/ 28 October 2022

How to tackle the rise in kidnappings, human trafficking in South Africa

Soldiers Patrol The Sa Zimbabwe Border.
Slavery: A border fence with Zimbabwe. South Africa is a destination for people kidnapped in other African countries. Photos: Paul Botes

In the first six months of 2022, an average of 1 143 kidnappings a month were reported to the police, making it 60% higher than the number reported for the whole of 2019. 

The increase in kidnapping for ransom and extortion cases “suggests that it has become an established and lucrative criminal practice in South Africa”, according to the Strategic Organised Crime Risk Assessment report for South Africa of September 2022 prepared by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. 

The country is an active hub for human trafficking because of gender inequality, economic instability, and political fragility. People are trafficking for forced labour and commercial sexual exploitation among imported and exported trafficked men, women, children and queer people. 

South Africa is a primary destination for trafficked people from Africa. It is also an origin and transit country for trafficking to Europe and North America. 

South Africa needs to tackle human trafficking urgently using a muti-institutional approach that employs various methods. There are various ways the government can tackle the problem.

Specialised trafficking in persons (TIP) unit: There is a serious shortage of capacity, as well as widespread corruption among the police force, that makes anti-trafficking efforts harder. Establishing a specialised TIP unit under the Hawks, South African Police Service (outside of the existing desk), South African National Defence Force or an independent body would assist in tackling human trafficking. 

The TIP office would lead South Africa’s efforts to combat human trafficking through the prosecution of traffickers and the protection of victims. 

This can be achieved by analysing government efforts and identifying global trends, involvement in and supporting strategic bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, targeting foreign assistance to build sustainable capacity of governments and civil society, advancing the coordination of provincial anti-trafficking policies across agencies, managing and leveraging operational resources to achieve strategic priorities, and working and partnering with civil society organisations, the private sector and the public.

A victim-centred approach: The TIP or police unit should adopt a victim-centred approach, which encourages survivors to participate in investigations, enabling law enforcement to better detect, investigate and prosecute perpetrators. 

Such an approach seeks to minimise re-traumatisation associated with the criminal justice process by providing the support of victim advocates and service providers, empowering survivors as participants in the process, and providing survivors an opportunity to play a role in seeing their traffickers brought to justice. 

Best practices would need to be integrated into all policies, programmes and activities governing interactions with victims of trafficking. This develops partnerships and collaborations with communities who are vulnerable to human trafficking and those unlikely to report crimes to law enforcement. This approach seeks to minimise additional trauma, mitigate undue penalisation and stabilise and support victims and communities.

Public awareness: The social development or justice departments together with civil society organisations need to embark on a national public awareness campaign designed to educate the public, law enforcement and other industry partners to recognise the indicators of human trafficking, and how to appropriately respond to possible cases. 

Local governments should use awareness training and mass distribution of specific educational resources to help reduce victimisation in vulnerable populations.

Public awareness is important to increase enthusiasm and support, stimulate self-mobilisation and action, and mobilise local knowledge and resources. Schools, recreational centres, clinics, police stations, churches and traditional forums and community policing forums are the best locally based places to work with to have an effective awareness campaign. The awareness campaign would have to maximise reach by using different tools such as social media, mass media, meetings and school curricula.

Strengthen border control: The department of home affairs needs to play an active role in strengthening border control systems. Strengthening basic border controls makes it more difficult for traffickers to use conventional means of transport to enter countries. The department needs to mitigate border control corruption, effectively manage border entry and exit and sensitise employees about human trafficking. It also needs to protect victims of human trafficking by providing immigration relief. 

This is not to say we must run to stricter border control. International human trafficking will inevitably raise issues of immigration, but its victims cannot simply be treated as illegal migrants, nor can the efforts to tackle it be reduced to stricter border controls. 

International relations: The international dimension of human trafficking calls for an international and multilateral cooperation response. The department of international relations and cooperation needs to establish a committee to build strong international relations in the fight against human trafficking, proactively identifying, disrupting and dismantling cross-border human trafficking organisations and minimising the risk they pose to national security and public safety. 

This includes establishing strong relationships and anti-human trafficking programmes and policies with other countries, especially those that have been identified as countries in which South African victims are taken — including Ireland, the United States and the Middle East — and victims brought into South Africa — from countries such as Thailand, the Philippines and China. 

The department should also build working relationships with Interpol, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and other international organisations to fight against human trafficking. 

Local interventions: A valuable approach to tackling human trafficking is one that extensively involves the residents. 

Establish forums that develop protocols for identifying and reporting a suspected case of human trafficking or responding to a potential victim.Hosting conversations with parent-teacher associations, law enforcement, schools and residents regarding safety is key. It helps people to learn how human traffickers target and recruit, how to safely navigate out of a suspicious or uncomfortable situation, and how to ask for help at any time.

Economic development: Traffick-ing syndicates capitalise on economic desperation. They recruit and pay mainly young people to facilitate local trafficking, kidnapping and recruitment. Economic activity needs to improve to dissuade participation in the trade. Local economic development activities are essential, if not the most important. South Africa is going through an unemployment and economic crisis, thus making the country even more vulnerable to trafficking.

The Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons National Policy Framework of 2019 needs to be accompanied by more programming efforts to tackle human trafficking and the government needs to secure political and financial support and ensure rational use of resources and effective responses. 

All government departments, civil society organisations and the public need to be guided in the implementation of anti-trafficking responses and of any of their statutory responsibilities. Human trafficking is a collective battle and the sooner we realise it, the better.

Karabo Mokgonyana is an award-winning legal and development practitioner and a programme director for the Sesi Fellowship and Skill Hub.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.