'My Zulu boy was legally abducted'

Love-tug case: English foster mother hopeful of child's return as full details of fight for custody are revealed
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The Independent Online
The foster mother of Sifiso Mahlangu, the 10-year-old Zulu boy who was flown to South Africa on Saturday after a bitter custody struggle, said yesterday that she was confident he would soon be back with her in England.

As a sad-looking Sifiso arrived at his natural parents' house near Brakpan, east of Johannesburg, Salome Stopford revealed a verbal promise given to her by his father Charles Mahlangu and called the decision to hand him over "legal child abduction".

"I have been given an undertaking by his father on the phone, and it was on an open phone to all the solicitors, that if he was not happy then he would be returned in six months time," said Mrs Stopford at her London home yesterday.

Asked if that gave her hope Sifiso would return, she replied: "Oh yes, absolutely."

Ironically, Mrs Stopford, 50, was only able to speak publicly yesterday about her fight to bring up Sifiso because once he had left Britain a court order restricting publicity ceased to be effective.

Sitting in the front room of her flat in Maida Vale, north-west London, with her two daughters, Natalie and Simone, and family friends, some of them weeping, Mrs Stopford said that no parental love could be stronger than that she feels for Sifiso.

She said: "I don't think parents come into the issue here because a 10 year-old boy who has lived his conscious life with us as a family has been wrenched away from us and put with people who are now strangers to him. I think that the voice of the child is paramount and should be heard."

Mrs Stopford, who is British but of Afrikaner origins, has waged a long legal battle for custody of Sifiso who is the son of her former maid, Selina Mahlangu. She brought up the boy in her family and, with his parents' permission, Sifiso came with her to England when she moved to London four years ago following the death of her husband.

Sifiso calls Mrs Stopford "mummy", speaks English not Zulu and recently won a scholarship to a British public school. He has said throughout the legal battle for his custody that he does not want to return to live in the Transvaal. However, in March the Court of Appeal ruled that he should live in South Africa.

On Friday Lord Justices Neill and Ward rejected a direct request from the President of the European Commission on Human Rights for Sifiso's departure from Britain to be delayed until the commission considers the case next week.

Mrs Stopford said yesterday: "It has been like a roller coaster ride.

"We were up one minute and down the next. I was very disappointed that they did not listen to the European courts which are reviewing the case. They should have given him a week's stay until after the hearing. I think it was barbaric, I really do."

She last saw him on Friday night when she left him at the Solicitor General's office. She said: "The last thing I said to him was 'be strong, you are a Stopford'. The last thing he said to me was 'I love you mummy'."

Attempts to put the boy on an airplane on Friday were abandoned because of his distress.

On Saturday night the boy was driven to the airport in the back of a British Airways limousine 25 minutes before his flight was due to take- off.

Plainly upset, Sifiso held back his tears as he was escorted on to the 747-400 by two plain-clothes police officers.

It is thought Sifiso and his natural mother had spent the day at a hotel as she tried to calm him sufficiently to get on the jet. Mrs Stopford said she had tried to see the boy at the airport after he phoned her in distress, but was blocked by security men.

"Special branch people put him on the plane - it's almost like a legal child abduction," she said. "I couldn't stand up against those men - they were enormous - this child would have been intimidated."

Speaking calmly and with firmly controlled emotion she made it clear that her efforts to get Sifiso back will go on. She said: "We will follow all avenues until this child tells us to stop fighting for him. I just think we should all work together for this boy, we should put all our grievances aside.

"I feel that he has been used as a political football. If this boy was white or I was black I don't think that there would have been a problem at all."

His room in the flat in Maida Vale is ready for him to return. Although many of his toys went with him to South Africa, his television and video games are still in London, together with his pet hamster, a large teddy bear and a poster of his hero Spiderman on the wall.

Mrs Stopford spent yesterday trying to telephone Sifiso without joy. The boy looked miserable when he arrived at the Mahlangu's home after the flight from Britain with his beaming father. When the latter was asked how he felt, he replied: "Look what is on my face."