‘Denial’ has been described as ignoring the reality of a situation in order to reduce anxiety, the rejection of a truth or statement. To deny the state of affairs of human trafficking in South Africa is convenient – because the reality of the crisis we face is a devastating reflection of how we have failed to protect the most vulnerable members of our society.

Grizelda Grootboom was 18 years old when a female friend convinced her to join her on a trip to Johannesburg. As soon as they arrived at their accommodation in Yeoville, Grootboom’s friend stepped out of their shared room – as 3 foreign men walked in. Grootboom was bound and forcefully penetrated – and to this day, has never seen the friend who trafficked her again. She would close her eyes and hold her breath to try and remove herself consciously from the forced sexual labour she had to endure. Several months passed before her captors found a new replacement and turned her out onto the streets of the City of Gold.

Grootboom has since become an inspirational speaker and activist against human trafficking in South Africa. She has shared the intimate details of the acts committed against her in order to shed a light on the vile and inhuman nature of trafficking. “You don’t know who comes in and who goes out – you’re just in a dark room, with your hands bound…you go weeks without food – and all you can smell on yourself are the bodily fluids of several men. You begin to hate life”. Grootboom shares how her life soon revolved around the drugs they had forced her to become addicted to. Her captors would force her down to the ground and inject unknown substances into the skin behind her knees.  

Human trafficking involves the use of fraud or coercion to force an individual into a range of exploitative acts for the commercial gain of their captor. According to advocacy and action organization Human Rights First, the human trafficking industry is estimated to make roughly US$150 billion per year (R2.1 trillion), of which US$99 billion (R1.4 trillion) stems from the commercial sexual exploitation of women and children. It is commonly referred to as modern-day slavery. People are abducted and sold for sex and organ trafficking, to become child soldiers, for debt bondage and child marriages too.

The latest trends indicate that children as young as 5 years of age are being trafficked for sexual exploitation. Sex trafficking victims are often forced into prostitution, pornography and other commercial sex acts, such as performing in sex shows – and are often expected to perform sexual acts for dozens of people, every night.

Reports indicate that South Africa is a major source, transit, and destination country for human trafficking in southern Africa. Our women and children are often trafficked to Thailand, Pakistan, the Philippines, India, China, Bulgaria, Romania and Russia for sexually exploitative purposes through Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport. Trafficking streams within the African continent take place through South Africa’s porous land borders, where our national government has failed dismally to institute adequate control measures to ensure border security. Women and children are often abducted locally and trafficked to neighbouring states, including Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Swaziland and Lesotho.

Victims of human trafficking in South Africa are usually women and children, who are abducted for sexually exploitative work. Men and boys are also trafficked in high numbers from Lesotho, into South Africa, for illegal mining camps in Kimberley and Welkom. Young boys are also often trafficked and used as drug mules to smuggle narcotics across our borders.

Traffickers often form part of larger organised crime syndicates from Eastern Europe, Africa and South East Asia. They employ well-organised local networks, such as taxi drivers and truck drivers to help achieve their means. Traffickers also often employ female facilitators, parents and family members to assist in the abduction of their victims. This comes as no surprise, given Stats SA’s most recent Quarterly Labour Force Survey Results (QLFS Results) – June 2021. The QLFS has recorded our country’s staggering unemployment rates, which have recently reached a 14-year high. The expanded youth unemployment figures indicate that over 70% of South African youth are without jobs, education or training. In a country where the majority of citizens are suffocated by poverty and go to bed hungry, it stands to reason that people can often be bought at a price. Can there be any greater indication that a government has failed its people when minors choose to sell their friends to traffickers in order to earn an income?

International legal framework

South Africa is party to several international and regional bodies which deal with human trafficking, including the United Nations Palermo Protocol of 2004. The protocol aims to tackle human trafficking across the globe by demanding that signatory states prosecute human traffickers, implement preventative measures and adopt their own laws to deal with this line of crime.

At a local level, South Africa has recently instituted a legal framework to prevent and combat human trafficking – although it has certainly dragged its feet in operationalising this policy framework. 

This, combined with a range of enabling factors, such as the collusion of border and other immigration officials, has been a key factor facilitating the abduction of our women and children, regardless of the policies put in place to protect them. The South African Penal Code also lacks criminal codes that specifically outline human trafficking, instead grouping incidents into crimes like rape, sexual assault, and abduction. This lack of systematic data collection makes it difficult to record incidents of human trafficking and take measures against it.

