Woman searching for missing uncle finds joy for others instead
Relief eludes family looking for Oom Jollie, but his niece's tireless efforts have reunited others with their loved ones
A woman’s tireless search for her missing great uncle has not yet brought the relief the family sought – but in the process she has helped many other families reunite with loved ones.
When the family’s much-loved Oom Jollie (Gerhardus Petrus Steyn) went missing from his retirement home in Helderkruin, Roodepoort on September 9 2011, his niece Cornelia Rudman started following his trail immediately. He left the home to walk to his sister’s home in Maraisburg and has not been seen since.
He was 74 at the time.
A boxer in his youth, family members say he had early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
In 2016 the family was given shortlived hope when a man fitting Oom Jollie’s description was found, but DNA tests proved otherwise.
But the search continued.
Rudman established the organisation SA Search & Rescue (SASR) in 2015 to keep the search going.
It has helped find and bring home other missing people – a solace to a family that knows all too well the pain of not finding someone close to you.
Rudman said she went to the police when Steyn went missing and organised fliers with a local missing persons organisation. But after weeks of no response she contacted Missing Children SA.
With the organisation’s help, Rudman managed to track down Steyn in Roodepoort months later. “We tracked him down to a township where he was taken in by an old woman and her son. Unfortunately, when we got there we were informed that he had walked to the shops one day and never returned.”
Family believes that Steyn’s worsening Alzheimer’s caused him to get lost.
Although his sister lived 12km away, Steyn insisted on walking to her home because he had been a boxer and fitness had always been a big part of his life.
Also suffering from Alzheimer’s, Steyn’s sister had moved to a frail care facility on the day he arrived at the house where she used to live. Neighbours told him she had moved.
Steyn was wearing a safari suit and left home without any of his bank cards, ID or wallet.
Rudman then began working with Missing Children SA to help find missing people in Johannesburg. “In 2015 I established SASR. I wasn’t going to let any families go through what I did with Oom.”
She helps other families in Johannesburg look for their loved ones, helping them to open missing persons cases and organising trauma counselling.
“To date we have a 92% success rate in locating missing persons alive. Out of the 450 cases opened, only three people have been found deceased.”
She said SASR has 400 volunteers who begin searching for someone as soon as they are notified.
The organisation also helps to find abducted or wanted persons, provides chaplain and trauma services, medical assistance, and verification and background screening services. It also has a rescue diving team.
“We go to hospitals and assist the patients, or the family members; we offer them trauma counselling or any assistance they may need.”
Rudman said the job was emotionally draining, “but you just do it. At the end of the day I can sleep well knowing that I have helped someone”.
So what happened to Oom Jollie?
“Honestly, I don’t know. I believe he may have died, but I check the morgues and hospitals constantly and there is just no sign of him.”
Rudman said many people fall through the cracks. “Like this 11-year-old girl. We discovered her body two days ago. But nobody has reported her missing. She will sit in the morgue now until we get some leads. But that’s someone’s child – how do you not report your child missing?”
She went on to say that many people also don’t know that they need to report missing children as soon as possible. “The first six hours are the most important to find someone alive. If the person is under 18 we respond immediately.”
She said her organisation also monitored OR Tambo airport to intercept children being trafficked. “We have found three missing children in this way. At the end of the day I am a single mother and I put the protection of children first.”
Rudman said that SASR deals mostly with children who go missing. “Parents need to be open with their kids in order to protect them. We have nine-year-olds committing suicide because they can’t speak to their parents about being bullied or being molested.”
According to Africa Check, police data show that 996 children were reported missing in 2016. This equates to a child reported missing every nine hours.
SASR also offers a school service where children are able to speak to councillors without being afraid of the consequences.
As for Oom Jollie, the search will never be over.