it is “one less mouth to feed”.  

Anthropologist and child protection activist, Dr Dee Blackie concurs. She tells a story about Thandi*, a young woman she met during her master’s research. One of 12 children being raised by her granny, she told Blackie that she was fearful about how her gran would react when she discovered she was pregnant. So, she ran away.  

Thandi says that to her knowledge, she has never been reported missing.  Abandoned by the child’s father, she would have abandoned her baby after it was born had a social worker not intervened and helped her place the baby into the child protection system.

Abandonment, especially unsafe abandonment, is another way that parents can be complicit in their children going missing. Abandonment is currently unregulated, so there is no certainty that foundlings (abandoned babies who are found alive) will enter the child protection system.  

During Blackie’s studies, she encountered multiple stories of abandoned babies who were found alive and then “given” to a childless woman in the community, rather than taken to a Place of Safety or put into foster care. According to Blackie, even the SAPS are sometimes complicit, asking the people who report the abandoned child if they would like to “keep it”, and to sign an affidavit if they do.

Unless the abandoning mother changes her mind and risks arrest to find the child, no one would know that the child isn’t in the child protection system.

Baby Savers South Africa, which advocates for the legalisation of safe relinquishment to protect children from both unsafe abandonment and resultant death, or this type of illicit activity, have also identified several Facebook pages where pregnant women are “offering” their babies to families looking for children.   

While many of these families are ignorant of the legislated adoption process, illegal adoption removes all the protections given to adopted children, birth mothers and adoptive parents. It also provides opportunities for children to be sold, making its potential to facilitate baby trafficking worrying.  

Nor is this the only way that children are sold. In 2015, a 25-year-old KwaZulu-Natal mother was arrested for trying to sell her 19-month-old toddler on Gumtree and in June 2021, a Uitenhage couple and the mother of newborn twins were arrested after their mother sold them for R50 a day to fuel her drug habit. In the Western Cape, Sharne* was just eight when she remembers her mother putting her in a red car after she sold her daughter for sex for just R10.  

Experts agree that cases of child trafficking at the hands of the parents is a global problem. It mostly involves sexual exploitation but there are also other forms of exploitation, including exploitative begging, pornography and forced marriage. 

In South Africa, ukuthwala, meaning “to carry” is a customary practice used to bypass extensive and lengthy marriage rituals. Formerly consensual, now children as young as 14 are abducted for forced marriage, particularly in remote villages in Western and Eastern Cape, and KwaZulu-Natal.  

Girls in forced marriage are vulnerable to sex trafficking and forced labour by their husbands but because it’s a customary practice, it’s unlikely that these girls are ever reported missing.

The UNODC report highlights child labour as another form of hidden trafficking. Statistics provided by the Department of Labour for this article revealed that in 2019, 571,000 children were involved in child labour in South Africa, 191,500 (34%) of whom were exposed to at least one hazardous working condition.  

While some have been sold by impoverished parents and many others are being exploited, child labour and sex trafficking victims often don’t know they are victims of a crime.

Tragically, not all children survive their exploitation. Van Aswegan describes how Andile*, a seven-year-old mentally challenged boy, was sold to a sangoma for muti by his granny following his mother’s death. Andile’s granny used the money she received for the child to pay for her daughter’s funeral. Had she not confessed, no one would have known that he was missing. 

Although it seems unlikely, some children aren’t reported missing because they are already believed to be dead.

Cheryl Allen, pastor and former head of Door of Hope, describes how in 2000, she was approached by Lindy* a single mom, pregnant with twins. A foreign national, who had been abandoned by the baby’s father, she asked for assistance to place her babies into the child protection system. Allen made the arrangements and asked Lindy to call her when she went into labour. So, it was unexpected when she got an 11pm call from a nurse to say that Lindy had gone into labour prematurely, and had her baby.  

When Allen asked about the second twin, there was a moment’s silence before the nurse replied, “the other one died”.  

Arriving at the hospital, Allen found the distraught Lindy who told her that she had been given an injection and papers to sign and had awoken to the news that her baby daughter was dead. But signatures on the death certificate were irregular, and when Allen took her to find the dead twin, the mortuary wasn’t able to show her the body.

Years later, after Lindy’s surviving twin boy had been adopted, one of her friends, Angelique* (also a foreigner) went into labour at the same hospital. She awoke after the birth to be told that her son was dead. Her husband, Betrand*, was incensed and disbelieving. He said that the baby had been healthy in all their scans so he couldn’t be dead. He demanded to see his son’s body.  

