Where is your baby?” The ward sister’s urgent question jolted Celeste Nurse out of her medicated slumber. It was April 30, 1997, two days since the 18-year-old had given birth to Zephany, a perfect baby girl with an eye-catching head of thick hair, at the Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town, South Africa.
“The sister asked again,” recalls Celeste. “I insisted Zephany was in the cot next to me. Except, she wasn’t.” Realisation dawned on her that something was terribly, terribly wrong; it felt like she was “being drenched with ice water”.
With nurses in tow, Celeste ran down the cold corridors of the enormous public hospital, oblivious to the pain from her emergency C-section.
“We ran around looking for the child on every foor of the hospital. The baby was gone. Nowhere to be found. I thought it was a joke,” explains Celeste. A few hours later, she phoned her husband, Morne, her voice as drained of life as the empty cot at her side. Expecting an update on his firstborn’s progress, Morne heard instead three incongruous words that would haunt the couple for almost two decades: “Zephany is gone!”
When he arrived at the hospital, Morne Nurse, then 19, curled up in the fetal position and sobbed. Recalls Celeste, “Just a few days before, he had said to me, ‘Celeste, be careful, there are people who steal kids.’ I thought, ‘This is a hospital; it is safe. Who would steal a child?’” As the hours unfolded, a picture began to emerge of a nightmarish scenario more suited to telemovies or pulp fiction.
“I was disorientated from the morphine, but I could remember lying on my side earlier and opening my eyes to see a woman holding the baby. I had assumed it was a nurse and had fallen back to sleep,” says Celeste.
A patient, Shireen Piet – who gave birth on the same day as Celeste – later described a disturbing close-call with her own newborn the day Zephany vanished. While making a phone call at a booth in the hospital corridor, Piet spotted a “pregnant” woman holding her baby. “Put my baby down!” she called out in anger. When the South African Police Service arrived to take statements, Piet helped sketch an identikit of the alleged baby snatcher.
"I thought, 'This is a hospital; it is safe. Who would steal a child?'" - Zephany's mother
For Zephany’s parents, who’d met as kids and married a few months before their daughter’s birth, darkness had swallowed what was supposed to be a bright beginning to family life.
While morphine eased the young mother’s physical pain, there was no relief from her emotional wounds and the fact baby Zephany – Hebrew for “the Lord has hidden” – was not coming home with them.
“Walking into a house prepped for a baby broke me. No-one other than my mother and Morne’s family had seen Zephany,” Celeste, now 37, tells marie claire. “They’d visited the day she was born and took a few photos. For 17 years, they were the only images I had of my baby.”
There were some breakthroughs. Zephany’s tiny blanket and a pillow – believed to have been used by the kidnapper to fake a pregnancy – were found abandoned in a tunnel outside the hospital. Yet there was no arrest, no closure. Celeste and Morne’s relationship fractured beneath the weight of their sorrow, but they struggled through.
“We blamed each other. I was desperate for another baby, feeling empty and alone,” says Celeste. “I hated pregnant women; I couldn’t stand to see them. It was only after a year of therapy that I started dealing with the loss.” Almost five years after Zephany was taken, the birth of the couple’s second child, Cassidy, sparked the renewal of their family dream.
Morne doted on his baby girl, lavishing her with the love he’d never had the chance to offer Zephany. For Celeste, her joy was overshadowed by fears.
“She was lying next to me in the cot and I’d attach her wrist to mine with a band and cover it with the blanket so no-one could see.” Cassidy lit up their lives, yet never could Celeste or Morne have foreseen the pivotal role their little girl would play in unraveling the fate of her missing sister.
Cassidy and her two younger siblings, Joshua and Micah, were raised knowing their eldest sister had been snatched at birth. Every year, on April 28, Celeste, Morne and their brood hosted a party for the absent birthday girl, handing out lolly bags to local children and blowing out an ever-growing number of candles.
While battling to keep the hope alive, in 2015, Celeste was dealt another blow. “I had been suffering pain in my abdomen and lower back for months, and was eventually diagnosed with Stage 3B cervical cancer,” she reveals. “Our marriage couldn’t survive this latest knock – and suddenly I was on my own, raising three kids, with cancer.”
That same year, 13-year-old Cassidy started her first year of high school in the southern suburbs outside Cape Town, one of more than 1000 pupils. Somehow, her uncanny resemblance to a senior girl quickly set tongues wagging. Excitedly, Cassidy told her parents about the older girl she’d met who looked just like her.
“I instinctively thought, ‘Could it be Zephany?’” remembers Celeste. “The two struck up a friendship and when I saw photos of the girl, I knew. She was my missing child.” With Cassidy by her side, Celeste trawled Zephany’s Facebook profile, hungry to fill in the blanks. “I saw she was ‘born’ on April 30, 1997 – the day Zephany was abducted.
When Cassidy asked her where she was born, she named the hospital where I had been before complications set in during labour,” says Celeste. “The details started adding up.”
She immediately contacted Detective Mike Barkhuizen, who’d long been in charge of the investigation into Zephany’s abduction. Armed with a search warrant, Barkhuizen and his team swooped on the home of a local seamstress and her electrician husband at an unassuming Lavender Hill address, just a few kilometres from where the Nurse family lived. The woman who had raised Zephany denied any involvement, but was barred from seeing her from the day of her arrest on February 26, 2015. (Her husband maintains he never suspected the child was not his.)
