The recently released 2019 United States state department Trafficking in Persons report ranked South Africa on the tier two watch list for the second consecutive year. This ranking is not new for South Africa, which occupied the same position from 2005 to 2008.
The South African government has made some laudable efforts since its 2004 ratification of the Palermo Protocol, the landmark international treaty against human trafficking. These include a comprehensive piece of legislation credited as a “sharp prosecution sword”, and the newly launched national policy framework that finally sets out how South Africa’s Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act of 2013 will be implemented.
Dedicated prosecutors, investigators and social workers forge ahead with limited resources, while successful prosecutions dribble in, although they pale in comparison with the estimated scope of the systemic problem in South Africa.
One of the foremost concerns about South Africa’s human trafficking problem is the role of corruption and official complicity. In 2004, the US Trafficking in Persons report pointed to “evidence of trafficking-related corruption among lower-level government and police officials” and in 2007 raised concerns about local law enforcement officials believed to be “connected with organised criminal elements that engage in human trafficking as a side business”.
Reports from 2014, 2015 and 2016 raised concerns about “a serious lack of capacity and widespread corruption among the police force”, which constrained anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. The latest report lamented the negligible efforts of the government to address reports of corruption and official complicity in trafficking, creating “a culture of impunity for offenders, raised concerns over victim protection, and inhibit[ing] the government’s prosecution, protection and prevention efforts”.
According to Transparency International, corruption is a global issue that enables human trafficking and concomitant impunity. In his book Long Walk to Nowhere: Human Trafficking in Post-Mandela South Africa, Philip Frankel points to widespread corruption among the actors combating trafficking. My own investigative experience in the Hawks and the South African Police Service (SAPS) dating to 2002, and ongoing case consultations and civil society engagements corroborate the US Trafficking in Persons reports.
Corruption and official complicity in human trafficking cases were also a pervasive theme that emerged from the lived experiences of participants in my doctoral research. Curbside conversations throughout the country over six years, field journaling and in-depth interviews with 120 people active in every aspect of combating human trafficking — including brothel owners and convicted traffickers — formed part of the study.
This research allowed me to glean granular insights that are frequently absent from theoretical discussions about trafficking and corruption. From “Casey”, a sex trafficker in Cape Town who also supplies “Home Affairs services” and fraudulent documents, to a Pretoria-based diplomat who admitted to mobilising undocumented migrants for domestic servitude, the brazenness with which these crimes are perpetrated is revolting.
Corruption and official complicity occur in South Africa at every phase of the trafficking process — from recruitment to victim exploitation. Sometimes it is characterised by blatant acts of commission; at others, by acts of omission. These include criminal cases or inquiries that are not registered, statements not obtained from witnesses, reports ignored and investigations manipulated — all of which diminish the accuracy of local human trafficking data.
Criminal operations, such as illegal mining, forced labour and brothels, operate with officials’ tacit support. Interviewees in my research alleged both complicity by government officials in the transnational drug trade and their failure to investigate smuggling and trafficking operations where terror groups are believed to be financial beneficiaries.
Two police informants from different cities shared remarkably similar accounts of personal threats, corruption and police complicity with West African human trafficking networks. Both witnessed meetings between police and traffickers in nightclubs and brothels, traffickers buying case dockets from police, and traffickers paying SAPS members with drugs and cash in exchange for silence or co-operation.
In one of these matters, statements submitted by police investigators implicating “high-ranked officers” complicit in human trafficking networks were dismissed. One informant was encouraged to leave the province for the sake of her safety.
In a separate case, a witness who implicated a transnational syndicate fled the country after a member of the SAPS Organised Crime Unit allegedly handed his statement to criminals trafficking Thai women into South Africa. Speaking to me from abroad, he told me of the subsequent threat: “I must take what’s coming my way now.” With a sense of dismay, he said: “I can honestly tell you I will never, ever talk to the South African police again. They scare me.”
There is a clear disincentive for some victims and witnesses to disclose their ordeals and share information. Some victims, who manage to flee from places of exploitation and seek assistance from the SAPS, are bundled into police vehicles and taken back to their traffickers. A Hawks investigator revealed, “A lot of embassies are also involved” and pointed out that some victims of trafficking “are also scared of their own embassies in their countries”.
A prosecutor echoed this sentiment by describing a prominent Johannesburg hotel where prostitution and human trafficking continue with impunity: “We found out there were Nigerian syndicates running it together with people from the [country’s name] embassy.”
The prosecutor highlighted that “The victim was able to confirm that it was embassy staff who were in on it and they had her passport and they were saying to her that if she went back to the hotel she could pick up her passport.” The prosecutor concluded: “Nothing’s been done at the hotel. All the information was given over. The police sat there.”
Political influence in high-profile investigations and prosecutions is also evident in some cases. With reference to “the tentacles of the accused”, one investigator responsible for a transnational case of human trafficking was unsettled to see “how high up they reached and how much interference he was able to create”. The investigator said the accused “even had a senior politician come and plead his case to the national director of public prosecutions at that stage”.
Many interviewees refer to the intersection of the sex trade with organised crime, human trafficking and corruption as the ideal theatre for compromising those in positions of influence and power. For another prosecutor, rumours suggested that an investigating officer, who appeared to be “very enthusiastic” about the trafficking case he investigated, actually had personal interests in the sex trade and was disrupting “his own competition”. According to the prosecutor, it was later established that the investigating officer “was handing over our case to the defence attorneys”.
The full range of criminal-justice actors are particularly vulnerable to the schemes of pimps and traffickers. They offer free sex, alcohol and lucrative networks; they pay stipends and encourage drug abuse. These pleasures are fleeting; the sobering cost eventually kicks in. Drug addiction germinates, debt becomes overwhelming and videos portraying the compromised official in grimacing sexual positions and criminal acts help to blackmail them.
The toxic residue of corruption is far reaching. It occurs “on every level, within the police and within every other department”, stated a Hawks investigator. Physical and psychological control over victims, public indifference, administrative inaction, personal protection, intelligence, official documents, access to government systems and resources, transport and looking the other way are but some of the gifts pouring into the criminal duffel bag. Human trafficking and corruption metastasise and are given oxygen by a complacent response.
In a country in which transparency is traded for opacity, where the criminal justice system grinds under the millstone of staff shortages and a “massive credibility challenge”, answers are elusive. Slogans and intellectual comfort will not accomplish anything. Pragmatic solutions must be coaxed from the complex status quo South Africa faces, while setting aside either/or approaches to convoluted both/and problems.
The national policy framework’s strategic goal “to eliminate corruption as one of the contributing factors to trafficking in persons” is promising. However, this must happen in parallel with the reinvigoration of the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system. No longer should the public be satisfied with the ill-informed flaunting of victim “rescues” and premature arrests in the media — an established pacification tactic and frequent indicator of investigative shoddiness.
The litmus test is successful prosecutions and proportionate sentences stemming from court-driven, victim-centred and intelligence-led investigations. Be the issue state capture, or human trafficking and corruption, a battle of wits is taking place in South Africa between those who are committed to the country’s constitutional ideals, and the official thugs who continue to plunder and exploit with shameless buoyancy.
As we approach the World Day against Trafficking in Persons on July 30, political will and resolute leadership must be elevated as imperative conditions for severing any hint of corruption and official complicity in human trafficking cases. In its absence, honourable interventions may fall on a Long Walk to Nowhere.
Marcel van der Watt is attached to the department of police practice at Unisa. He is an ex-Hawks investigator and performs a variety of local and international roles in the field of combating human trafficking and organised crime.