Ubenathi Buthelezi vanished while playing outside his KwaMashu home with a toy car he had been given on Christmas Day.
His mother, Mbali Buthelezi, said it was the worst 24 hours of her life because not only did she think she had lost her son, but she was also called an unfit mother by unsympathetic police officers.
Buthelezi was at work on Thursday when she received a call from her neighbour, Sabelo Ngwenya, telling her that Ubenathi was missing.
Ubenathi stays in Nongoma with his mom’s parents and had been visiting her for the festive season.
The neighbours started a frantic search for the boy. The local councillor gave the group a loudhailer and the search went on into the night.
About 9km away, a Lindelani resident found the boy wandering the streets in tears, saying he was lost and did not know where he was.
The woman took the child to Ntuzuma police station at about 1.30pm on Thursday.
Here Captain Siyanda Ngema set about trying to find the boy’s mother. Ngema said the boy was able to give the police his name and surname, as well as those of his mother, but did not know where he lived. He was neatly dressed in navy shorts, a green vest and wore a pair of Nike sandals.
Ngema said the child spoke in Zulu but had an accent from the Abaqulusi region, which covers Ladysmith, Vryheid, Utrecht, eDumbe and eNgoje, and he assumed the child was visiting family in the area.
They put out a media alert asking for his mother to come forward.
Buthelezi and Ngwenya went to their local KwaMashu station to report the boy missing, but were advised by police that it was still too early to do so.
They rejoined the searchers. Later that evening, an SAPS member from the area advised them to go back to the police station to report the child missing, and on hearing the child’s mother had been turned away earlier, he offered to accompany them.
Back in Ntuzuma the police looked after Ubenathi and gave him a dinner of chicken and rice. He was later taken to the Egamelihle Orphanage in Inanda while they searched for his mother.
The search in KwaMashu, which started again early on Friday, revealed nothing. Then a child heard a radio report that a child had been handed over at the police station in Ntuzuma.
Ngwenya drove Buthelezi to Ntuzuma where officers lambasted her for losing her son. She said they accused her of being an irresponsible mother.
“I was told I didn’t deserve to have a child under my care. The officers went to the extent of threatening to keep my son until January 2 because I’d lose him again over the New Year’s celebrations. I was hurt and traumatised,” said Buthelezi.
But Ngema returned from the orphanage to find the mother being scolded. He intervened and took her to the orphanage where mother and son were reunited.
Buthelezi was in tears when she saw her son. She was still in tears when The Independent on Saturday spoke to her on Friday afternoon, and Ngwenya did most of the talking.
He said the little boy did not know how he came to be 9km from home, and all he could talk about was the meal he had had at the police station.
“It’s very suspicious that a four-year-old could walk on foot for such a long distance,” said Ngwenya.
Ngwenya confirmed the boy was in good health, and was happy to be with his mother. “We would like to thank Captain Ngema from Ntuzuma. He has really been of great help to the family,” said Ngwenya.
Police spokesperson Captain Nqobile Gwala, said Ubenathi’s mother was incorrectly advised when she was told to wait before reporting the child as missing.
“We are pleased that this story had a happy ending, although I’d like to urge parents to be extra vigilant with their kids. Parents need to advise childminders to be extra careful when left alone with kids. I need to emphasise that there is no waiting period required when reporting a missing person,” said Gwala.