On 31 May 2021, the Department of Social Development released a press statement which stated that in its effort to protect children against child trafficking, the South African Government promulgated the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act of 2013, in order to:

  • Give effect to South Africa’s obligations concerning the trafficking of persons in terms of international agreements
  • Provide for the prosecution of persons who commit offences referred to in the Act for appropriate penalties
  • Provide for the prevention of trafficking in persons and for the protection and assistance to victims of trafficking; and,
  • Provide services to victims of trafficking

The Act itself defines perpetrators of human trafficking as any person who delivers, recruits, transports, transfers, harbours, sells, exchanges, leases or receives another person within or across the borders of our country, by means of, amongst other things, a threat of harm, the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abuse of vulnerability, abduction and kidnapping.

And although this policy framework might be a step in the right direction, it is quite worrying to note that it has taken our government over 15 years to promulgate an act that binds it to abide by an international United Nations protocol it signed in 2004.

South Africa’s ineptitude

Meanwhile, our inability to measure and manage human trafficking in South Africa continues to fail the victims who become subject to this extreme line of exploitation.

  • The lack of official statistics has been a challenge to the accurate assessment of the magnitude of trafficking in South Africa or any country in the Southern African Developmental Community (SADC) region.
  • This is compounded by a lack of local infrastructure to support, protect and defend survivors of human trafficking.
  • There simply aren’t enough shelters, halfway homes and safe houses for victims of trafficking, and government personnel working in these spaces lack the specific skills that are required to deal with such cases. The shelters which do exist are severely under-capacitated and are in desperate need of social workers and psychologists who are adequately trained to assist in such scenarios.
  • There is a limited understanding of trafficking – which is often confused with smuggling and conflated with prostitution and sexual abuse. There is also great denial, due to the extreme discomfort caused by the natures of these crimes. Human trafficking isn’t easy to talk about and absorb as a reality requiring ongoing, empirical research.

What are the solutions?

The South African government must formalise and adopt a national definition of trafficking which is accepted and practised across all sectors.

The definition provided by the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act of 2013 would be a good place to start. This will help obtain the data needed to measure and manage the problem at a national and provincial level. This could then be achieved through the implementation of a Trafficking Information Management System which would enable the collection of systematic data which could address prevention, protection and prosecution.

The South African government should consider the prioritisation and appointment of a National Coordinator on Human Trafficking to establish and facilitate the implementation of procedures assisting the fight against human trafficking.

These procedures should include:

  • Extensive and accelerated skills training for personnel working on the frontline
  • An accelerated information campaign that could reach rural and urban communities, as well as ports of entry and transit sites,
  • Mainstreaming human trafficking into school curricula to inform and protect the younger vulnerable members of our society to become aware of the tell-tale signs of human trafficking.

Although our national government has largely failed to address and protect its citizens from the exploitative practice of modern-day slavery, there are a number of civil society organisations which have truly championed the fight against human trafficking in our country.

  • South African NGOs such as A21 provide helpful solutions to human trafficking in South Africa by raising awareness, providing education and acting as problem solvers in place of corrupted police. They also operate the South African National Human Trafficking Hotline, which can be reached at all hours of the day on 0800 222 777.
  • The Umgeni Community Empowerment Center founded Shiloh House in 2006, which provides support and counselling services while acting as a safe haven for victims of human trafficking and gender-based violence. Survivors are provided with accommodation, healthcare, food and clothing, while a care plan is formulated to assist in the sustainable resettlement of each individual.
  • At Fight Back we combat Gender Based Violence and human trafficking by providing free self defense classes and free pepper sprays to women and children living in crime ridden communities.
Fight Back trains local at-risk community, giving the women and children effective self defense techniques. Courtest: Fight Back.

Human trafficking is a major threat to the protection of human rights in South Africa. We cannot ignore or deny this reality – and we simply cannot disregard the fact that our broken economy has become a factor that contributes towards the illegal trade of our women and children.

South African citizens deserve to live a life free from extreme exploitation and abuse. We cannot continue to sign international protocols, which declare our intent to defend and protect, when we vaguely hold ourselves accountable to them 15 years later.

For more information on the different types of human trafficking, and what signs to look out for, please visit the link provided here. For more information on Grizelda Grootboom and her line of activism work, please follow the link here.

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