"How was I going to be a mother to a 17 year old, when I hadn’t had the chance to see her grow up?’’ - Zephany's mother
Meanwhile in the Nurse household, there was jubilation, gratitude, and nervous anticipation.
“We’d been to the hospital the day before for DNA tests,” says Celeste. “I was so anxious I barely slept. I couldn’t concentrate at work. At midday, my phone rang. It was Detective Barkhuizen. ‘Celeste?’ he said. ‘Jy gaan weer ’n ma word’ – You’re going to be a mother again. I burst into tears. After 17 years, Zephany was coming home.”
The DNA tests had proven that Zephany (who was raised under a different name which has never been disclosed to protect her identity) was indeed Morne and Celeste’s biological daughter, and on February 26, 2015, the couple came face to face with their long-lost daughter.
“I was shaking when we went to see her. What was I going to say to her?” says Celeste. “When we saw her, I was shocked – she looked just like me. I broke down and then we hugged – like strangers, because we were. I kept telling her that we had been searching for her all these years. We never forgot her. I couldn’t believe my baby was now a tall, beautiful girl. How was I going to be a mother to a 17-year-old, when I hadn’t had the chance to see her grow up?’’
Celeste and Morne had recently divorced, but when news rippled through South Africa – and the world – that their daughter had been found, the pair put on a united front, arriving at press briefings together and holding hands. For them, years of pain, anger, blame and frustration were over. Or so they thought.
The reunion they’d longed for has not been easy on Zephany or her blood parents. For the first few weeks, as Zephany got to know her three siblings and her biological parents, the Nurses were blissfully happy. Mother and daughter shared some precious moments, including the preparations for Zephany’s high-school graduation dance. “Tears were running down my cheeks as I helped her get ready,” says a wistful Celeste.
“I couldn’t believe I got to share the moment with her.”
Cracks, however, started to appear ahead of Zephany’s 18th birthday. Celeste and Morne wanted it to be a big celebration to mark the first year she would blow out her own birthday candles, surrounded by her real family. They hired a venue, ordered a cake and invited their closest friends. But the birthday girl decided not to attend the party. Instead, she spent her milestone birthday in the Lavender Hill home where she was raised, surrounded by the aunties and cousins she’d grown up with.
By the end of last year, Zephany’s relationship with her biological family had crumbled. She made it clear she loved the woman who had raised her, and kept a close bond with the man she knew as “Daddy”. Morne and Celeste tried to step back as not to overwhelm and smother the teenager whose world had been turned upside down.
Celeste maintains: “I am here to support [Zephany] with whatever she needs”, even praising the woman who had raised her, saying she had done a good job. In stark contrast, Zephany’s biological grandmother, Zephra Nurse, lashed out publicly at the teen. “She’s a rude, insolent brat,” she vented outside the magistrate’s court where the accused abductor was appearing. “She is different to my other grandchildren. She wants things her way and she swears. As a family, we are very disappointed.”
In February this year, local and international media organisations descended on the Western Cape High Court as the alleged kidnapper’s trial got underway, signalling the latest painful chapter in the tug-of-war for Zephany. The Lavender Hill woman took to the stand and testified she had never set foot in the hospital on the day Zephany disappeared.
In her 35-page plea explanation, she detailed how in her late 20s and early 30s she battled infertility and had multiple miscarriages. She claimed she met a middle-woman called “Sylvia” who offered to help her adopt a child. She testified that Sylvia – who never materialized as a defense witness during the trial – arranged for her to collect a baby at a train station in exchange for 3000 rand ($265) paid in three installments: “She [the middlewoman] told me that the baby’s mother is a young girl who wanted to give her child up for adoption. I was told that the baby was mine and the documentation will be sorted out later,” the accused wrote in her plea. “I had a bad feeling that something was wrong.”
But, she continued, she now had a baby who she would love and care for, and raise “as my own child ... I recall sitting with her, brushing her hair, bathing her and always wondering where her parents were and why they did not want her as I found her to be pretty and cute,” the accused wrote. “I thought I was helping a child who was not wanted and would not be cared for sufficiently by her biological parents.” If the accused was angling for sympathy, it wasn’t forthcoming from Judge John Hlophe.
From the outset of the trial, he expressed disdain for the woman on the witness stand. Unmoved by her tale of woe, he often shook his head and rolled his eyes as she insisted she did not know the baby was Zephany, or that she had been kidnapped.
“One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that one does not buy babies. Your story is a fairytale, and the court rejects it with the contempt it deserves,” declared Judge Hlophe while handing down a judgement, denying her a bail extension. “Lies, lies, lies – I found your evidence astonishing,” he reiterated, summing up her testimony as having “absolutely no substance”.
Judge Hlophe found the woman guilty of kidnapping, fraud and contravening sections of the Children’s Act. This week she was sentenced to 10 years behind bars in Pollsmoor Prison. As one of the country’s most overcrowded and notorious jails, it’s going to be a long, hard road for the woman who has stuck by her “fairytale” of how Zephany came into her life.
While many South Africans believe justice was served, the lives of those closest to this tragic tale have been left in tatters.
Zephany, who turned 19 in April, has chosen to live with the man who raised her, a decision Celeste has “respect” for, she says. “He is the man she has known and loved her entire life.”
While Zephany regards the convicted kidnapper as her mum, and delivers treats to her in jail, Celeste is saddened by how her miracle has soured, but she has not lost faith. “I won’t keep her from that family, it is all she knows. She is still deciding on her future – and I am here to support her with whatever she needs. As long as I know where my child is, I’m OK.’’