Africa

Zephany Nurse baby kidnapping: Can justice be served?

Zephany Nurse as a baby
Image caption Zephany Nurse was taken three days after being born 19 years ago

Imagine growing up in a family where you are the apple of your father's eye and the centre of your mother's world. You are happy and mostly carefree and looking forward to celebrating your 18th birthday.

Now imagine finding out that the woman you have loved all your life had stolen you, and the man you called your dad is not your biological father.

This is Zephany Nurse's reality.

Zephany is the name her biological parents, Celeste and Morne Nurse, gave her shortly after she was born at Cape Town's Groote Schuur Hospital, South Africa, on 27 April 1997.

The name she grew up with has not been publicised to protect her identity.

A 51-year-old woman, whose name has not been revealed for the same reason, has been sentenced to 10 years in jail after she was found guilty in March of snatching Zephany from a hospital bed while Celeste was still recovering from giving birth.

The trial has gripped many South Africans, with people sending messages of support to the young woman on social media.

But how has Zephany coped in this highly publicised trial?

Those close to the case say it has destroyed her sense of who she is.

She has said she wants to stay with the woman who kidnapped her, rather than her biological parents.

Zephany was found after one of the Nurse family's other daughters started going to the same secondary school as her and noticed a similarity.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Celeste Nurse, the biological mother of the teenage girl, broke down in court when she gave evidence

Celeste and Morne became suspicious, contacted police, and DNA tests later confirmed that she was indeed their biological daughter.

The woman who had raised her was arrested and so began what has become one of South Africa's most intriguing, and heart-breaking, cases.

'I was tricked'

So what drove the accused to such a desperate act?

During the trial, South Africans learned how she had suffered a number of miscarriages, which she said had made her desperate to have a child of her own to love.

But she denies stealing the baby. She said she was handed a new-born baby at a busy railway station by a woman called Sylvia, who cannot be found.

"No-one believes me at this moment and I'm a victim myself. I was tricked into something I was not aware of," she told the BBC in an interview she gave before she was convicted.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The identity of the woman found guilty has been hidden to protect the victim's identity

She also said that she had signed adoption papers, but they have been lost.

Although her husband only found out about the child's true identify when the story came to light last year, he continues to support her.

"We would always thank her for being a wonderful mother," he is quoted by the IOL news site as saying.

He has also spoken fondly of special holidays spent as a family.

"For 17 years, we [had] a tradition of [doing] breakfast-in-bed every Mother's Day my wife spent with Zephany. I would do the eggs, Zephany would do the toast, flowers and presents. She would also do the decorations," he is quoted as saying.

Zephany is currently living with the man who helped raise her. He says she is distraught about "losing her mother".

Psychology v the law

Cape Town-based clinical psychologist Oliver Fachs explains that someone in Zephany's situation would experience a deep sense of being "unsettled".

He says being around the people who raised her therefore "makes sense".

"Her frame of meaning, sense of identity, how she locates herself in the world - all that would have been shattered," he told the BBC.

"What would concern me as a psychologist would be to monitor how she deals with this new reality."

Mr Fuchs notes that psychology and the law are at odds.

While a crime was undoubtedly committed, Zephany was not aware of this until recently and spent almost her whole life forming an attachment to the people who raised her.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Celeste Nurse, in red, said the family celebrated Zephany's birthday every year that she was missing

She has not spoken directly to the media but in a statement issued through the Centre for Child Law in March, Zephany complained about the way the media had portrayed the woman who she still sees as her mother.

"Don't you think for once that that is my mother? Whether it is true or not is not for you to toy with," she said.

She also spoke about the man who brought her up as her father in the statement: "How would you feel as a father, desperately broken but still finds the goodness to support his family."

During the course of the trial she was barred from seeing the accused woman and was reunited with her biological parents. But she is said to have struggled to make a connection with them.

The Nurses' love, however, is patient and has already been tested by time.

For example, Celeste told the court how the family would mark Zephany's birthday every year. And so they are prepared to give her the time she needs and work hard to gain her trust and affection.

But they do feel cheated out of a life with her and the ordeal has proven too much for the couple.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Zephany Nurse's biological father, Morne, says his daughter's disappearance cost him his marriage

While testifying during the sentencing hearing, Morne told the court his marriage to Celeste had suffered and they struggled to repair relations. The pair divorced in February 2015.

He broke down as he spoke of the many years they had spent searching for their daughter.

"I don't know how she kept Zephany hidden for so long. We always looked for her. It's unbelievable how the accused kept hiding my child," he said.

"I don't have a relationship with my daughter and it hurts," he told the court.

He pleaded with the accused to stop the deceit.

Giving his verdict, Judge John Hlophe described the defendant's account as a fairy tale and said the "court rejects it with the contempt it deserves".

But the accused insists that all she is guilty of is loving a child no-one wanted.

Now that the sentence has been handed down, there will be the question of how justice is best served.

Zephany has lost the person she sees as her mother, a husband has lost his wife to prison and daughter, the Nurse family, who have already lost years with their daughter, still do not have her.

There are no winners here.

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