The extent of South Africa's human trafficking problem - also known as trafficking in persons - remains an 'elusive statistical nightmare'. Available data sources reveal little about the prevalence of the phenomenon in the country. Even numbers on the volume of cases successfully prosecuted, and victims identified and liberated, are hard to come by.
This is the reality 14 years after South Africa ratified the Palermo Protocol, the milestone international treaty on the issue. And three years have passed since the country's Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act 7 of 2013 came into operation on 9 August 2015.
The multi-layered complexities presented by the crime further muddle an equitable understanding and response to the issue. These include the hidden and subversive nature of human trafficking, ideological disagreements about what the problem is and how it should be addressed, sensationalist social media reports about children being 'stolen', and the disconnect between 'data' in the hands of government, and that of NGOs who respond at the grass-roots level.
Together with the recent downgrade of South Africa to the Tier 2 Watchlist on the annual US State Department's Trafficking in Persons report, these complexities were among the factors discussed at an Institute for Security Studies seminar on 26 October.
Trafficking in persons is rooted in South Africa's historical landscape
Speakers at the event offered perspectives on what appears to be a systemic and chronic occurrence in South Africa. They also explained the ongoing confusion between human trafficking and common law crimes such as kidnapping and abduction.
In short, 'kidnapping' refers to the unlawful deprivation of a person's freedom of movement while 'abduction' is the unlawful taking of a minor from the control of his/her custodian with the specific intent to marry or have sexual intercourse with that minor.
When these crimes are committed as a means for the subsequent exploitation of a person as provided for in the act, it is dealt with as trafficking in persons. According to advocate Rasigie Bhika from the National Prosecuting Authority, the act has ensured that an increasing number of human trafficking cases are now entering the criminal justice system and stringent sentences are imposed on those convicted.
According to Lieutenant Colonel Parmanand Jagwa, human trafficking is fundamentally an organised crime that is becoming more prevalent in South Africa. Jagwa is Gauteng Provincial Coordinator for Illegal Migration in the police's Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation.
Dedicated police skilled in proactive, intelligence-led and court-driven investigations are needed
With people viewed as commodities by trafficking syndicates, he pointed to the trend of West African criminal elements who recruit their victims in areas such as the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Women and girls are then brought together in residential brothels in Gauteng where they are sexually exploited and controlled with drugs.
Working in partnership with the Department of Home Affairs, Kirsten Hornby from Love Justice International spoke about transit monitoring at four anti-trafficking stations at South African ports of entry. Of the 378 potential victims of trafficking intercepted since 2016, nationals from Thailand, Ethiopia and Ghana made up the largest number of inbound cases identified.
Statistics offered by Lumka Cebo of the A21 Campaign revealed that together, forced labour (41%) and sexual exploitation (39%) made up the majority of human trafficking cases dealt with by the organisation.
Research conducted by co-author of this article, Dr Marcel van der Watt, provides some insights into human trafficking-related cases recorded by the South African Police Service (SAPS) Crime Administration System. This includes 2 132 cases reported between 9 August 2015 and 12 December 2017. Issues of data integrity, however, must be considered as some trafficking in persons offences are not captured under the correct legislation.
Responses must restrain the demand for cheap labour and sex, and sever any hint of corruption
Trafficking in persons offences are often subsumed under a range of other crimes which include domestic violence, kidnapping, abduction, rape and assault, to name a few. Other challenges include unidentified victims, and numerous cases that are simply not documented as a result of factors such as corruption and a lack of trust between communities and the police.
Progress by the South African government includes a National Action Plan in response to human trafficking, and the establishment of provincial task teams to mobilise multidisciplinary expertise when cases emerge.
The next big milestone must be to finalise the National Policy Framework on human trafficking, and to secure substantial finances for its implementation. There is also a dire need for dedicated teams in the police who are skilled in proactive, intelligence-led and court-driven investigations. Parallel financial investigations, asset forfeiture and the mapping of cybercrime and online activities related to human trafficking must become standard practice in these investigations.
Trafficking in persons does not lend itself to a simplistic counting of cases. The systematic collection and analysis of both quantitative and qualitative data on human trafficking must be prioritised.
An integrated information system to facilitate effective monitoring and implementation of the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act must also urgently be established. Aggregated statistics on both trafficking in persons and missing persons must be released annually, and research should be undertaken to establish how these phenomena, and other crimes, interconnect.
Trafficking in persons is by no means a recent phenomenon. It is rooted in South Africa's historical landscape and is fundamentally enabled by the country's deep structural inequalities. A systemic response and culture shift is needed - one that radically restrains the demand for cheap labour and sex, and severs any hint of corruption and compromise.
Marcel van der Watt, Department of Police Practice, UNISA and Johan Burger, Research Consultant, ISS Pretoria