Malcolm McGown never stopped believing his son would come home – and now his faith has been rewarded. Stephen has been set free by his Al Qaeda captors, who held him hostage in Mali for five long years. YOU spoke to his father in July 2017.
The blue off-road motorbike parked in the garage is covered in red sand, gritty from its time in the Sahara desert. But the man standing next to it has no intention of cleaning it.
“Stephen can wash it when he gets back,” he says. “I think it will be good therapy for him.” Malcolm McGown has been “saving” the task for his son, Stephen, for more than five years – during which he’s been clinging to hope that his boy would be freed by Al Qaeda.
Stephen was kidnapped by the terrorist group in September 2011 in Timbuktu, Mali. His motorbike was found outside the backpackers’ lodge where he’d been staying and delivered to his parents at their home in Sandton, Johannesburg.
For a while it was their only link to their son trapped in a faraway land. But something happened recently to rekindle Malcolm’s hope of a reunion: his captors released a video of Stephen as proof he was still alive. “When I saw Stephen’s face for the first time in the video, my heart wanted to break,” Malcolm says. “I wanted to weep with joy that my son was still alive. It confirmed to me that he’d be coming home. I’ll get to see him again.” In the 16-second silent video, Stephen (42) can be seen with five other hostages. He looks thin and subdued and his hair and beard are long, Malcolm says, but he’s feeling optimistic for the first time.“I know and trust he’ll soon be set free. It’s just a matter of time.” The video was the first evidence since 2015 that Stephen is alive. Back then a similar video was released to the South African humanitarian organisationGift of the Givers, which had been mediating between the kidnappers and the McGowns. Sadly the latest video came too late for Stephen’s mom, Beverley (60), who died of emphysema in May this year. “Beverley never got the closure she was looking for,” Malcolm says. “Her only wish before she died was to be able to see Stephen again, but I think ultimately the longing and uncertainty became too much for her.”The kidnappers initially demanded R152 million in ransom but have since brought it down to R61 million. The McGowns don’t have that kind of money. “We pleaded with them to let Stephen go out of compassion after his mother’s death,” says DrImtiaz Sooliman, founder and director of Gift of the Givers. But his pleas fell on deaf ears.
His son has always loved adventure, travel and the outdoors, Malcolm tells us. Before setting off on a motorcycle tour of Africa in 2011 Stephen had been a risk manager at a bank in England, where he’d lived for five years.
“It would have been his last adventure before coming back to South Africa to start working for me,” says Malcolm, who owns businesses in property development and the agricultural sector.
“He loves South Africa and he missed his people.” Stephen and a Dutch friend started their trip in London, riding their motorbikes from north Africa towards the south. Malcolm’s last contact with Stephen was a Skype call just before the pair reached Mali’s capital, Bamako. From there they were going to the ancient desert city of Timbuktu with its famous libraries.
“He waxed lyrical about Timbuktu, expressing his hope that the city would be as magical as he’d heard it was. I remember warning him he’d be riding through a war-torn region. He said he’d catch a flight home if it looked too dangerous,” Malcolm says.
At 8 am on a Saturday morning a few days after that last Skype conversation, the telephone in the McGown home rang. “It was a travelling companion’s mother. I remember saying, ‘Please don’t tell me something’s wrong.’ She said yes, she’s afraid Stephen has been abducted . . . Beverley and I were in shock. I’ll never forget that morning.”
Stephen had met and teamed up with Johan Gustaffsson – a Swedish biker – in Bamako and Johan had travelled with him to Timbuktu. By this time Stephen and his Dutch travel companion had parted ways.
Johan was abducted along with Stephen in Timbuktu. Malcolm immediately contacted the South African department of foreign affairs as well as Gift of the Givers, as the organisation had previously acted as negotiators on behalf of hostages’ families. Gift of the Givers managed to contact the abductors but after two months had gone by, the McGowns realised there wasn’t going to be a quick fix.
“We realised we’d have to be patient,” Malcolm says. Stephen’s abductors kept moving the hostages so no one was ever sure where they were. But the couple clung to the smallest hint of hope – like when a few of Stephen’s co-hostages were eventually freed.
In April 2015, Sjaak Rijke – who’d previously been abducted by the same Al Qaeda group and had met Stephen in captivity – was freed by French special forces. Sjaak, who’s from the Netherlands, spent four nights in South Africa with Malcolm. “He told me many stories about Stephen,” Malcolm recalls. “Like how he’d taught his captors about the birds there. Stephen is a formidable birdwatcher. “He also told me how they’d draw their parents’ homes in the sand, every room. When Sjaak arrived here he didn’t even ask where the bathroom was – he knew exactly how to get to it.”Johan was released in mid-June. “We were actually negotiating to get them both out,” Malcolm says.“When only Johan was set free my emotions were a mess. I was angry and jealous of his loved ones.” Johan has since confirmed to Malcolm in a Skype conversation that Stephen was alive when he last saw him.“It really is just a matter of time, perhaps weeks, before I’ll see my son again,” Malcolm believes.Sooliman has confirmed his organisation is still in contact with the kidnappers and appeals for Stephen to be released would continue. “But sometimes up to six weeks pass before they respond to one of our suggestions,” he cautions. Stephen’s wife, Catherine – a speech therapist working in Johannesburg – isn’t granting interviews at this time, Malcolm says.They’d been married for four and a half years when Stephen was taken. “It’s very hard for her,” he adds. “All her friends are having babies but she can’t start a family. She’s completely alone, waiting for news of her husband. But she’s a strong, determined person. We’re carrying each other through this difficult time.”Malcolm can’t help but wonder if Stephen will cope when he returns. “Will he be able to live in the city again or will he prefer the desert’s wide open spaces? I don’t know if he’ll be able to adapt. A lot can change in five years.“I think it’s in my genes to stay strong and positive,” Malcolm says. “I only hope Stephen inherited that gene and remains strong in the situation he finds himself in.”