Human trafficking is prevalent throughout the Southern African region, and South Africa remains an attractive destination for transnational victims from the region, an expert said.
“Particularly in relation to labour trafficking, with sex trafficking ranking second,” Dr Monique Emser from the University of KwaZulu-Natal said.
“Children are often exposed to multiple forms of exploitation during the trafficking process. Reducing the vulnerability of children should be afforded more attention.”
She said the most prevalent forms of trafficking in South Africa are for forced labour (in various industries, such as agriculture, mining, sweatshops, domestic work, commercial fishing, informal trading), sexual exploitation, and to a lesser extent, forced marriage and organ trafficking.
Over the weekend, two incidents of suspected human trafficking were reported. Emser described human trafficking as a complex, hidden crime that is difficult to quantify.
This weekend authorities intercepted 443 children, under the age of eight, who were seemingly trafficked from Zimbabwe into South Africa. On Sunday, police stumbled on a house in Benoni where 33 suspected human trafficking victims were found stashed in one room.
Declining to comment on both incidents, as she was not privy to all the facts, Emser said based on the enabling factors that we see in the SA context and the layered vulnerability of victims, there's enough evidence to suggest that human trafficking is prevalent in SA, with the bulk of victims being South African.
Emser said SA has comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation and a national policy framework to guide its implementation.
“Much of the anti-trafficking initiatives are devolved to the provincial level, with inter-sectoral task teams (comprising key government stakeholders and civil society organisations) whose focus is on prevention, protection and prosecution of trafficking.”
She said there were “many dedicated individuals” involved in the fight against human trafficking.
“However, serious problems pertaining to weak governance, corruption, lack of capacity and funding remain as barriers to successfully addressing this heinous crime,” Emser said.
“More needs to be done to capacitate and support those mandated to prevent and combat trafficking. We also need to look at the (Southern African Development Community) SADC region and address the need for strengthening regional cooperation.”
According to the 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report from the US Department of State, the South African government does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but was making significant efforts to do so.
These efforts included increasing investigations and convictions of traffickers; investigating and prosecuting some allegedly complicit government officials; coordinating with foreign governments on trafficking investigations and repatriation of victims.
Some of the recommendations that could improve the situation include ensuring victims were not inappropriately penalised solely for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked.
Increasing the efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict officials complicit in trafficking crimes and traffickers within organised crime syndicates, including cases of online exploitation.
Another recommendation included implementing and consistently enforcing strong regulations and oversight of labour recruitment companies, including by holding fraudulent labour recruiters criminally accountable.
According to the report, high unemployment and socio-economic circumstances increased vulnerability of exploitation, particularly for the youth, black women and foreign migrants.
It read that traffickers recruited victims who were unemployed and struggled with substance abuse, and commonly use substances to maintain control of victims, including children.
Marina Reyneke, Operations Manager of National Freedom Network, said there were many passionate civil society organisations (CSOs) or NGOs or individuals raising awareness in schools, communities, universities and training was taking place wherever possible to reach, inform and educate as many people as possible.
“There are also passionate government representatives who are also working hard to address this heinous crime and human rights violations beyond what one can imagine,” Reyneke said.
“Victims are being rescued and perpetrators are being arrested. Cases are investigated and the guilty are being convicted.”
She said when referring to the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act, one can see that there are many who are mandated with responsibilities for every stage from the reporting a suspicious situation through to the rehabilitation and reintegration of victims back into society.
“And it's not just a six weeks psychotherapy programme which will do the trick. It's also not just a matter of rushing in, with muscles and guns to rescue the person or persons,” said Reyneke.
“There are processes to follow to have the outcome we all want - women, men and children being rescued from their exploitative situations. The long journey thereafter is also very important,” she concluded.