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Winning Women: Pretorius puts the heat on

Jun 10 2018 10:51
Sue Grant-Marshall

Human trafficking, child abuse, missing persons and sexual slavery cases consume private investigator Elmarie Pretorius every day. She works with a variety of organisations, including the National Prosecuting Authority’s Gauteng antihuman trafficking task team.

Every six hours, a child goes missing in South Africa and 20% of them are never found, says Pretorius, who is a private investigator on the East Rand. She has made finding these missing children her life’s work.

“Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world today,” says the founder of Touch of Hope Search and Rescue.

“South Africa is, alarmingly, rated fifth on the global human trafficking scale.”

The country has held this odious position for the past four years.

Pretorius works around the clock to combat the repulsive trade, and she also assists several safe houses for the abused, raped and neglected children she has helped to rescue.

“Our aim is to build stronger relationships between the public and government departments such as the Child Protection Unit. We are hugely involved with our communities here on the East Rand,” says Pretorius.

The latter is an understatement because she has become so well known for her ability to track down missing children that her cellphone, which she has turned to “silent” mode, vibrates nonstop during our interview.

Private Forensic investigator and founder of Touch of Hope Elmarie Pretorius. (Rosetta Msimango, City Press)

She’s concerned she may miss an anguished call about a missing child, and says that many people incorrectly believe that we should wait for a day or two before reporting a missing person to the police.

“The first six hours after people disappear are vital in finding them. The law does not require any waiting period,” says Pretorius.

She talks about a two-year-old girl who was so badly abused by her stepmother that she died four days after being admitted to hospital.

Pretorius, who used to work with the People Search and Rescue Unit, left it a few years ago to work with the police.

She was involved with 1 074 cases of missing and abused women and children last year. When we met for this interview three weeks ago, she’d already been involved in 989 cases this year.

Although she concentrates on East Rand communities such as Parkrand, Germiston, Benoni and Springs, she responded to a Klerksdorp mother whose baby had been sold for R470 000.

“It took two years to get her daughter back. She’d been kidnapped and sold with the assistance of social workers. Our team is now involved in investigating adoption involving social workers in Gauteng and North West.”

Pretorius wants to see South African law changed because it does not recognise “that parents kidnap their own children”. To that end, she’s working with all the organisations with which she is involved “to close this loophole in the law”.

She’s helping collate evidence that will eventually be presented to Parliament.

“It’s a slow process. In the meantime, the justice system is failing children.”

She talks about several cases she’s been involved with, including that of two boys, aged nine and 11, whose mother was so abusive that their father divorced her and was granted custody by the courts.

“But she kidnapped them, moving them 1 000km from Joburg, and locked them in a flat.”

By the time the distraught father found out about Pretorius, he had sold his car and house, and had lost his business while trying to come up with money to pay private investigators – but they all ripped him off.

Within three days of taking on the case, Pretorius found the boys and was there when they were joyously reunited with their dad. Pretorius refused to let him pay her.

Her dedication to saving sexually abused, kidnapped and trafficked people stems from her own childhood experience of being sexually abused at the age of 14 by her cousin.

“It broke our family apart and I decided that, one day, I would be the voice for children who dare not speak up.”

This mother of four and grandmother of three is 51, and is self-educated about rape, molestation, abuse and human trafficking.

She’s happily married, but her husband Werner does suggest that, when they go on holiday, she turn off her cellphone.

“He says I can’t change the world, but I reply that if I can help one child every day, that’s 365 a year,” says Pretorius in her warm and determined manner.

Life tip: You don’t need a degree or an amazing qualification to be a voice for the vulnerable.

Mentor: I was born with the desire to help both the young and the elderly.

Favourite book: The Bible. I’m writing my own book now about missing children.

Inspiration: The happy smiles on the faces of children who feel safe.

Wow! moment: The look in a child or victim’s eye after I have helped to rescue them.

Life lesson: Nobody is safe. Anyone can be trafficked.

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