What’s the third most lucrative illegal commodity after drugs and weapons? Human beings. Human trafficking in South Africa is real and it’s happening right now.
The shackles of the slave trade may be long gone, but tens of thousands of people in South Africa are still being subjected to modern day slavery right under our noses – and most perpetrators are getting away with it.
In 2013, only two people were convicted in this country.
She fell to her death
Covered in bruises, gashes and stitches after being pushed out a first floor window by her captor, 23-year-old Pulane Sikisi arrived at the offices of Media24’s Afrikaans newspaper, the Volksblad, begging for help.
Her tale was all too familiar: a small town girl, she left her two children and her mother to earn money in the city - where she met a man. He trapped her in the city, hooked her on drugs and forced her to work as a prostitute.
He would later stand trial for her murder.
Just weeks after appealing for help, Sikisi plunged to her death from six stories up, in the building opposite the Volksblad. The man accused of her murder was not convicted.
This cry for help - witnessed by News24's Corli van der Merwe - occurred in 2010 but, sadly, it seems that nothing has improved since then.
Sikisi’s tragic tale may sound like a prostitution case, but sex work involves the conscious choice – however grim - of an individual who exchanges sexual activities for payment. Trafficking on the other hand, refers to the movement of people, against their will, for the purposes of exploitation for labour - sexual or otherwise.
Figures from the International Labour Organisation show that 4.5 million people across the globe are victims of forced sexual exploitation.
But that’s just the beginning - more than 16 million are victims of some type of forced labour - and that’s a conservative estimate.
It is happening in South Africa, to South Africans and foreigners alike. In fact, no country is immune to the crime of human trafficking, Richard Ots from the International Organisation for Migration says: “It is a global phenomenon and the third largest profitable illegal trade after drugs and weapons”.
Men are victims too
Sikisi’s story is just one of the many shocking tales of sexual exploitation that masks a much wider issue, according to experts.
There is a huge misconception that trafficking only happens to women - desperate, trapped women who are turned into sex slaves.
Katie Modrau, South African development manager at the A21 Campaign, told News24: “But this is not true. Men are also victims of human trafficking, especially when it comes to forced labour.”
Monique Emser, research associate at the University of the Free State’s law faculty, agrees that there is a preoccupation with the “dark, exploitative side of the sex industry”. This focus comes at the expense of what she said was a far more pervasive form of human trafficking - labour trafficking.
Modrau explains: “Traffickers use desperate economic realities in poor African countries to lure gullible and desperate people to South Africa with the promise of jobs and a better future. Then as soon as they arrive, their passports are seized and they are forced to ‘work off the debts’ incurred in getting here.”
The A21 Campaign has helped a number of Kenyan men, for example, who were lured to the country with the promise of a soccer contract to play for a local team.
“Once they got here, they realised that the promised soccer contracts were in fact a ruse to trap them into a situation of forced labour,” says Modrau.
The report found South African children being subjected to trafficking within the country - snatched from poor rural areas and moved between urban centres.
Girls are often subjected to sex trafficking and domestic servitude, while boys are forced into street vending, food services, begging, agriculture and criminal activities.
As for foreign nationals, the report noted that in 2013 South African officials found Chinese and Taiwanese men forced to work in mobile sweatshop facilities, and Pakistanis subjected to bonded labour in businesses owned by Pakistani nationals.
For the second consecutive year, the report listed evidence of male victims of forced labour aboard fishing vessels in South African waters - including 75 Indonesian men who were exploited without pay over a three to four year period on Taiwanese flagged ships.
Young men and boys from Lesotho, Mozambique, Malawi, Swaziland and Zimbabwe who voluntarily migrated to South Africa, for farm work and cattle herding, were exploited without pay.
Labouring under a misconception
This focus on reporting women’s sexual exploitation has resulted in a skewed view - even at a government level, experts claim.
Dr Joel Quirk, associate professor in political studies at Wits University in Johannesburg, told News24: “There has been a history of sensationalist reports in and around human trafficking - which was most evident in the lead up to the World Cup in 2010. A lot of people were wrong in their predictions - yet they continue to say the same thing.”
Diane Wilkinson, Gauteng coordinator for the National Freedom Network, agrees that we have “got stuck” on World Cup sex trafficking prejudices.
“There are many other kinds of trafficking too and we have had cases of forced marriage, organ and body part trafficking, labour trafficking, child trafficking through illegal adoptions, forced begging, forced drug muling and other criminal activities,” she says.
In terms of the sheer numbers, she said labour trafficking was the worst.
“For example if there is a brothel raid you will maybe find three to seven ladies on average, but raid a farm and you can find 11-20 plus men ‘working’ there,” Wilkinson reveals.
Though the government has “started to think about trafficking”, Quirk argues that they have fixed on this narrow focus of prostitution, when there is a “much larger set of problems to do with labour and migration”.
He explained: “The patterns of labour trafficking implicate companies, supply chains - everyone from farmers to political structures.
“It is difficult to begin a conversation about the way people are exploited by trafficking. It questions how society is organised and the extent to which people benefit.
“It is politically uncomfortable to talk about - sex and prostitution doesn’t implicate the rich and powerful in the same way that labour does.”
The trouble with statistics
By not having the uncomfortable conversation about labour trafficking, society is brushing it under the carpet and focusing solely on exploited sex workers - which makes measuring the extent of human trafficking extremely hard.
Many victims are unwilling or unable to help police prosecute, leaving the crime largely under-reported.
Researchers compiling statistics have to rely on second-hand sources such as media and police reports to calculate estimates of how many people might be trapped in trafficking webs.
