#sextrafficking | Human trafficking in South Africa: Are the Constitution… | #tinder | #pof | #match


Many people submit to exploitation because they really believe they have no reasonable alternative but to submit. (Photo: Adobestock)

Human trafficking has been in existence from time immemorial, and South Africa presents the ideal climate for the crime to continue flourishing. Right now, dismissing and downplaying issues related to both adult and child trafficking are matters of great consequence.

Recent weeks have seen mass panic and paranoia sweeping through South Africa’s media and online platforms. Conversations and opinions about human trafficking and child kidnappings have again become commonplace at our proverbial dinner tables after the most recent footage of a man attempting to snatch a girl child from her mother went viral. During times like these, many contested questions and their equally contested answers abound. The burning question at the centre of this discussion is: “How big is the problem?”

The conflicting responses to this question range from one extreme to the other. On the one side of the continuum, the prevalence of trafficking is presented sensationally, with unsubstantiated and inflated guesstimates, which create “a credibility dilemma, detract from a constructive conversation and frustrate efforts to understand the multilayered realities of the problem”.

However, on the other extreme of the continuum, an equally disconcerting trend has emerged over the past 12 years. This sceptical view correctly questions inflated and sensationalist prevalence figures, but bizarrely disregards qualitative evidence-based data, thereby declaring that human trafficking is a perpetuated myth and not a problem. One study goes so far as to conclude that pressure to comply with international commitments appears to have “contributed to the creation of sex trafficking as a social problem in South Africa”.

Notably, the support for the decriminalisation of “sex work” and non-securitisation of migration are firmly rooted in this sceptical view about human trafficking.

From the mid-2000s, conflicting views emerged on the scope and nature of human trafficking in South Africa. A handful of previous studies and the annual Trafficking-in-Persons (TIP) reports by the State Department in the United States dating back to 2001, suggest that human trafficking is indeed a concerning reality in South Africa.

In contrast, a widely cited 2008 research study reported little evidence to substantiate the notion of trafficking in the sex trade and no evidence of children in brothels or children being forced by a third party to sell sex. Research, however, is only as good as its sources. While this study included prostituted persons, brothel owners and a pimp, frontline counter-trafficking practitioners and survivors were excluded. The findings of this study continue to garner doubt from both local frontline counter-trafficking practitioners and internationally as well.

Michelle Dempsey, Professor of Law at Villanova University in the US, identified a number of shortfalls in the study that reduces the validity of findings and pointed out that the researchers have “radically truncated the scope of the definition” of human trafficking and even excluded cases “involving the use of force”. Professor Dempsey concludes that researchers of this study incorrectly coded some cases as not being trafficking and, thus, “undercounted the prevalence of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation”.

Convincing, coherent and consistent evidence of adult and child trafficking in South Africa does in fact exist. Like the many other forms of exploitation, sex trafficking is by no means a mythical figment, but rather so intractable, intersectional, and systemic that it is hard to count in a society where indifference and multiple layers of violence are commonplace.

Most recently, in 2020 and in a similar vein, the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria published a report titled “Child trafficking in South Africa: Exploring the myths and realities”. However, the report does not directly speak to child trafficking as a phenomenon experienced by child migrants in South Africa, and nor does it adequately explore any of the claimed myths in the data collected, analysis and discussion. It is based primarily on child migration as a child protection issue and makes sweeping generalisations about child trafficking in South Africa.

We acknowledge the link between child migration and child trafficking; however, child migrants and their experiences constitute only one particular trafficking subpopulation. To claim that child trafficking in South Africa is sensationalised and driven by assumption and not evidence downplays the reality of victims, those who work with them and the available qualitative evidence. While the report highlighted some worrying experiences of child migrants in South Africa, there is limited engagement on weighty matters related to agency and the acute vulnerabilities faced by children at risk of trafficking and child victims of trafficking in South Africa.

Research for the 2020 report included 34 interviews and two focus group discussions with unaccompanied migrant children and stakeholders. It is evident that identified child victims of trafficking and counter-trafficking practitioners were not interviewed for the research. What is more, available relevant evidence-based data on the trafficking realities in South Africa, including police statistics and numerous successful child trafficking prosecutions was made available by the authors to the study team in the months leading up to the finalisation of their report. However, this pertinent evidence was not cited or considered.

Furthermore, during the launch of the report on 21 August 2020, the Centre for Child Law research team claimed that a systematic review of the literature was conducted, yet many relevant local research studies were simply not cited. The legally binding definition of the crime of human trafficking as prescribed in the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act 7 of 2013 (PACOTIP) was either truncated or incorrectly employed by the research team, and key definitions such as the “abuse of vulnerability” omitted.

The problem with both the sensationalist and sceptical views is that inaccurate data, based on a lack of understanding of the many limitations of TIP research, may be offered as truth. A case in point is a recent Constitutional Court matter (Centre for Child Law vs DG Home Affairs, case number CCT 101/20) relating to the application that an unmarried father be allowed to notify the birth of his child under his surname in the absence of the child’s mother in terms of the Births and Deaths Registration Act 51 of 1992.

