Almost 700 children in the eThekwini metropolitan area are believed to be part of extensive child-begging networks that operate within the city, raking in at least R2 million each month.
As South Africa’s campaign of 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children ends and the world observes International Human Rights Day today, research by IOL, coupled with insight from private investigators and a Durban NGO, has revealed rampant exploitation of children which involved parents and guardians renting out their children to begging syndicates in the city.
Minor children, including newborn babies, are being traded and strategically used in begging gimmicks that form part of a larger organised movement perpetuating human trafficking, drug abuse and sexual slavery.
Police have called on anyone with information relating to the syndicates to come forward, in the hope that they could identify the masterminds behind the child trafficking scam.
“We urge those who are in possession of such information to contact the police, so that the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Unit can be brought on board,” said police spokesperson Captain Nqobile Gwala
Gail Elson, the spokesperson for Durban NGO iCare, which has been working in the rehabilitation of street children for more than 18 years, said child-begging networks were extensive and well organised.
“In the Durban central area alone, there are a high number of children who are used by these networks. The exploitation is absolutely happening on our streets and is highly organised. There are actually gangs that are formed in different areas and they each report to a leader,” said Elson.
She said children were divided into various groups to strategically target
* Income through begging
* Income through drugs
* Income through sexual exploitation
“We especially see an influx in children being brought onto the streets during the festive season as the syndicates look to target the increase in tourists and holidaymakers,” said Elson.
Elson said street children could make a minimum of between R70 and R100 a day begging, almost all of which was handed to the leaders. On good days, the number could go from R150 to R250 a day. During the festive season and religious holidays, that could go as high as R700 a day.
A rough calculation based on an average of R100 a day for 700 street kids revealed that begging networks could be raking in more than R2 million a month across the city, hardly any of which remained with the children.
Elson said that in some instances, once a child turned 18, they were no longer considered “valuable” and were either kicked out of home or shunned by the syndicate.
“When the child turns 18 their parents or guardians are unable to benefit from a child care grant. Alternatively, they cannot be trafficked to beg, so they are seen to be of little value. The heartbreaking part of this is that these young people are supposed to be our future. Instead, due to circumstances, they are forced onto the streets and have to learn how to survive,” said Elson.
During research into the child-begging ring, it was revealed that, in some instances, children were brought into the city from far-flung regions, given areas to work and abused physically, emotionally and sexually.
One of the victims IOL spoke to was 14 year-old Sipho* (not his real name). Sipho has nowhere to go. Both his parents died when he was young, placing him in the care of his aunt.
He was brought to Durban three years ago as an 11-year-old from Hambanathi, a township about 40km outside the Durban CBD by a man who had negotiated a fee with his aunt.
When he returned to Hambanathi after a year, his aunt had moved away, leaving him destitute and dependent on the streets for survival.
After a period within a syndicate, Sipho left due to the abuse he suffered at the hands of his trafficker. He often moves between the beachfront and Sandile Thusi Road (Argyle Road).
“I used to make about R70 a day and I had to give everything to the boss. If I didn't, I would be beaten up and robbed. Sometimes I have to do certain things for men (sexual acts) and they would pay the boss. He would give me a R10 or a R20. I would either buy glue or food,” said Sipho.
There was no protection from his “boss” or the elements; his only possessions, a piece of cardboard and his glue.
But Sipho’s story is not unique, says private investigator Vis Munien.
In his more than 20 years as a private investigator, Munien has seen this script many times. He too, is well aware of the begging networks.
“Just because it’s not on TV or highly publicised doesn’t mean that it’s not happening. In my experience and working on various cases, these networks are operating all around the city.
“I would say including the city centre and the suburbs, you are looking at approximately 700 children affected by this. Although it is very difficult to track,” said Munien.
He said that in most instances, children were lured by traffickers under false pretences or taken advantage of due to their poor socio-economic conditions.
Munien said he was shocked to discover the role of parents and guardians using the syndicates as a means of income.
“In essence, the parents and guardians of these victims play a part in the trafficking of their children. In some instances, they set a price or negotiate terms. I’m not sure if any of them consider the risks involved.
“Their child could be raped or murdered being part of these syndicates but, I suppose, for them the monetary value outweighs the illegality and danger posed to the minors,” he said.
Munien said economic power always rested with the trafficker.
“From what I have gathered in my interviews with child beggars, the trafficker is a shady figure who claims around 80 to 90% of whatever income is derived by the victim through begging. In some instances, he or she takes everything and offers the victim only clothing or food. This is not always the case, and many traffickers use violent means to keep their victims in check,” said Munien.
However, the eThekwini municipality said it was not aware of begging syndicates operating in the city. Under its by-laws, begging was illegal.
“We are not aware of a syndicate operating in the city.The Nuisances and Behaviour in Public By-law clearly states: No person may approach any pedestrian or a person inside a motor-vehicle on any public road or public road intersection or any other public place for the purposes of begging from such pedestrian or person in a motor-vehicle. It is, therefore, illegal to solicit money by begging in our city,” said eThekwini municipal spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela.
The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Social Development said while it was initially unaware of the syndicates, it would be investigating.
“The offences are a violation of Children’s Rights as outlined in Section 28 of the Constitution and also a violation of Section 284 of the Children’s Act with regard to Child Trafficking,” said spokesperson Mhlabunzima Memela.
“We urge anyone with information pertaining to the investigation to contact the department of social development or their nearest police station.”
Memela said the department ran multiple programmes to raise awareness and combat child trafficking.
“There is Provincial 365 Days Child Care and Protection Plan which has key activities that are intending to strengthen awareness on Child Abuse including Child Trafficking through commemoration of the Child Protection Week, International Children’s Day to ensure upholding children’s rights at all times, National Children’s Day which focuses on awareness on measures that were put in place by the government in order to strengthen protection of children and 16 Days of Activism of No Violence against Women and Children.”
He said there was also a Provincial Holiday Programme Plan that included activities on life skills programmes aimed at empowering children on all forms of abuse. It included child trafficking and their rights as well as the protocols in place for the management of child abuse cases, which included reporting of child abuse and services by the government in respect of survivors of child abuse and trafficking.