The end is in sight for the Joslin Smith case

Evidence points to a muti killing, as all parties in the search effort accuse one another of exploiting the situation for personal gain, and drive Joslin's mother into hiding.

Robert Duigan


Robert Duigan


Mar 7, 2024

The end is in sight for the Joslin Smith case

For the past couple of weeks, newspapers have been obsessively covering the disappearance of a six-year old Coloured girl from Middelpos called Joslin Smith, depicted in cheerful, sunlit photographs highlighting her blue eyes and dark-blond locks in girlish braids, smiling cheekily at her mother through the camera lens.

This case seems to sit at the intersection of almost every single problem facing the Western Cape, from the neglect of policing in the province, to drug culture, Eastern Cape immigration, political grandstanding and liberal journalistic hypocrisy.

As a rule, I steadfastly refuse to read anything about the endless torrent of blood spilled in this country. Journalists who make this sort of story their bread-and-butter either have the heart and stomach of a seasoned trauma nurse, or have become so jaded they cannot be called human anymore.

I still remember the last time I actively paid attention to such a case, back in 2016. At the time, Jacob Zuma had just fired Nhlanhla Nene, because he wouldn’t allow access to more of the budget for Zuma’s opaque spending habits.

To do their part in distracting the reading public, the now-defunct Gupta newspaper The New Age ran that day with the headline that a young girl had been raped and her body was dumped in a pit latrine.

But this story was different from most tragedies, in that it contained an element of suspense, leaving room for rumour and intrigue, a feeding trough for all parties.

A storm of activity

Kelly Smith reported her daughter as missing after returning home to find her daughter missing 16 days ago. The last her boyfriend saw of the girl was when she went outside to play, suggesting she was abducted right in front of the house.

The story became increasingly sordid as the coverage reached almost every newspaper. While children go missing all the time in South Africa, they are often never seen again, and police resources are seldom devoted to solving any particular crime, especially in the Western Cape, whose policing has been undermined by centrally coordinated ties to organised crime, and a chronic under-allocation of resources.

But the constant pressure managed to draw the attention of the Chief of Police Bheki Cele, who never misses an opportunity to swan about in front of the cameras and pretend to be busy. This appears to have placed enough pressure to stimulate some real policework.

Cele of course accused the DA of “politicising” the issue because they issued a single statement with an accompanying graphic for social media, and because they marshalled their own meagre resources to assist in the search.

The digital poster accused SAPS of withdrawing resources, namely a search helicopter, from the search team. Cele denied it, but his team admitted the helicopter was withdrawn. Yet this prompted an explosion of new resources from across the national security cluster.

Even the South African Navy was recruited to assist in the search, and sent 300 naval staff along with special dog units from the City:

“The search party has also been bolstered by a contingent from the local South African Navy joining the search and another large group from the City of Cape Town also deployed from Monday to the area. The Saldanha Bay Municipality’s firefighters are also playing a pivotal role in the search, applying their expertise in the search,” Brigadier Novela Potelwa said.

Mayor Andre Truter was stunned by the frantic nature of the search, noting “community members searched sewers and pits across the area in the days following the girl’s disappearance, with an angry mob also taking to searching homes and accosting neighbours”.

His efforts to contact the Premier Alan Winde and the City Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis yielded vital resources, including sniffer dogs, drones and marine patrol units.

The search drew in people from almost every sphere, as journalists, political parties and NGOs sought to wedge themselves into the middle of the story. But while it is certainly true that a great deal of the motivation here was cynical and self-interested, it is also true that the case could not have proceeded with as much energy unless this pressure was applied.

The rumour mill

In the meantime, accusations that Joslin’s mother Kelly was complicit in her daughter’s disappearance flooded social media. This was stoked by her former boyfriend and father of Joslin, Jose Emke, who claimed that Kelly sold her daughter to pay a drug debt owed by her and her boyfriend.

Gayton McKenzie soon became directly involved, and shared her claims to have been scared sober through his party’s Facebook page.

