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Is South Africa doing enough to stop human trafficking?

schools, civic organisations and concerned citizens took to the streets of Durban for the global #OneVoice march against gender-based violence, child abuse and human trafficking.

Mrs Universe contestants, schools, civic organisations and concerned citizens took to the streets of Durban for the global #OneVoice march against gender-based violence, child abuse and human trafficking. Picture: Abhi Indrarajan

Published Nov 28, 2020


Cape Town - South Africa is without doubt, seen as a continental leader exerting political influence and boasting one of the biggest emerging markets in the world.

However, this enabling and attractive environment has, sadly, also made it a hub for human trafficking.

Human trafficking is described as the exploitation of both the victim’s body and labour amounting to modern-day slavery, according to A21, a non-profit organisation fighting the injustice of human trafficking.

An estimated 40 million people worldwide are enslaved. Of all its victims in Africa, 64% are children in a global industry amounting to R258 trillion ($17 trillion) a year.

But is South Africa doing enough to address the problem?

In the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report issued by the US State Department, severe forms of trafficking are defined as having two aspects, forced labour and forced commercial sex, along with the multitude of activities attached to these practices.

South Africa’s Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act 7 of 2013 (PACOTIP) has criminalised trafficking and prescribes penalties of up to R100 million, life imprisonment or both, and covers the plethora of activities involved in human trafficking, from transporting to receiving victims’ services, to renting a room or house to traffickers, according to the Government Gazette, which stipulates the Act’s details.

The TIP report has noted the South African government’s efforts in the fight against human trafficking, involving increased investigations, identifying more victims and referring them to shelters. South Africa has subsequently been upgraded to tier 2 from tier 2 watch list due to the government’s greater efforts compared with the previous reporting period.

The report employs a ranking system with four levels, tier 1 being the most government action and tier 3 being the least. A country is ranked according to its government’s active response to the problem of human trafficking, not how severe human trafficking is in the country. Thus, there have been notable improvements by the South African government between April 2019 and March 2020, the reporting period for TIP.

In 2018 and 2019, South Africa was placed on the tier 2 watch list, illustrating the improvements.

A total of 71 alleged traffickers were prosecuted in this period and eight were found guilty and convicted. In last year’s report, South Africa prosecuted six more than this year.

In terms of victims, 377 were identified, with 63% being men, 20% women, 9% girls and 7% boys, with 83% of total victims being foreign nationals and the rest being trafficked within their own country.

Forced labour is South Africa’s most prevalent form of trafficking, with more than 70% of victims being exploited in this way, with the rest being forced into sexual exploitation.

In fact, forced labour of children and adults was not comprehensively monitored or investigated between April 2019 and March 2020, specifically in the farming, mining, construction and fishing sectors of the economy.

Shelters for victims is also one of the biggest obstacles, with only one providing exclusive care for trafficking victims. And only one providing care for male trafficking victims, the most identified victims of trafficking in South Africa.

A21’s national human-trafficking hotline received more than 2 500 calls, which translated to the identification of 22 victims. The calls often came from community members who had either been turned away from police stations or the officers did not have the training to assist them.

A lack of understanding of human trafficking still hinders the government’s anti-trafficking efforts.