Stephen McGown speaks during a media conference in Joburg on Thursday. The 42-year-old Stephen McGown was the longest-held of a number of foreigners seized by Islamic extremists in Mali, where several armed groups roam the West African country’s north. Picture: AP Photo
Pretoria - After being held captive by al-Qaeda-linked militants in the desert of Mali for nearly six years, freed hostage Stephen McGown is finally on a well-deserved holiday.

On Friday, Gift of the Givers chief executive Imtiaz Sooliman confirmed McGown had left Joburg in the morning with his wife Catherine, for an unknown destination.

This was to regroup as a family, away from the public and media spotlight. “He is already making progress going forward,” said Sooliman. “They need to spend time together and we want to give them space and support.

“He needs time to think about what has happened in the last six years and he also has plans to join his father’s business.

“We will be there for him and his family. We, the organisation, are friends with the McGowns for life,” Sooliman added.

McGown, sporting a heavy beard and long hair, made his first public appearance after landing home nearly two weeks ago, at a press conference held at the organisation’s Joburg offices on Thursday.

McGown initially appeared nervous as he walked into the media briefing with his father Malcolm, and Catherine alongside him. But he flashed a smile when journalists began applauding him.

He revealed how he was still battling to adapt to normal life since his return to South Africa.

“A lot has changed. I find it very cold here. I’m still in the dark about many things. Sometimes, I find myself going through news on the Internet just to learn about things.

“I wasn’t even aware that George Michael and David Bowie have died. There is still a lot that I need to take in but it will get better.”

Discovering his mother, Beverly, had died just two months before his release, was difficult.

“I knew she had been sick. I received a letter from the South African government in December last year informing me that she was ill.

“The letter had been written in August (2016). It asked for my compassionate release but that too failed. I’m still angry at my capturers for that.”

McGown, who converted to Islam during his incarceration, attributed his strong spirit to his faith, physical exercise and a huge amount of reading. This kept hope alive in him that one day he would be released.

“There were many times when I thought I’d be freed and it led to disappointment after disappointment but I had to be strong."

In March 2012 - he was captured in November 2011 - negotiations to release him were at a advanced stage when a coup in Mali disrupted the talks.

What followed was years of anguish and desperate pleas for help from his family . His father even offered to take his place as a hostage, but this was discouraged by the South African government.

McGown was kidnapped at a hotel in Timbuktu, together with Johan Gustafsson, a Swedish citizen, and Sjaak Rijke, of the Netherlands, who were later released.

Last week, the New York Times reported that a ransom of 3.5 million (R55m) had been handed over to secure his release.

The government has denied paying a ransom to secure McGown’s release, and Gift of the Givers too said it had no knowledge of such a payment.

McGown’s father, Malcolm, said he could not believe it when his son appeared at their home on July 25.

“He got out of the car and I said ‘I can’t believe this’. I got my arms around him and hugged him. I told him that I could see that he still got some flesh on his bones and he was feeling strong.

“He felt good. He looks a little different but he still got that same winning nature,” he said.

They had expected him to come back a “different man”. McGown, a banker by profession, had earlier told journalists he was no longer fascinated by the “capitalist” way of thinking.

“He’s only just back. I think he still needs to settle in and talk to people. He’s got all his friends who are still in the capitalist world.

“It’s one of things I said to my wife - that he may come back not liking all the glitz of the BMWs and Mercedeses.

"Yet he may come to the farm and say he doesn’t like wide open spaces because he has seen enough of that in the desert. He is his own man. He must do his own thing. Maybe he’s had enough of the corporate world,” said Malcolm.

Pretoria News