SA 7th in kidnappings worldwide, with most victims being women and children

Children play on the road close to where Shanawaaz Asghar had been kidnapped hours before. Shanawaaz, 6, was kidnapped at his home in Kensington, Cape Town, on 17 August around 8am, wearing his blue school uniform. He was returned almost two days later. Photographer: Armand Hough/Independent Media

Children play on the road close to where Shanawaaz Asghar had been kidnapped hours before. Shanawaaz, 6, was kidnapped at his home in Kensington, Cape Town, on 17 August around 8am, wearing his blue school uniform. He was returned almost two days later. Photographer: Armand Hough/Independent Media

Published Mar 3, 2024


WITH more than 16 000 kidnappings recorded annually by Statistics SA in South Africa, and vast majority - an estimated 85% being women and children, is indicative of a culture which requires a change of mindset.

The police, security organisations and others in law enforcement are expected to tackle this issue alone. This, according to many organisations, has to change with the very fabric of society - at community and home level - being where the action had to be taken.

The reasons for kidnappings and abductions research has found ranged from ransom to sex and human trafficking, to abuse, drugs, business debts and feuds and, unfortunately, too many of those taken forcibly never returned to their families to tell their stories.

“We are sitting on a situation so explosive it blinds us, and the reality is, unless we devise a strategy to appeal to the conscience of people, there is not much law enforcement and security groups can do,” Pretoria West social worker Linda Mandanda-Zulu says.

That kidnappings and abductions are on the increase is alarming, as one person was kidnapped for ransom, another during a car hijacking, others while criminals carried out a residence robbery and others while they walked down the street.

“If the pattern was similar it could be dealt with,” said Mandanda-Zulu, adding that as a social worker in the business of providing housing and counselling for survivors, she says no one is immune.

Last year, international statistics reported that South Africa had the highest kidnapping rate among African countries, with 9.57 kidnappings out of 100 000 people. Said Statista, which reports on international criminal activity: “It is important to note that these statistics reflect reported crime… not all crime is reported.”

Social activist, Mpumelelo Ncwane, says muti killings and false adoption cases often flew below the radar. “In rural villages so many babies are snatched from under the mother’s breasts; so many children disappear while playing in the safety of their own yards; women go missing as they walk to the nearby shop, young girls go to school and never come home…many of these cases do not make it into the mainstream news, and so the statistics downplay the real situation. This scourge is bigger than what we think we know.”

The social activist told Sunday Independent: “There is no known pattern for abductions, and that is what law enforcement relies on to fight crime. In fact, so many times women and young children, especially young girls, went missing - or were kidnapped, their cases were dismissed as run-aways or that they just wanted to be elsewhere.

“Yes those instances exist, yes women leave abusive relationships and tell no one where they are, and yes, children - both boys and girls, leave home for the promise of a brighter existence, sneaking out in the dead of night or going to school never to come home, but many of them are in fact kidnapped.”

They either turned up dead in foreign land, with no proper identity or next of kin because they were trafficked for sex and drugs and given new identities. They were never found by long suffering parents, becoming the subject of fireside tales told of a relative who had woken up and left voluntarily, when in actual fact, they would much rather have stayed.

And while there were many programmes warning people to be on the lookout, to remain vigilant, to constantly be aware of this crime, the reality was, no one was safe, says Linda Badenhorst. She become an activist to raise awareness after her mother went missing 26 years ago, disappearing while on her way home from work.

“Now, many, including the police and investigators, gave us scenario including that she may have skipped home or the country with a lover, taken off because she was overwhelmed by life, or just abandoned us because people do that, but we do not know for sure because, she was never found.”

Her car was recovered in the east of Johannesburg near the airport a month after she went missing, with no sign of struggle, but also no sign of willingness to have driven that far from Silverton in Pretoria. Badenhorst said her mother was known to give lifts to people waiting for public transport, with some - men and women, even waiting for her on the commute to and from her workplace.

“Cases like hers, and especially at that era, did not register as kidnappings. There was an investigation, some of her friends and colleagues told the police of so-called secrets she told them, but as we followed up nothing indicated that she would have left us.”

She said the least her mother Maggie would have done was communicate from wherever she was, because she loved her husband and three children, and at 42, was committed to her family and community.

“But there was no evidence that she was abducted, and there are so many such cases in South Africa, all tied in with the fabric of gender based violence and femicide. We may never know who took her, who she had given a ride to, and as I have come into contact with many mothers and families who suffer the same confusion, I know that she could have been forced to take a different route, go where she did not want to, and never given the opportunity to let us know.”

Badenhorst is among many who work with groups and organisations who try to trace and track the movements of missing people and who believe that sometimes a kidnapping was not part of an organised act. “Look at the number of babies who go missing in hospitals, look at the number of mothers who leave hospital after being told their children had died or were born stillborn but never see their bodies. Look at the number of prostitutes, many young boys and girls, lining the streets at night, some of them do not want to be there. They are victims of ruthless abductors who took them because they were vulnerable,” she added.

Morne, left, and Celeste Nurse, the biological parents of the South African born kidnapped child Zephany Nurse, embrace each other after court proceedings in Cape Town , South Africa, Monday, Aug. 15, 2016. A South African woman who kidnapped a newborn nearly two decades ago from a hospital and raised the girl as her own was sentenced Monday to 10 years in jail. (AP file photo/Schalk van Zuydam)

This, many said, was also found when women were pressured to have children and when they could not, they resorted to stealing them. They presented and raised them as their own, some never to be discovered, never to reveal that in fact, they were not biologically related. These, they added, were random, conducted by a single person, desperate, malicious but a crime nonetheless.

A report by renowned investigator Mike Bolhuise found a link between seemingly random kidnappings of women and their being used as drug mules, and this often was because of their lack of economic opportunities. He speaks of the lure of riches and a glittering lifestyle, if only one carried drugs from one country to the other. Women, desperate for money, were groomed, his and other reports found, whether willingly or not, by being given a taste of the good life. They were cushioned in luxury apartments, fed the kind of food they only dreamt of, taken on shopping sprees reserved for the rich and famous, and then, when they were hooked they were turned into mules and made to traffic drugs across the world.

Said Mandanda-Zulu: “It needs to come down to speaking to the soul of our communities, to effecting a mindset, to remove this cancer from society. We need to go back to the ground, to churches and schools, playgrounds and parks, to teach people not only to be paranoid, but also never to become perpetrators.”