The search for Aubrey Nhlapo

Seven months after a mother reported her son missing, the police investigation had barely begun.

AUBREY NHLAPO IS - or maybe was - a young man with the world at his feet. The uncertainty about whether to use the present or past tense relates to his status. He is a missing person, one of the more than 4,770 South Africans who are officially classified as missing, an appellation that is often followed by the ominous phrase "presumed dead".

Whatever his fate, the tale since his disappearance is hardly calculated to create confidence in the South African Police Service, which prides itself that, unlike its predecessor, the apartheid-era South African Police Force, its raison d'être is to serve the people, all the people.

The third child of Philadelphia Sibongile Nhlapo, a woman in her late forties who lives in Soweto but works in Johannesburg as a housekeeper, Aubrey was an engineering student at the University of Cape Town. He won a bursary to study there after matriculating - with a first-class pass - in 1997. Apart from his huge capacity for hard work, physical and mental, he impressed those who knew him with his warmth and beaming smile. He returned home for the holidays in April this year and worked as a temporary assistant at a petrol station in Bedfordview to earn money for the months ahead when he would be studying for second-year examinations at UCT.

But on Saturday April 15 he disappeared. According to his workmate at the garage, Walter Mashiane, he and Aubrey went together from Bedfordview to the taxi rank in Noord Street, Johannesburg, where they planned to take taxis to different destinations in Soweto. After walking Mashiane to his taxi rank, Aubrey bade him goodbye and started out for his own taxi rank, Mashiane recalled later in conversation with Philadelphia Nhlapo. He was never seen again. His mother waited anxiously for him on the Sunday and then began a frantic search on the Monday.

On the Tuesday she came to our house - where she works as a housekeeper - in a state of great distress. My wife Sandra took her to the Johannesburg Hospital and the Helen Joseph Hospital (formerly known as the J.G. Strijdom Hospital), where they went from bed to bed searching for Aubrey. When they failed to find him, they tried the mortuaries attached to the hospitals, again without success.

They formally reported Aubrey's disappearance at the nearest station to our home. Philadelphia gave a statement and a photograph of Aubrey to the police there. Too anxious and restless to leave everything to the police, Philadelphia, assisted by her mother Sarah and her daughter Cynthia extended the search to the labyrinthine structures of Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, to the Sebokeng Hospital between Johannesburg and Vereeniging, and the government mortuaries in Johannesburg and Soweto.

In the week of Aubrey's disappearance I attended a press briefing on the latest government crime-combating strategy, code-named Operation Crackdown. Speakers at the briefing included police commissioner Jackie Selebi and safety and security minister Steve Tshwete. I had promised Philadelphia that I would approach Selebi on her behalf. He responded positively, promising that the matter would be attended to, and asked me to give the relevant details to Director Sally de Beer in his office.

Within a week Captain Fanie van Deventer of the bureau for missing persons contacted me. He was polite and helpful. He took down details, including a contact number and address for Philadelphia. A detective would be assigned to the case, he assured me. I was hopeful that progress would be made now that the police commissioner himself had referred the case to the bureau for missing persons. But the detective assigned to the case was not a member of the bureau's specialised staff of 11 police officers. He was a member of the general investigation unit in Johannesburg and coincidentally submitted his report on the case to Van Deventer a few days before Focus went to press in November. Though he had had more than seven months to interview Aubrey's mother, and though he had been given her home and work addresses and a telephone contact number, he did not do so.

I phoned Van Deventer at least three times to tell him that the detective had not yet interviewed her. On each occasion he promised to pressurise the detective into fulfilling what should have been an elementary preliminary task for the investigation. But the detective did not do so, not even after Philadelphia had been told by her Soweto neighbours that they had been visited by people who wanted to tell her about a seriously ill young man in hospital who was trying to identify himself.

In fairness to the police it must be recorded that Aubrey's photograph was shown - thanks to Van Deventer - on a television programme dedicated to enlisting the public's help in tracing missing persons. But if the detective assigned to the case failed to interview Aubrey's mother, it is highly doubtful that he did the necessary "legwork" for a successful outcome. Stupefying lethargy rather than purposeful investigation appears to characterise his inquiry.

Van Deventer has since received the detective's report with dismay, taken him off the investigation, assigned it to a member of the bureau for missing persons and written a report to Selebi on the investigation - or lack of it - so far.

I have to confess that I had little faith in either the South African Police Service or the South African Police Force before Aubrey's disappearance, though I recognise that many individual police officers do their best. The only reason why I report theft and break-ins to the police - including the theft of personal possessions at gunpoint by Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging zealots during their retreat from Mafeking in March 1994 - is that it is necessary for insurance purposes. The past seven months have done little to persuade me that my scepticism is misplaced.