ONE of the key reasons why South Africa is struggling to combat human trafficking is the involvement of government and law enforcement authorities, according to the latest US Trafficking Persons Report.
According to the report, officials from the Department of Home Affairs, the Department of Social Development, the SA Police Service (SAPS), and the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (Hawks) were the key entities involved.
When carrying out the research, testimonies were gathered from observers and government officials who reported widespread corruption, particularly from four government entities. The report found that high-level law enforcement officials often obstructed trafficking investigations.
According to the report, observers revealed that, in exchange for bribes, lower-level officials warned traffickers of operations by law enforcement, and Immigration, and facilitated undocumented entry for traffickers at land and air border points. The Department of Social Development was also reported to have returned survivors to traffickers instead of referring them to care.
It was also reported that some SAPS officers were unwilling to investigate cases, particularly those of children forced to engage in street vending or begging. It stated that SAPS members relied on non-government organisations (NGOs) to obtain victims’ statements and build cases.
The report says: “Observers reported cases of sex trafficking of Basotho women from Lesotho in South African brothels. However, due to the alleged complicity of both Basotho and South African officials linked to the brothels, they continued to operate with impunity.”
Given mistrust in law enforcement, civil society reported the need for a trusted, high-level government contact to receive reports of officials complicit in human trafficking crimes, to facilitate investigations and to avoid retribution.
The report said the government reported the existence of several secure mechanisms to report corruption but did not specify if any were sensitive to the specific considerations of human trafficking crimes.
Home Affairs’ Siyabulela Qoza did not respond.
The Social Development Department referred questions to SAPS spokesperson Athlenda Mathe. Mathe said their organised crime unit was working hard to prevent and combat human trafficking cases closely with the Hawks whose mandate is to investigate such cases.
Mathe further said the challenge experienced is that communities don’t know how to identify human trafficking cases.
“So more awareness needs to be made so as to assist police to investigate more cases and apprehend those behind human trafficking.
The SAPS conducts operations such as vehicle check points, road blocks, and execution of search warrants where we detect and are able to identify syndicates and rescue victims,“ she said.
Mathe said close 400 victims were rescued in the past three years by SAPS organised crime unit and 154 suspects were arrested on human trafficking charges. She said victims were either sexually exploited, utilised as slaves, trafficked for force marriages and some of their body parts weree removed.
Mathe added that her department do not condone corruption within its ranks, adding that where it manifests it is dealt with accordingly both criminally and departmentally.
“Consequences management is implemented. Where the public is aware of any police officers involvement in wrong doing, they can call the SAPS anti corruption unit on 0860010111,” Mathe said.
Hawks spokesperson Brigadier Thandi Mlambo said any form of positive criticism was welcomed as it would assist in correcting and improving in areas where they might be lacking.
Mlambo said it also ensured that they performed their duties effectively and efficiently knowing that their activities were always placed under scrutiny.
She said this also granted them an opportunity to highlight any wrongs and misinformation outlined and give a correct perspective of events.
“Any form of corruption including within the echelons of government is dealt with accordingly. For example, during the period 2022/23, a total number of 22 Home Affairs officials were arrested for facilitating the process through among others, soliciting bribes, extortion, and photo swaps.
“In other instances police officers were also arrested for facilitating the process, a state advocate was also arrested for being involved in sex crimes with young boys and girls, and a school principal was also arrested for facilitating the TIP process. This goes to show that any form of corruption will not be tolerated,” she said.
According to the report, the government recognised official complicity as a key challenge in addressing all transnational crimes, including human trafficking. This was after the government prosecuted the co-defendant of an acting judge who was deceased before criminal proceedings, for multiple trafficking-related crimes.
The government charged three SAPS officers for extorting potential trafficking victims in a case reported in 2021. The case is ongoing.
Two National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) prosecutors were implicated in a potential corruption scheme for obstructing efforts to hold a high-profile and public figure accountable for alleged child sex trafficking over several years. The report said the government did not report any actions taken against the prosecutors.
The Home Affairs Department also arrested 22 immigration officials for corruption related to facilitating illegal entry, transportation, and harbouring of foreigners.
The report found that law enforcement agencies lacked sufficient training to adequately and appropriately investigate all reported trafficking cases. It said SAPS officers sometimes conflated gender-based violence and human trafficking crimes.
“Observers reported law enforcement had insufficient training in trauma-informed interviewing and victim care, resulting in cases of Hawks investigators re-traumatising victims or not taking victims’ statements. The lack of clarity on case status, low prospect of success, and sometimes years-long delays in cases dissuaded some victims from participating in trials,” said the report.
The report further said: “The Hawks had a national anti-trafficking coordinator, four investigators to provide operational support, and provincial anti-trafficking coordinators in all nine districts. However, there were no officers or staff solely dedicated to anti-trafficking efforts. SAPS created an anti-trafficking unit within its general detectives section, which primarily handled trafficking crimes involving adult victims.
“The SAPS family, child, and sexual offence unit handled trafficking crimes involving children. Observers reported the SAPS did not collaborate with civil society and were reportedly slow to investigate leads generated by other law enforcement agencies. Media reports accused the NPA of not proceeding with victims’ cases in prior years because of discrimination due to disabilities or race.”