South African officials in Mali have been meeting Malian military commanders twice a month for the past three years to discuss the possible whereabouts of Johannesburg hostage Stephen McGowan.
A source in the capital Bamako confirmed that South Africa has been involved with McGowan’s case since he was captured by al-Qaeda militants in Timbuktu on November 25 2011. On Monday, French Special Forces in northeastern Mali released one of his fellow hostages. But McGowan was not with him as was previously thought and is still being held hostage.
His family has been told by the department of international relations and co-operation to keep a low profile due to the sensitivity of the case.
McGowan’s father, Malcolm McGowan, has told the Mail & Guardian he believes that more than three years down the line it is time to explore all possible avenues to speed up efforts for his son’s release.
Last month he appealed to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to try to intervene.
While Ramaphosa was at the inauguration of Mauritania’s President Mohammed Abdelaziz in August last year, the French military handed him proof that McGowan was alive, which was shown to his family. Mauritania is Mali’s neighbour.
Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Ronnie Mamoepa, was asked if the deputy president had made any progress, but he did not respond to the question.
Local media in the Netherlands this week criticised the Dutch government for not doing enough to try to find the hostages, following the liberation of Sjaak Rijke, who was with McGowan and a Swede, Johan Gustafson, in Timbuktu when they were captured.
Rijke was freed on Monday morning in a pre-dawn attack on a house in a small town near Tessalit, near the border with Algeria. McGowan and Gustafson were not with him when the French forces attacked and killed two Islamists.
“The Netherlands wasn’t aware of where Sjaak Rijke was and neither did it gather any useful information about his whereabouts,” the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant said on Wednesday.
The Netherlands has peacekeepers in Mali as part of the United Nations mission in the country, but they were not stationed anywhere near the area where Rijke was freed and they did not co-operate with the French military in this case, according to the Dutch media.
McGowan is often referred to in the international media as British. “He had a two month-old British passport with him, which complicated things,” said the source in Bamako.
McGowan was on a trip through Africa after working for a few years in Britain, and his South African passport was on his motorbike. After he was captured, it and his other belongings were sent home.
The vast desert area was occupied by Islamist groups for several months in 2012 following a coup d’etat in March of that year. France launched a military operation in January 2013 to drive the Islamist armed groups out of the area.
UN peacekeepers, made up of mostly African soldiers, are now deployed to try to safeguard the area, alongside France’s Operation Barkhane, which consists of 3?000 troops.
But it is still not safe. Several incidents have claimed the lives of peacekeepers and civilians in the north of the country and in the Gao region in the northeast since the beginning of the year.
In February, ambassadors from the African Union Peace and Security Council and the European Union were unable to leave the airport during a visit to Gao because of insecurity in the town.
Details of Rijke’s liberation are still sketchy, although French President François Hollande has said the aim of the raid was not to free a hostage. He told the media France wasn’t aware of Rijke’s whereabouts.
Later, a French military commander said the Special Forces were aware that a very important person was being held in the house that they attacked, but it could have been a high-ranking militant leader.
This is the first time a hostage has been rescued by the French military. Other hostages have been released after a ransom was paid or high-profile al-Qaeda prisoners were exchanged.
The last French hostage in Mali to be released, Serge Lazarevic, was seen in a video in November 2014 alongside Rijke. Lazarevic was released in December last year.
Several other videos were also made by the hostage takers, which included McGowan and Gustafson.