Kabous Le Roux7 March 2024 | 4:30

MANDY WIENER: Joshlin Smith - Police battle to keep politicians out, manage community anguish

Police are struggling to keep the Saldanha Bay community calm, yet involved while politicians inexcusably politicise the disappearance of Joshlin Smith.

MANDY WIENER: Joshlin Smith - Police battle to keep politicians out, manage community anguish

Missing 6-year-old Joshlin Smith. Picture: Western Cape Missing Persons Unit/Supplied.

In early 1994, with the country on the brink of democracy, police officers in Mitchells Plain on the Cape flats were managing a precarious balance. They were hunting down the Station Strangler, a serial killer targeting young children, and were busy keeping the hysterical community involved and at bay whilst also satisfying politicians and SAP leadership at the same time. 

In her recently republished book “Catch Me A Killer”, serial killer profiler Dr Micki Pistorius speaks about how difficult this was as the community went mad. 

“They burnt the crime scenes, destroying valuable traces of evidence; they stormed a police station and wrecked the fence because they thought a suspect was being held there. They mobbed a private house and detectives had to be lowered by helicopter onto the roof to remove people from the premises. We could not search a suspect’s house during the day for fear that retaliation by the community and vigilante squads might result in innocent people being harmed,” wrote Pistorius. 

She emphasised that an investigating officer must ‘involve the community without jeopardising the investigation and to manage vigilantes’ and ‘when emotions run high, this can be a daunting task’ because ‘when the lives of children are at stake, no one can predict the reaction of any community’. 

These words rang true for me this week as we watched the unfolding events around the search for missing Saldana Bay six-year-old Joshlin Smith. The grade one learner from Laerskool Diazville has been missing since 19 February. 

There has been a massive search operation that has been tainted by vigilantism from the community, smear campaigns, political meddling, instigating, and compromising of evidence. 

It is a terrible badge to wear but with all its experience of missing and murdered children in the Western Cape, one would think that the police, political leaders and communities would have learnt their lessons about how to manage such sensitive cases. 

Police Minister Bheki Cele visited the community at the weekend and called for an ‘end to the blame game’. 

The DA in the Western Cape accused Cele of withdrawing SAPS from the search. Cele responded that he was saddened that the DA was politicising a sensitive and painful issue to gain votes and that resources had not been pulled. 

The interference of the Patriotic Alliance and its President and Western Cape Premier candidate Gayton McKenzie has been central to these claims of politicisation. McKenzie has very publicly vilified Joshlin’s mother for being a tik addict and neglecting her child. 

Western Cape Minister of Police Oversight and Community Safety Reagen Allen had harsh words for the PA on The Midday Report this week. 

“We have seen political parties descend in the area of Saldana Bay that led to these political parties and one specifically, the Patriotic Alliance, taking one person out of the community and that person lost his entire business. I spoke to him and he’s currently in a safe space. His entire business is in ruins because someone shared information with the PA that the girl was seen close to his car wash. That led to his equipment being stolen, his machinery being stolen and ultimately leaving him destitute. 

“We have seen political parties doing live recordings, going into particular areas and ultimately going in and wanting to do the work of the SAPS. That never bodes well. It is actually against the law. We have seen a contingent of PA members in the area that has politicised the matter,” said Allen. 

Candice Van Der Rheede from the Western Cape Missing Persons Unit has warned that the community’s vigilante action is expected but can cause more harm than good if evidence is compromised. When communities take matters into their own hands, they often disregard proper procedures, potentially tamper with evidence, and inadvertently aid the perpetrator in evading justice. This increases the risk of the perpetrator committing further offences. 

Thirty years since the residents of Mitchell’s Plain were stalked by the Station Strangler, it seems that police officers, community leaders and politicians in Saldana Bay are still struggling with the same precarious balance of involving the community and managing vigilantes. 

What is inexcusable is the politicisation of a missing six-year-old for electioneering purposes. That behaviour is below even the lowest expectations we hold for our leaders.