Her boyfriend was supposed to be looking after Joslin, but she couldn’t confirm that he was at home at the time, though public accounts of her reasons for not being home vary between drug-seeking and spending time at work.

No doubt the ambiguity in this point of the story has resulted from the rumours spread by her ex-boyfriend and other spiteful neighbours keen to be part of the scandal who joined in. People even posted media and posters about town claiming the girl was dead.

Having to publicly deny accusations that she had sold her own daughter in the midst of a national media storm and withdrawal symptoms from methamphetamine, could not have been a more torturous experience for Kelly. And yet due to the obsessive and deranged attention from her neighbours and the media, police have had to place Kelly in protective custody.

Anyone with children of their own could not help but feel a painful, leaden sympathy. It would also be unfair to suggest that even the most cynical of actors was insensitive to the gaping emotional wound such a case represents - even the most narcissistic actors in this sordid drama will have felt the edge of that mortal abyss, the fragility of human life that Joslin's disappearance reveals, the darkness in the human heart it points to.

Hundreds of houses and miles of scrubland were combed for any traces of Joslin’s disappearance. Yet there was, as always in such cases, a cloud hanging over these frantic efforts - the gnawing feeling that Joslin was already dead.

Hints of a dark conclusion

As the attention on the story began to reach a crescendo, evidence began to trickle in.

On Saturday evening, SAPS detectives found clothing, a sheet and a knife planted in the ground in a nearby open field. Forensic tests confirmed the blood which covered these items was Joslin’s.

And then yesterday, the national police’s provincial media spokeswoman Brigadier Novela Potelwa announced that they had finally made arrests:

"Two men and two women are currently being questioned by a team of Western Cape detectives. The four are between the ages of 26 and 34. It is envisaged with the process being undertaken that light will be shed as to what happened to the six-year-old girl. With the investigation unfolding, arrests are on the cards,"

After a 36-hour interrogation, the two men admitted that they kidnapped the young girl to sell her for muti. They confessed to selling her to a local man for R20,000.

Muti killings, once the shock of the nation back in the 1990s when the existence of such practices was news to the white community, have become both banal and taboo in public discourse today.

Traditional medicine in the Cape does not include these practices, and is more focused on herbalism. Medicine made from human body parts is exclusively the domain of black communities from the east, whose mass migration has so drastically changed the character of the Cape in recent years.

As an inevitable consequence, this ethnic dimension will now become the silent focal point of the majority aware of this case, whether they speak of it openly or not. The danger of criticising black-African cultural practices, or of Xhosa immigration to the Western Cape, carries a risk of steep legal penalties.

Symptoms of a disease

Throughout this story, the tensions between the three main ethnic communities of the Cape seem to stand out like splinters on a priceless antique.

The distrust and anomie in the Coloured community has now been exposed, visible as a community which no longer bears any ties of solidarity. Deprived of their own political representation for over a century, rent apart by gangsterism, welfare-dependency, institutional exclusion and unemployment, they are reduced to spying each other’s failures through jaundiced eyes and twitching curtains.

They now can only expect aid when politicians have points to score, and between nativist opportunists like McKenzie (whose supposed retirement from gangsterism hangs under a shadow of doubt) and the stagnating DA, desperate to get the public to pay attention to their comparative competence in administrative affairs.

The national police are transparently useless in most cases, but as everyone knows, if you throw enough resources at a problem, something will inevitably stick. And nothing will motivate them to act like accusations from “the white party” that SAPS can’t even do what the little Cape Metro can.

The dismal display of spite and rumour, both online and off, has been played for points by journalists whose mandate for the past several years, largely motivated by a worldwide Western initiative to silence political opponents, has been to rant about “disinformation”, while spreading much of it themselves.

Journalists should not pretend to be authorities. We collect and distribute information, much of which will turn out to be false even with our best efforts.

This case is not yet over, but from the information given thus far, it seems it would take a miracle for any good news to arise.

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