3 August 2017

South Africa: Stephen McGown's Bitter Sweet Return Home

Photo: Gift of the Givers Foundation
Screenshot of a video released in December 2015 delivering proof of life for South African citizen Stephen McGowan. McGowan was abducted by al-Qaeda operatives in Mali during November 2011.

In a bitter sweet moment, the McGown family has thanked South Africans and the world for their support and prayers for the last five years when Stephen McGown was held captive.

McGown, who worked for Investec in the UK, was kidnapped in November 2011 by Islamist militants while touring in Timbuktu in Mali while he was on holiday.

He was taken along with Swedish national Johan Gustafsson and Hollander Sjaak Rijke, a Dutch citizen.

The trio were snatched from a restaurant in Timbuktu along with a German friend, who was killed immediately by the militants.

Rijke was freed in April 2015 by French special forces, while Gustafsson was released early this year.

After intense negotiations from the South African and Mali government, McGown was released on 29 July 2017.

Speaking to the media on Thursday, Stephen's father Malcolm said over the last five years the family has met a lot of good people who tried to comfort and help them get through the ordeal.

"I would like to thank everyone for their prayers from around the world, the NGOs who helped us. I'd like to thank President [Jacob] Zuma and government for everything they've done to bring back Stephen," his father said.

Although he didn't wish this tragedy to happen to anyone, he assured citizens that the South African government would be willing to help.

Malcolm, who lost his wife to a chronic illness in May, tried to keep Beverly going while their son was in captive. "But things doesn't work out like how we would have wanted."

However, he assured South Africa that Stephen was well looked after and was in good spirits.

"It was a big surprise when I saw Stephen walk through the door. When I hugged him he felt as strong as before. I am very happy to report that my son is well and was well looked after. His mind seems as sharp as ever."

His visibly emotional wife Catherine said remaining hopeful and optimistic over the years has been a difficult test for her.

"It has been a very long time but I am pleased that this day has come. We often speak about hope but it's a funny thing to maintain yet it kept me going."

She said when Stephen walked in, he said: "Wow your hair has grown and then I said well your hair is longer than mine".

State Security Minister David Mahlobo said the nation needs to celebrate Stephen's return. "It has been very difficult but South Africa's special relationship between President Zuma and Mali's Ibrahim Boubacar Keïtawas was a game changer in the incident."

International Relations and Cooperation Minister Maite Nkoana Mashabane called on all South Africans to continue supporting him while allowing him the space and time he needs to adjust again.

Government said there was no ransom nor conditions attached to Stephen's release.

Both government and the family have conveyed their deepest gratitude to all the role players such as the government of Mali, NGOs and individuals for their efforts that eventually secured McGown's release.

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