Few trafficked sex workers are ever rescued. Picture: Brenton Geach African News Agency (ANA)
People need to realise that indulging in pornography and buying sex fuels the market for human trafficking and the cycle of abuse.

This is according to ex-Hawks investigator Marcel van der Watt who is now a Unisa academic specialising in human trafficking.

“People using these services care little whether they involve victims of trafficking,” he told the Independent on Saturday ahead of the sixth annual Stop Human Trafficking Walk for Freedom, by Durban’s Umgeni Community Empowerment Centre, where he is scheduled to be a speaker.

“Once they are in there, they are using the services.” 

He called it “an inconvenient truth” that needed to be part of an uncomfortable conversation. He said the first step towards ending human trafficking in South Africa would be to curb the demand for commercial sex and cheap labour.

“Simply put, if consumers didn’t buy, third parties, pimps and traffickers couldn’t sell.

“Aspirationally, we would like to believe that we will stop human trafficking one day, but there is so much that needs to change. The demand for commercial sex and cheap labour needs to be radically amputated.”

He said the problem was systemic and that the 2132 cases reported from August 2015 to December 2017 were “the tip of the tip of an iceberg”.

“When I have consulted with victims who have been rescued and there have been accuseds who have been through the criminal justice system, I hear in the consultations that over one to five years the victims have been swopped, traded and moved between multiple addresses and traffickers. And they tell you about five to eight others that have been affected at each location of exploitation.”

Van der Watt said while inequality in South Africa made the country ripe for such activity, it was corruption rather than poverty that was the stronger predictor. He said corruption and official complicity in cases were a pervasive theme that emerged from the lived experiences of participants in his doctoral research.

“Kerbside conversations throughout the country over six years, field journalling and in-depth interviews with 120 people active in every aspect of combating human trafficking - including brothel owners and convicted traffickers - formed part of the study.”

He said it allowed him to glean granular insights that are frequently absent from theoretical discussions about trafficking and corruption.

He said there was a clear disincentive for some victims and witnesses to disclose ordeals and share information.

“Some victims, who flee places of exploitation and seek assistance from the SAPS, are bundled into police vehicles and taken back to their traffickers.

“A Hawks investigator revealed ‘a lot of embassies are also involved’ and pointed out that some victims of trafficking ‘are also scared of their own embassies’.”

Van der Watt said traffickers and sexual predators used porn as a means to groom, lower inhibitions of victims and to perpetrate abuse and rape.

“Once subjugated, victims are frequently used as ‘actors’ in amateur and professional pornography and so a vicious cycle continues.

“I have viewed countless hours of pornographic material found in homes of traffickers and other places of exploitation - it is a critical tool in the hands of those who traffic and exploit.

“We as men need to critically reflect on how we are directly and indirectly complicit in this cycle of abuse. No amount of porn will love us back. It hurts our society more than it ‘heals’.”

Independent On Saturday