When the hospital couldn’t produce it, Betrand hired a private detective who uncovered a ring of traffickers working across three Gauteng hospitals.  

Three nursing sisters in the three different maternity wards were targeting vulnerable women, usually single, foreign and where possible, those experiencing a crisis pregnancy. They drugged the mother to obtain her signature on a death certificate after she gave birth. 

The baby was then passed to a runner who took the child to KwaZulu-Natal. On arrival, the babies’ body parts, in particular their genitals, were taken for muti while the child was still alive because body parts from children are believed to be especially strong, and their screams are said to awaken spiritual powers

Bertrand’s quick action saved his son’s life. The child was found safe and returned to his parents. But it was too late for Lindy’s daughter. The runner committed suicide when the operation was uncovered and although Lindy told Allen that they had found the sangoma leading the syndicate, she has no knowledge if anyone was prosecuted for the crimes. 

While some children aren’t reported missing because they were recovered quickly, it doesn’t lessen the trauma experienced. As with other violent crimes, children often don’t disclose until years later.

It’s been 40 years since Belinda was kidnapped, but she still vividly remembers the day. It was the 1980s, when Gert van Rooyen was preying on girls who looked just like her. A petite blond child and a loner, with a history of sexual abuse, she was nine on the day when a man lured her into his car when she was walking home from school on her own. 

When asked what she remembered about the event, her strongest recollection was the gut feel that the man who had stopped to ask for directions was not to be trusted.  

Belinda describes how her instinct was to run, but she had been taught to listen to adults and be polite, so instead she engaged, giving him directions, and finally accepting his plea for her to get into the car to show him where to go so he didn’t “get lost”.  

Even before she climbed in, she knew she was in trouble. When he parked in a secluded place and asked if she had ever seen a man’s private parts, she was guileless enough to tell him that she had a dad and brother. But when he showed her his penis, she told him that she wouldn’t touch it and that her sister’s high school was close, and that she was going to tell on him.  

Instantly his story changed. He was an undercover policeman, punishing naughty girls for getting into stranger’s cars. Although he let her go and she ran home, she was sufficiently shamed to not tell her parents until much later.

Sizwe* couldn’t tell anyone about his kidnapping because at five, he is non-verbal. He also had no way of crying for help on the day that he was taken from outside a local tuck shop in a squatter camp in Johannesburg. His aunt describes how while he was playing, a man took him by the hand and walked off with him.  

His disappearance may have gone unnoticed if the owner of the tuckshop, who knew Sizwe and saw that he was uncomfortable, had not reacted quickly, asking a friend to follow the man.  When confronted, the kidnapper let go of Sizwe and he ran home. But moments later, there was a scream as the man tried to take another child.  

Sizwe’s aunt describes how the community confronted the man and beat him up before the police came and arrested him, “for his own protection”.  When Sarah*, his mother, told the police that the man had tried to take her child, and asked what would happen to him, she said that the police ignored her and drove off. 

Although unknown in the area, the community believed that Sizwe’s kidnapper was a bereaved father looking for a son to replace his own, but his motives may have been even more sinister. His aunt says that Sizwe took a long time to recover. He was crying and shaking when he returned home, and didn’t go outside for more than a week.  

Despite the impact on this vulnerable child, to date, no one in the family has had any feedback from the SAPS or been asked to provide a statement about the kidnapping. It’s probable that a case was never opened. 

South Africa’s ghost children include those who are sold, exploited by parents or communities, considered dead, or never reported either because the parents won’t do so or because the police won’t open a case. They are well-hidden.  According to Child Welfare, an estimated 40-50% of the people forced into commercial sex work in South Africa are children. But, how many of these children were reported missing?  

Figures aren’t likely to improve. By May 2021, 750,000 children had not returned to school post-lockdown. These children are particularly vulnerable to exploitation through child labour, child marriage and sexual exploitation. For their sake, and that of many others, the country must find solutions to the missing child problem. This is the focus of the final article in this four-part series. DM

These articles focus on children who have gone missing, on survivors and those not found or found deceased. While the names of survivors and their parents have been changed to protect their identities, the names of children still missing are included, along with photos and missing person’s posters in the hopes someone knows where they are. If you have any information, please contact Bianca van Aswegan from Missing Children SA on 072 647 7464 or contact Crime Stop on 086 000 10111.

This story was published with the support of Media Monitoring Africa and UNICEF as part of the Isu Elihle Awards Initiative.

Design by Kerry Nash.


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