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Captured: The Reality of SA’s Kidnapping Crisis

The recent spate of child abductions has shocked the country. Terence Pillay asks how we can adequately protect our children.

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The emergence of the burnt body of a child believed to be Miguel Louw, who was abducted in July this year, has made me so sad, as I’m sure it has many people who came across the story. And even though I’ve heard accounts of how the abduction happened, I still can’t get my head around it.

I saw a video on Facebook recently which an American TV producer posted about how easily it is to abduct a child right under the parent’s nose. In the hidden camera experiment, the guy goes up to a playground where a mother is sitting on a bench reading something on her phone while her child played on the jungle gym. The man had a puppy with him and looked like a respectable, presentable guy who was just walking his dog through the park.

At one point in this whole interaction, he went up to the child with the dog and the child came off the swing to pet the dog. He then said something like, “The puppy needs to get some water, do you want to come and help?” And he walks off with the child.

The mother doesn’t even notice. She’s on her phone the whole time reading or checking Facebook or some other app. The father, who is in on the experiment, arrives to ask the mother where the child is and when she realises the child is missing, she starts to freak out. This is when the man arrives back with the child and points out how inattentive the mother is. He does this over and over again and each time the scenario is the same.

So amidst everything that’s happening with the abduction of children right now; there seems to be more and more cases emerging – are parent’s actually fully cognisant of the safety of their children, or are they unaware of what’s going on?

The principal of a school in Assegai recently issued a warning to parents that a suspicious white bakkie had been parked outside the school with the occupants observing the children. When the school transport arrived, the bakkie sped off, but not before some vigilant learners took down the number plate, the WhatsApp post read.

I investigated the number plate to check the ownership of the bakkie and confirmed it belonged to a foreigner. I am currently working on this story so that's all I can say for now. But the fact is, these potential threats to the safety of our children exist and we should not take it lightly.

But the fact of life for many kids is that they have to walk home. They don’t have transport clubs fetching them from school. I was driving through Ndwedwe yesterday around half past two and noticed so many children from the primary school walking home. They were in groups but some of them at some point have to break away from the group and walk home along other paths. Now these are little children, probably in grade one, which means they’re about six or seven years old! And these latch-key kids have no other choice in economically-stressed communities. When both parents work, these children have to find their own way home and get inside, do their homework, make themselves a snack, and this is just the reality.

So what do we do to solve this issue? The obvious answer is to get someone the child knows and trusts to accompany him or her home. But in the case of Miguel Louw, it emerged that his abductor was well known to his family. Are we reaching a point where we have to chip our children with GPS trackers?

We need to teach our children to notice the signs when things are not going as they should. They need to be able to call out for help. And if the person is known to the child, at what point does it become a problem? For example, with this child, CCTV footage shows him getting into a taxi with the abductor and they were going somewhere, but at what point would the child have realised that something was not right or gone too far? 

The thing is: I regularly fetch my niece from school; I’m on the list of people who are allowed to do this. But it would be so easy for me to say to say to her friends who know me, “I can give you a lift home”. And this should never be allowed to happen under any circumstances. Of course if there was an arrangement with the child’s parents, that would be a different matter. But children need to be taught that they should always ask the school to phone their parents and check if it’s okay first.

It might be a cumbersome process but it needs to be enforced that your child cannot go with anyone this is not on the parent’s approved list at the school. Either appoint a teacher or security guard to stand with the list, or walk in and collect your child. Children should wait inside the school property and you should park your car, go inside and pick your child up. And if you’re not on the approved list, you should be asked to produce your ID card and the parents need to be phoned. It needs to be as strict as this.

But then there’s the matter of the children who have to walk home. It’s a tough reality to face, but parents need to realise that there are predators out there.

The thing that gets me about all of this is: how do they get out of the country? Why do we have these porous borders where some stranger can get through with your child? It would seem like you can simply just walk through the border and take a child off to Mozambique or wherever it is they’re taken to. If you try to take your child on to an airplane, you have to go with a birth certificate and prove that that’s your child; even if you’re just flying from Durban to Joburg! There are really strict rules that apply. I’ve seen those parents with their children getting on to airplanes with a mountain of documents to prove that it’s their child.

How are these people getting across the border? Is it through a hole in the fence? Or bribing an official? Surely if they’re leaving the country, they have to go through some sort of check and somebody should be asking, “Who is this child? Where is the documentation?”

So what is the solution? On one end, we need to put in all the checks and balances to make sure that our children are safe! As a parent, you should know what’s out there and what is happening so that you can adequately protect your child. And on the other end, what is law enforcement doing? Are we cracking down on this scourge? Why are these criminals still allowed to run around in our country?

For me, government should also come to the party. They should be absorbing the cost of after care because in most cases both the parents are working and contributing to the economy of this country. After care is hugely expensive and most parents simply cannot afford it.

And when it comes to children who don’t have the luxury of being fetched from school and have to walk home, we have thousands of these ECD (Early Childhood Development) Centres that were set up as pre-schools but can perhaps also serve as after care centres? At the end of the day, someone needs to take some kind of responsibility and provide for afterschool care giving.

You can email Terence Pillay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @terencepillay1 and tweet him your thoughts. 

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