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng raised concern about issues of human trafficking in South Africa to which advocate Jatheen Bhima, on behalf of the Centre for Child Law, made reference to their own 2020 study that “addressed the real concerns with human smuggling and human trafficking”. He submitted that “there isn’t much evidence on it” and, “that in many instances where rights are limited on the basis of this argument that child trafficking exists, it is merely speculation”.

Again, no mention was made of alternative relevant evidence in South Africa including available qualitative research data (from more than 1,120 participants – including TIP victims, counter-trafficking practitioners and survivors), police statistics, or child trafficking convictions in our courts.

Convincing, coherent and consistent evidence of adult and child trafficking in South Africa does in fact exist. Like the many other forms of exploitation, sex trafficking is by no means a mythical figment, but rather so intractable, intersectional, and systemic that it is hard to count in a society where indifference and multiple layers of violence are commonplace.

Many people submit to exploitation because they really believe they have no reasonable alternative but to submit. The latter scenario is often propelled by adverse social circumstances, economic circumstances, being addicted to drugs, being undocumented in the country, or being a child. These predisposing vulnerabilities, exploited by traffickers, are clearly acknowledged in South Africa’s PACOTIP Act. Available police statistics suggest that from 2007 to 2017 at least 188 sex trafficking cases were reported to SAPS under the interim TIP provisions in the Sexual Offences Amendment Act of 2007, while 2,132 cases were reported to SAPS under the PACOTIP Act in a 28-month period from 9 August 2015 to 12 December 2017.

Only one successful child trafficking prosecution is cited in the Centre for Child Law report, yet there have been at least 22 successful child trafficking prosecutions in South Africa that show, among others, that children are in fact trafficked into sexual exploitation, that places of exploitation are seamlessly embedded in communities, and that countless victims remain undetected.

The commodification of babies for sale featured in at least four cases, while the nexus between reported missing children and child trafficking featured in at least two successful prosecutions.

With 3,957 children and 23,803 adults missing and unaccounted for over a 15-year period (2000-2015), the human trafficking nexus is something not to be dismissed. There are multilayered and perplexing problems associated with the reporting and documenting of trafficking cases that adversely affects available statistics. It contributes to the undercounting of TIP cases and has also been reported in numerous South African TIP studies.

Countless examples of non-response and indifference exist. One case in point is the National Human Trafficking Hotline (0800222777), which has 784 open queries where response to information remains outstanding. In 2019 the hotline reported 103 trafficking cases to authorities, with feedback outstanding on 82 cases, and so far in 2020, 68 cases have been reported with feedback outstanding on 63 cases.

Human trafficking has been in existence from time immemorial, and South Africa presents the ideal climate for the crime to continue flourishing. Right now, dismissing and downplaying issues related to both adult and child trafficking are matters of great consequence. This is particularly concerning when the public at large and even the Constitutional Court are misled by research and sensational information that is effectively disengaged from available evidence and the day-to-day realities of frontline TIP practitioners, victims and survivors themselves.

The concerns raised by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng will remain valid. Conversely, attempts to pacify these concerns are strikingly ominous. We call for ethical research in matters related to human trafficking, incorporating a wide range of stakeholders and the voices of victims and survivors, and the transparent dissemination of research findings and methodologies employed that enable readers to be more informed and knowledgeable. As multidisciplinary researchers, we are also open to further discussions and conversations about this important field of study.

If you suspect or know of someone who has been trafficked, contact 080 022 2777. DM

Dr Marcel van der Watt, PhD, is a senior lecturer at the Department of Police Practice, University of South Africa. His criminal justice doctoral thesis is titled “Investigating human trafficking for sexual exploitation: From lived experiences towards a complex systems understanding.”

Dr Beatri Kruger, LLD, is a research fellow at the Free State Centre for Human Rights, University of the Free State. Her doctoral thesis is titled “Combating human trafficking: a South African legal perspective.”

Dr Ajwang Warria, D Litt et Phil, is a senior lecturer in the Department of Social Work at the University of the Witwatersrand. Her doctoral thesis is titled: “Development of psychosocial guidelines for transnational trafficked children.”

Dr Monique Emser, PhD, is a senior lecturer in the International and Public Affairs Cluster, University of Kwazulu-Natal. Her doctoral thesis is titled: “The politics of human trafficking in South Africa: A case study of the Kwazulu-Natal intersectoral task team.”

Dr Amanda van der Westhuizen, D.Phil, is a research associate at the Department of Psychology, University of Pretoria and a Master’s of Public Health candidate at Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden. Her doctoral thesis is titled: “Co-mapping the maze: A complex systems view of human trafficking in the Eastern Cape.”

All authors write in their personal capacities.



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