The first report on human trafficking in South Africa was completed in November 2013 by the global research group Lexis Nexis, yet it fully acknowledges that it is “only as accurate as the way in which the media reports this heinous crime”.
The report counted 656 unique articles in the media between August 2011 and August 2013 which covered human trafficking.
Australia-based rights group, the Walk Free Foundation, spent almost a decade compiling data for its Global Slavery Index - which estimates that there are between 42 000 and 47 000 victims of human trafficking in South Africa.
Though they are not country-specific, the most widely recognised global estimates on trafficking however were published in 2012 by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
ILO researchers estimate that 20.9 million people across the globe are victims of forced labour - coerced or deceived into taking jobs that they were unable to leave.
The ILO’s figures include people subjected to forced labour, human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation - but not forced marriage.
No culture is above the law
Jean-Marie Kagabo, spokesperson for the ILO’s Africa desk, told News24 that forced marriage is not included “as we do not consider this as labour”.
This may be true of many cases, yet experts have warned that in South Africa the tradition of forced marriages through ‘ukuthwala’ is being abused for human trafficking purposes.
In a landmark case in January, South African Mvumeleni Jezile, 31, was sentenced to 20 years for rape, trafficking for sexual purposes, assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm and common assault.
His victim, who was just 14 years old, was sold to him for R8 000 by her uncle, who allowed her to be grabbed by a group of strange men after sending her out to buy him cigarettes.
Neither her consent, nor her mother’s, was sought before the marriage was concluded.
Jezile has appealed the conviction on the grounds of cultural practices protected under the Constitution.
Yet the Justice Department’s guidance on ukuthwala states that the law does not favour culture above the Bill of Rights. It states: “Culture as a way of life for people, is given a place in our Constitution. But no culture is above the law”.
Melanie Hamman, from the human rights charity Media Monitoring Africa, claimed in a 2011 report that what is happening under the guise of traditional practice, or in the name of culture, is “nothing short of abduction”.
“What has begun to occur in this case is an erosion of the intended purpose...in many increasing instances [it] is now harmful and out of sync with its original cultural framework,” she says.
The Justice Department agrees that “today’s kidnapping and abduction of girl children that have barely reached puberty cannot be reconciled with the ancient practice of ukuthwala”.
The law also dictates that parents or relatives who hand a child over for forced marriage for financial gain can be prosecuted under current trafficking laws.
That said, Modrau from the A21 Campaign, points out that many girls would not betray their families, whatever their fate.
She said: “Often the families put so much pressure on the girls that they end up just staying with the men, for fear of being destitute if they fled and their families won’t accept them back.
“In some families the reason for the pressure has not only cultural motivations, but also financial - a destitute family might feel it is worth giving up one daughter if it meant enough money to feed the rest of the family.”
The Walk Free Foundation estimates that if you add those trapped in forced marriages to the ILO’s trafficking figures - the number of trafficked people in the world climbs by 42% - to 29.8 million.
Does the law have teeth?
Identifying victims then, is a challenge in itself.
Worse still, South Africa - along with the rest of Africa - has yet to fully comply with the minimum standards of the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) which coordinates with foreign governments to protect victims.
South Africa then, is in a state of flux, waiting for different government departments to develop the regulations before the Act can be used.
Mthunzi Mhaga, spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice and Correctional Services, admits: “The Act has not been put into operation and therefore no prosecution could have taken place under the new legislation”.
In the meantime, as Gaone Dixon from the International Organisation for Migration pointed out to News24: “Prosecutors are currently using fragmented legal framework like the sexual offences and the Children’s Act to combat trafficking persons, however there are still some gaps.”
These gaps mean that not all forms of trafficking are covered by existing laws, with criminals and victims alike slipping through the net.
Warning of further hurdles, Emser says: “It is also thought that the Act will be rolled out in phases - as was the case with the Children’s Act - which brings its own challenges in implementation.” She added: “The lack of resources and adequately trained personnel - especially in terms of law enforcement, Home Affairs and Labour - will remain an area of concern in the near future.”
Dr Quirk says the prospect of new laws on the horizon shows that the government has “started to think about labour trafficking”.
“Cops on the beat have at least begun to think of trafficking - there’s been a rise in awareness,”.
However, he cautions that it “remains to be seen” how much is really being done.
The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) confirmed to News24 that South Africa has only ever convicted seven people for trafficking in persons. The first conviction was in 2009 for sexual exploitation.
Emsur blames this on the “continued inertia” of the key government departments, alongside widespread corruption of public officials.
The US report concluded that despite civil experts pointing out to the South African government that the majority of victims were labour trafficking victims - rather than sex trafficking victims - last year the government “failed to systematically” address the issue.
It blames the police for focusing on smaller, local cases - rather than going after larger international rings - such as Nigerian sex syndicates in Hillbrow, and Russian and Bulgarian syndicates in Cape Town.
The report also claims that the police were ill-equipped and corrupt, stating: “A serious lack of capacity and widespread corruption among the police force stymied progress in anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts.”
Well-known brothels reportedly continued to operate without police intervention, for example, and a South African diplomat suspected of engaging in forced labour simply remained under investigation by a foreign government.
Worse still, during the year the report found that at least one potential sex trafficking victim was jailed alongside her suspected trafficker.
In 2013 alone, South Africa’s NPA convicted just two people for trafficking in persons - two of the 341 convictions that took place across Africa, according to US data. More than half of these convictions - 192 - were for labour trafficking.
In the same year, 10 096 victims were identified across Africa and 44 000 across the globe. These are the ones that were found, and survived. There are millions still out there.
- For help or advice please call the toll free national human trafficking help line number 08000 RESCU (08000 73728).
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