Joshlin Smith: The Disappearance of a Six-year-old in Saldhana Bay, South Africa, has Caused Panic

Inside a busy primary school classroom in the South Africa seaside town of Saldanha Bay, one chair is left empty.

One chair is vacant in a crowded elementary school classroom in the seaside town of Saldanha Bay, South Africa.

Joshlin Smith, six, used to sit here. That is, until she vanished in February, a story that has captured the interest of South Africans.

This is an enticing story because of the massive search that encompassed the navy and local volunteers, the substantial reward, and her mother’s arrest.

However, the community that deals with day-to-day realities is still afraid.

Located roughly 120 kilometres (75 miles) to the northwest of Cape Town, Saldanha Bay is renowned for being a peaceful, charming town that offers fishing, water sports, and an abundance of vibrant wildflowers that bloom in the town’s nature reserve throughout the spring.

Like most South African cities and towns, Saldanha’s spatial design still reflects the disparities left behind by the system of separate and unequal development, even after apartheid ended thirty years ago.

The upscale residential area, which consists of vacation homes and guest houses, is situated near the shore as one approaches the town through the business sector.

However, there is a discernible shift once entering the neighbourhoods of Diazville and Middelpos, which are home to a mix of affordable and unofficial housing.

Most of the houses in Diazville are RDP (reconstruction and development programme) residences, which are primarily simple brick and mortar buildings funded by the government. There are a combination of RDP houses and corrugated iron shacks situated on an open field in the nearby Middelpos neighbourhood.

In the two settlements, there is a noticeable feeling of unease and distrust, especially when they see an outsider or an unfamiliar car.

The tiny Diazville elementary school has seen an increase in the number of parents and guardians waiting impatiently to pick up their kids outside its gates, a sign of the increased concern locals have for the safety of the neighborhood’s young citizens.

It is difficult to get those adults to talk.

Given the media frenzy and multiple cases of bogus news spreading on social media, including claims of sightings and the discovery of a body, the hesitancy makes sense.

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One of the parents who was ready to speak, Faeeza Ecksteen, had gone to the school Joshlin attended to pick up her six-year-old son Aleem.

She claims that the community, especially the kids, has been severely impacted by Joshlin’s (sometimes spelt Joslin) disappearance.

It’s a really depressing tale. These days, all parents are concerned about their kids’ welfare and are going above and beyond to keep them safe.”

Community activist Carmelite Ross continues, “It’s traumatising for the kids in the area because they no longer want to play outside.”

“Even though the school is only a few minutes away, my 11-year-old daughter Keayondre refused to attend to school for a few days following Joshlin’s abduction because she was afraid. She and the other six kids now walk to school every day.

“At the end of the day everyone in Saldanha, even our children, has been dragged into this matter.”

Ms. Ross made the decision to take a step back for her personal wellbeing, despite having taken part in many of the Joshlin searches in the early days following the young girl’s abduction.

“It began to emotionally drain me, so I made the decision to reduce my engagement in the Joshlin case.

“It hurts a lot, coming from a mother myself. I’ve had restless nights because, with all the concerns, tension, and other issues, I don’t think I would be here today if it were my child.”

Joshlin vanished from her small shack in the Middelpos informal community two weeks ago, and her mother Racquel “Kelly” Smith, boyfriend Jacquen “Boeta” Appollis, Steveno van Rhyn, and Phumza Sigaqa were all taken into custody by the police. Since then, the house has been locked and is empty.

On March 7, the four made their initial appearance in the local magistrate’s court facing accusations of kidnapping and human trafficking. The court was surrounded by a sizable group of locals who were demanding “justice for Joshlin”.

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Following the arrest of Ms. Sigaqa, a black person, there was some racial friction in the community for the first few days after her disappearance between coloured (as individuals of mixed racial descent are known in South Africa) and black members. She became entangled in a whirlwind of gossip, with media accounts misidentifying her as a sangoma, or traditional healer.

“There have been times when locals have identified us as the reason behind Joshlin’s disappearance. Some people used to be wary of sangomas because they thought they were misbehaving,” Middelpos ward councillor Liwani Siyabulela tells the BBC.

We’ve succeeded in resolving the problems by emphasising that it has nothing to do with one’s race—colored, black, white, Indian, or otherwise. Our priority should be to locate the missing child. At least now that things are back to normal, Ms. Siyabulela, an African National Congress (ANC) member in power, remarks.

While acknowledging the possibility of initial racial tensions, Ms. Ross is pleased that they were promptly overcome.

“This community has never shown me such unity. All individuals, irrespective of their ethnicity or cultural background, participated in the search efforts. I observed our people’s oneness.”

As a result of the charges against Ms. Sigaqa being dropped for lack of proof, she was set free. Since then, she has moved out of her house, which is only a short distance from Joshlin’s residence, after receiving threats from neighbours.

In an interview with the national television network Newzroom Afrika, the 32-year-old said that she had been mistreated by police while she was being held. The claims have not received a response from the police.

The last person to apparently see Joshlin before her disappearance was Lourentia Lombaard, who was later detained.

Eric Ntabazalila, a spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority, claims that Ms. Lombaard has confessed, but further details would only be revealed later.

While Ms. Smith had previously informed the local newspaper The Daily Voice that she had not given up hope of locating her daughter, the other three detained people have not responded to the charges.

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“I have a maternal sense that says my daughter is still here and living. We’ll locate her; I’ll go looking for her on foot. If necessary, I’ll investigate every tiny hut on my own.”

Children going missing is still a terrible problem in South African culture.

The national coordinator of Missing Children South Africa (MCSA), Bianca van Aswegen, claims that although the country’s missing persons agency published statistics in 2013 indicating that a kid goes missing every five hours, those figures have not been updated since.

According to MCSA statistics, just over 75% of the children are reported missing; the remaining youngsters are thought to have either been killed or trafficked.

Although Joshlin’s disappearance has garnered a lot of attention, it’s interesting to note that most other child disappearance instances have not received the same level of attention.

“It’s possible that Joshlin’s case went viral on social media. Unfortunately, a number of people disseminated misleading information during the process, which made the investigation more difficult,” Ms. Van Aswegen claims.

A picture of Joshlin is positioned next to her classroom on a table

Her picture is displayed on the entry hall wall with a number of encouraging notes from various classes.

The school has also shared a video of a group of kids singing “God will work it out” on their Facebook page.

But according to Lee-Ann Davids-Hartzenberg, the principal of the school, the young students also need to figure out how to focus on themselves.

“While we continue to hope and pray for Joshlin’s safe return, we must continue to do our best every day to get things done. We must proceed. Although things have improved this term, Joshlin’s peers still miss her presence in the classroom.

“They regularly sing a hymn that she liked and they are also growing a plant in the class for her.”

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