Image: Tim Tebow Foundation (Unsplash)

By now, we have all seen the horrendous viral video of a man attempting to snatch a small girl while seated in an outside eating area with her mother in Roodeport, Johannesburg. This video has made the South African public a little more attune to the ugly reality of human trafficking.

What is human trafficking?

The United Nations (UN) defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, receiving, or holding of persons by threat, force, coercion, deception, or payment, with the intention of exploitation. Human trafficking is an acute problem in many regions of the world, but the African continent provides a ripe environment for several reasons. The continent is beset by high levels of poverty, political instability, widespread hunger and humanitarian crises, all of which give rise to a large rate of migration. Migrants and refugees are often targeted as victims of human trafficking because of their vulnerable and undocumented status. West Africa serves as a huge human trafficking region, but South Africa (SA) doubles as an economic hub for migrants and a geo-strategic location as a source, destination and transit country. According to a 2018 study by Bello and Oluta, the top locations for human trafficking in SA are Johannesburg, Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Cape Town and Durban, where mostly women and children are trafficked from rural areas. 

Human trafficking-organised crime nexus 

The phenomenon of human trafficking does not take place in isolation, it is intrinsically entangled in the web of the transnational and global sex industry, organised crime circles and illicit drug networks. According to an Independent Online article, last year a human trafficking “kingpin”, Ediozi Odi was charged with a 129-year sentence for harboring three young girls as sex slaves. Odi ran a brothel under the guise of a bar, which also functioned as a drug den, where drugs were peddled by the prostituted girls and fed to them as a form of ‘payment’ and used as a method to subdue them. 

Another example, is the arrest of Camilla de Waal Rossouw from Cape Town, in early November this year. She was charged with a ten-year sentence for kidnapping a minor, sex trafficking, brothel-keeping and profiting from the prostitution of others, in addition to other charges. She was linked to an organisation that ran brothels in Millerton, Table View, Big Bay, and Bellville. This instance dispels the notion that only ‘big bad men’ are involved in the underbelly of human trafficking like the movie ‘Taken’ has led us to believe. 

In her new book, Jackie Phamotse links South Africa’s ‘blesser’ culture to human trafficking. ‘Blesser’ culture is similar to the ‘sugar daddy’ transactional relationship between a typically young woman seeking financial security from a typically wealthy older man. In 2017, Grizelda Grootboom, a sex trafficking survivor and activist, said in an interview with eNCA, that young girls are led to believe that they will be set up with a blesser but are trafficked into sex slavery. According to a quantitative study published by Cluver and others in 2013, young South African girls between the ages of 12 and 17 years, are three to four percent more likely to engage in transactional sex when they do not have access to social grants. In the context of high levels of poverty and high youth unemployment, ‘blesser’ culture is an attractive avenue for many young South Africans to gain financial stability but also creates another channel for human trafficking.

What is being done about it?

SA passed the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons (PACOTIP) Act in 2013 as a legislative response to deal with the high levels of human trafficking, however, it is not proving to be very successful. According to the United States (US) Trafficking in Persons Report for South Africa 2020, despite the multiple procedures that have been established for various agencies to equip them with the skills to deal with human trafficking, the rate of implementation is embarrassingly low. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have highlighted that the South African Police Service (SAPS) are unable to identify victims of human trafficking and arrest them as ‘criminals’ engaging in prostitution instead of following procedural guidelines regarding shelter placement and the associated administration. Government responses to tackling human trafficking are further complicated when police officials are complicit in the crime. In April 2019, five Pretoria police officers were arrested for kidnapping and smuggling ten Bangladeshi individuals into SA from Zimbabwe. In a Mail & Guardian article by human trafficking expert, Marcel van der Watt, the processes of human trafficking in SA, from the recruitment phase to the ‘working’ phase, are graciously aided by government officials, including SAPS. He refers to his research interviews, where police informants attested to observing meetings between club and brothel owners, and police officers who were paid in cash and drugs in exchange for their compliance. Considering the amount of blatant corruption that takes place within the country’s official structures, it is not hard to believe that the police will turn a blind eye to trafficking in persons in exchange for well-compensated pockets. 

It is easy to frame human trafficking as a xenophobic or Afro-phobic narrative, especially when convicted traffickers are not South African, but it is not the nationality of a trafficker that explains their motive, but rather the immense profits that the business of trafficking can offer the desperate and greedy. Human trafficking does not take place because of a ‘few bad rich guys’. It takes place with the knowledge of the authorities to supply a multi-billion-dollar exploitative industry that profits off the bodies of men, women, and children who were deemed invaluable, right under our noses. 

Nirvana Govender is a postgraduate student at the University of Pretoria completing her Honors degree in International Relations. She is a tutor in the Political Sciences Department. She is also the co-creator of the grassroots community organisation, Get Involved. Please follow her page (@getinvolved_gbv) on Instagram to help support her organisation.

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