Police in this small town in eastern South Africa thought they had a problem with prostitutes they could solve in the usual way — arrest the women and get them off the streets.
Then Warrant Officer Magda Scholtz found herself doing something unusual. She talked to the women, curious about what had brought them to Ermelo. She found the problem was human traffickers.
At a heavily guarded hearing on Friday, seven suspects waived their right to bail in a case in which they are accused of recruiting women and at least one 16-year-old from across South Africa and
bringing them to Ermelo, where they were treated like slaves and forced into prostitution.
Two other suspects asked for more time to appeal for a bail, and a new hearing was set for month’s end.
The case comes as South Africa prepares to enact tough new legislation against human traffickers. The Soccer World Cup that opens in June also has focused attention on the crime, with questions about whether trafficking might increase because of the influx of partying fans.
The women in the case before the court on Friday spoke of being locked in their rooms when they weren’t working and of being beaten by the suspects. Their identity documents were taken from them and they were forced to take drugs. All their earnings were taken from them, and they were given little to eat beyond rice and cheap meat.
“One girl was raped … because she refused to work,” Scholtz said.
Four women who have agreed to testify against the suspects are in a witness protection programme. Scholtz said even she does not know where they are, but is confident they will appear when the
time comes during trial.
Other women were afraid to testify, and the fear increased when a prostitute was found dead near the apartment complex where the women had been living. Scholtz said the dead woman, who had been strangled, had said she would testify but refused to enter the protection programme.
Vanessa Barolsky, a sociologist at South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council, said police too often fail to listen to the women, children and migrants, who are the most common victims of
“Often what happens is that people are just investigated for prostitution without anybody investigating further,” she said.
“There are a lot of cases that are probably lost.”
Barolsky’s government-supported think tank released a report in March that explored trafficking in South Africa. The report said victims included children brought from elsewhere in Africa or the
South African countryside to work as street vendors, baby sitters and maids in South Africa’s cities. Some work in conditions very close to slavery, and those who leave at times fall into sex work out of desperation.
Women from Asia have been recruited to South Africa with promises of greater earnings here. Some come knowing the jobs are as prostitutes, while others fall for false promises of other work.
Trafficking is not specifically a crime, making statistics hard to compile. The Ermelo case is typical — the suspects are charged under provisions of the country’s sexual offences law.
A proposed South African law that has been years in the making creates a trafficking offence, punishable by life in prison. That’s comparable to the possible sentencing under the racketeering and
sex crimes laws that have been used in the past to prosecute traffickers.
In addition, the proposed law criminalises, under certain circumstances, using the services of a trafficked person, providing premises for traffickers, transporting victims, and failing to report suspected cases.
Provisions to guard against deporting victims, provide them shelter and other aid and help them get compensation from traffickers also are laid out.
Malebo Khotu-Rammopo, the point person on human trafficking for South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority, said lawmakers, prosecutors and others were still discussing how to implement the proposals, and the new law may not go into effect until late this year or early 2011.
Promises too good to be true
In Ermelo, police spokesperson Captain Leonard Hlathi said the young women had been promised “decent jobs” in Mpumalanga, a province whose roads include trucking routes from the neighbouring
countries of Swaziland and Mozambique.
“When they got to Mpumalanga, it was a different story,” Hlathi said. “They were forced to work as prostitutes.”
Hlathi said the lesson was clear: However desperate for work, don’t set out with people making promises too good to be true. “You
might not come home.” – Sapa-AP