Home Opinion and Features Human trafficking in southern Africa is on the rise

Human trafficking in southern Africa is on the rise

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The region is ranked among top 10 trafficking destinations in the world.

Few trafficked sex workers are ever rescued. Brenton Geach African News Agency (ANA)

Human trafficking is variously known as people trafficking, modern slavery or, more commonly to analysts, TIP (trafficking in persons) and it is an egregious “atrocity” on par with war crimes, crimes against humanity
and genocide.

This is because TIP involves the dehumanisation and ultimate commodification of men, women, children and even babies who are captured, bought or fraudulently recruited for exploitative labour or sexual purposes.

The number of “modern slaves” in the world is estimated to be in the region of 30 million to 40million, about a third of whom, mainly women and children, are used and abused in commercial sex trafficking.

Less visible is the remainder which consists of men, women and children who are forced into often brutal and demanding work in mines, industry, informal small enterprise or the agricultural sector.

South Africans have generally given little attention to these human violations which are associated in the public mind with places such as
Thailand, India or other “underdeveloped” countries.

The incidence of human trafficking is nonetheless on the rise in South and southern Africa. So much so, that the sub-continent is now ranked in some studies among the top 10 trafficking destinations in the world.

Part of this has to do with the explosion of big-time organised crime in the region, some of which involves the proceeds of slavery.

There is also massive trans-frontier migration across our porous landward borders, especially the Limpopo River separating the Republic from Zimbabwe and points north on the continent. This has been the preferred route for more than 3.5million undocumented migrants arriving in the Republic since the millennium.

Some of these vulnerable people cross surreptitiously at Beitbridge, the border post. The greater majority, however, either swim or wade through the Limpopo or walk into Mozambique and then turn left into the Republic.

It is a measure of their desperation that they do so despite wild animals in Kruger National Park and the Limpopo riverbanks being infested with crocodiles and “magumagumas”. These are criminal gangs who capture and then sell on people to the taxi industry which services trafficking syndicates with nation-wide dispersal facilities in Johannesburg, Polokwane and Rustenburg. The syndicates often consist of sub-contracted South Africans working for global high rollers originating in Eastern Europe or West Africa.

A second route followed by undocumented immigrants destined for the mines is from Lesotho across the Maluti mountains and the Caledon River. This is largely organised by Chinese Triad gangs who sell labour from places as far afield as the Horn of Africa to the massively expanding illegal mining industry working the gold residues of the Free State and the gold and platinum reefs on the Johannesburg-Rustenburg axis.

We do not know with exactitude how many people are trafficked into South Africa – plus the cases where the country is used as a transit point for exporting mainly women into the
sex markets of the Middle East or Western Europe.

Given our focus on trans-frontier trafficking we also lack even the remotest estimate of the substantial numbers of those falling prey to perpetrators along the dangerous routes from rural poverty nodes to the urban areas.

Conservative guesstimates range around 40000 children, (excluding millions of adolescents entrapped by cultural conventions governing agricultural labour in the countryside): 70000 women (not including
substantial numbers in domestic
servitude): and probably five times as many men engaged in forced labour backed up by document confiscation or debt bondage.

There is insufficient political drive behind our central policy response to human trafficking ie the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act (or Pacotip) of 2013. This was initially discussed by the Law Reform Commission following South Africa’s adherence to the 2001 Palermo Convention on transnational crime but remains only partially operationalised 18 years later.

While a national counter-trafficking plan was devised following the promulgation of this one-and-only belated law governing TIP, most of its requisite institutions are basically non-functional. Government has persistently refused to put financial muscle behind the so-called cardinal “3Ps” which jointly and severally are considered the pillars of a coherent counter-trafficking strategy world-wide. These pertain to the prevention of trafficking, the prosecution of perpetrators and the protection of victims.

Of the various anti-trafficking structures prescribed for implementation at provincial level, only two – in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape – can be said to be reasonably operational. Key stakeholder government departments, such as the
Department of Social Development, Home Affairs and Justice and Constitutional Development have either failed to set in place the required administrative procedures or have done so without enthusiasm.

There are very few instances where convicted traffickers are given 25 years imprisonment associated with TIP in most countries. Many, in fact, receive a tap on the wrist in the form of a short sentence, a fine or even release on their own recognisances. Last year less than a dozen people were convicted under the Pacotip.

All of this speaks to the fundamental corruption in law enforcement at all levels.

Border police are often miscreant but there are few effective oversight mechanisms. Investigations into their corruption seldom go anywhere.

Joint operations between the SAPS and the police forces of neighbouring states aimed at intercepting undocumented migrants generally fail because of poor intelligence, corruption or double agendas on the part of participating forces.

In its present dire state, SANDF reinforcements on border patrol consists of mainly demoralised reservists.

Severing the links between law enforcement and corruption is an elemental task on the way forward: this is a very tall order. Almost as tall is developing methods to accurately track TIP, especially labour trafficking which, despite its prevalence, remains the poor cousin of commercial sex and child trafficking.

There is also an urgent need to raise public awareness of the realities, especially among populations most at risk, such as schoolchildren,
undocumented migrants and young women on the transit routes from rural areas to the cities. Many of
the latter aspiring to be models end up in brothels.

Improvement in the numbers, staffing and security of our rehabilitation facilities for dealing with the complex trauma as a consequence of victimhood would also be welcomed.

* Frankel is in the Department of Social Science, St Augustine College of South Africa. He is also the author of the one and only book on human trafficking in South Africa titled Long Walk to Nowhere: Human Trafficking in Post-Mandela South Africa.

** The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of Independent Media