Human trafficking, especially for labour, is rife in SA

South Africa has never prosecuted a high-level human-trafficking syndicate, despite being internationally regarded as being an “ideal location” for the multinational criminal industry.

The international syndicates are well known. A 2016 United States Trafficking in Persons report identified Nigeria, China, Russia, Bulgaria and Thailand as being home to the kingpins behind the biggest syndicates.

But, Marcel van der Watt of the National Freedom Network (NFN), said these groups have been allowed to operate with “interacting fluid relationships of convenience”.

“Our porous borders, fragmented law enforcement and corruption enable both international criminal elements and those from other African countries to conveniently ply their trade here in South Africa,” he said.

Corruption of the law enforcement agencies is an integral part of a successful trafficking network, Van der Watt said. He has been investigating trafficking cases for more than 15 years and has “seen enough” to conclude that “corruption is a fundamental perpetuator and enabler, which means that official complicity on all levels of these crime operations is a necessity”.

Van der Watt is a human trafficking incident manager for the NFN and a former police officer. He and University of Pretoria psychology lecturer Amanda van der Westhuizen published a paper on reconfiguring the criminal justice system’s response to the crime two months ago in the international journal Police Practice and Research.

Practical examples of how corruption enables trafficking include “traffickers getting police officers addicted to drugs to ensure their co-operation”, Van der Watt said.

Bribery also allowed the seamless transfer of trafficking victims through border posts, according to Professor Philip Frankel, the author of Long Walk to Nowhere: Human Trafficking in Post-Mandela South Africa and a former head of political science at the University of the Witwatersrand.

“Lesotho is the jumping-off point for [trafficked] people from all over Africa. The people who [illegally] manage that [Lesotho-South Africa] border are mainly Chinese triads, and a lot of people that go through there go into illegal mining in Welkom. That’s fairly common.

“But people are not only trafficked into mines — agriculture, domestic work, service industries [are also recipients of trafficking victims],” Frankel said.

Human trafficking is defined as the recruiting, transporting, selling or harbouring of people by force, deceit or abuse for exploitation.

Despite a growing number of cases being reported to the police, human trafficking remains under-reported and too complex to quantify, said Van der Watt and Van der Westhuizen.

“Reliable statistics on the scope, nature and extent of human trafficking in South Africa is sorely lacking … Differing agendas regarding the sex trade have impacted on the research,” Van der Watt said, referring to the question of whether people who willingly engaged in prostitution can be considered victims of trafficking.

Trafficking people into and through South Africa is so easy that it would be surprising if the crimes weren’t taking place. “When considering our multilayered structural inequalities, porous borders, culture of impunity, official complicity and corruption, it would be quite bizarre if South Africa did not have a human trafficking problem,” Van der Watt said.

Policing human trafficking

In their report, the pair found that the cases successfully prosecuted in South Africa “involved mostly simple trafficking operations, with the government failing to prosecute any of the major international syndicates”.

The low-level operations involve the “bakkie brigades”, Frankel said. “A great majority of human trafficking doesn’t involve syndicates at all. Most involve a bakkie brigade, where you have three or four guys going into the community, recruiting unemployed people and, once they get them to the city, they put them in the house, take away their identity documents or passports and sell them into forced labour”.

He, too, had found upper echelons of the state complicit in trafficking syndicates.

“It’s insidious but trafficking is very easy. Some syndicates appear, and I say this very carefully, to involve high-level police officials and leading government officials. So that’s why there’s no political will [to deal with it].

“Southern Africa in particular is experiencing an explosion of human trafficking, not only within the country but [also] across borders. As a transit junction, a lot of cases involve women brought from Thailand who go through South Africa and are transported off to Italy, Turkey and Latin America,” Frankel said.

“The reason for that is that our passports are much easier to fake, very easy. South African passports often crop up in most bizarre situations. It’s not that hard to bring someone through from OR Tambo or other airports or ports in Cape Town and Durban.”

Until 2013, South Africa did not have specific laws that could be used to prosecute human trafficking. In 2015, the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act was implemented. Van der Watt said this has resulted in more cases appearing before the court and “now is the time to optimally use it and establish good case law”.

Frankel believes the slow legislative response to the problem contributed to the proliferation of the crime.

“Relatively speaking, the government assigns a very small amount of money to anti-trafficking [operations] and that’s because until [2013] there wasn’t a national law against it. So it’s not been at the forefront of the agenda,” he said.

Although women trafficked into the sex trade have dominated media reports on trafficking in South Africa, Van der Watt said labour trafficking is “probably the most common [form]”.

“The most documented type of trafficking, both locally and internationally, is sex trafficking. However, labour trafficking is grossly under-represented and probably a far greater problem here in South Africa than what we realise,” he said.

Frankel concurred: “Global commentators have increasingly come to appreciate labour trafficking is a huge industry in itself, which may constitute about 70% of trafficking. It’s huge.”

Control of victims

In 2015, Van der Westhuizen conducted a study on the relationships between traffickers and their victims. In her report she cites an unnamed nongovernmental organisation manager describing how victims are forced into completing tasks for their traffickers after initial resistance.

“When a girl stops fighting, then she starts working,” the manager is quoted as saying, referring to women trafficked into the sex trade.

Providing an example of how women are manipulated by syndicates, an investigating officer told Van der Westhuizen traffickers would reward their victims with gifts and praise.

“Wow, you did a great job. Heavens, you brought back R10 000! Here, you can have R1 000. Jis, you’re amazing. You are sexy; here are beautiful clothes for you,” the report reads.

Van der Watt and University of Free State Professor Beatri Kruger are preparing a publication on the use of juju, more commonly known as muti, in human trafficking.

Described as an “additional layer of complexity to the control exercised over victims of trafficking”, Van der Watt said victims of this practice undergo rituals involving the collection of human tissue, such as menstrual blood, nails or underarm and pubic hair, to instil a fear that harm will befall them if they run away or approach the police.

“Victims are thus manipulated and controlled without being physically controlled or detained,” he said.

Van der Watt said he first came across the term juju in 2002 while working for the South Africa Police Service.

“We often found victims, Nigerian pimps and traffickers in possession of amulets. Unidentified concoctions containing animal blood and tissue were found in their residences.”

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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