Maverick Life

Africa, South Africa, Maverick Life

The Human Trafficking Act: Is it doing the job?

Two weeks ago, a 30-year-old Nigerian man was sentenced to 20 years behind bars for human trafficking in Gauteng – a first for the province under the new human trafficking act. Is the expanded legislation making its impact felt? Yes and no. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

Judge Majake Mabesele, when sentencing Eke Ogochukwu, did not mince words. “What happened to her [the victim] was cruel, inhumane and degrading,” said Mabesele.

The victim was just 15 when Ogochukwu forced her into prostitution, making her take drugs so that she would become dependent on him. The girl eventually escaped and sought refuge at a nearby church, but not before she had been forced to have sex with up to six men a night for an extended period. Ogochukwu would charge R100 each time and pocket all but R50 he gave her for food. He was found guilty of four charges related to human trafficking.

Ogochukwu is not alone; nor is his sentence the heaviest South Africa has seen, despite stricter legislation being passed in 2013 (its implementation began late in 2015). In 2014, Lloyd Mabuza and Violet Chauke received eight life terms for holding five under-aged girls captive for three years. Chauke herself claimed to have been trafficked by her older sister Juliet. Mabuza regularly raped the girls at gun point after they had been lured by Violet’s sister with promises of work, better circumstances or in one case, a holiday. Refusal to comply with Mabuza resulted in threats of starvation. When the girls were eventually found by the SAPS in a remote compound in Renosterhoek, they were described as half-starved, unkempt and living in horrific conditions.

The good and bad news

Here’s the good news following the implementation of the new legislation: according to Major Carin Holmes, spokesperson for the Salvation Army’s Anti-Trafficking Unit, “we’re getting there”.

“It’s taking a while to get momentum going,” she told Daily Maverick. “But it’s better than it was.”

The Salvation Army doesn’t have capacity to set up safe houses for victims of human trafficking, so most often they function as a liaison – offering advice, contacting the authorities, and referring victims to the relevant NGOs. “We’ve got a helpline 24/7. People phone, tell us their story, and what we do depends on what’s on the other side,” explains Holmes. “We may refer it to our contacts in the Hawks, or if other assistance is needed, one of our officers or ministers attends to it, or we phone another NGO. We have a wide network.”

It’s a necessary network. “A lot of people are still uneducated,” she explains. This has a dual effect: not only is it easier for predators to take advantage of the vulnerable, but victims don’t always know where to turn, what to report, or what procedures to follow. 

Further complication: officials don’t always know, either. The implementation of the legislation is still a work in progress, and while government has been widely applauded for significant improvements to the previous legal framework, the reality is that most human trafficking crimes don’t screech into the police station wearing bells and a large banner. In one case documented by the US Human Trafficking report, a victim was jailed alongside the perpetrator because she was taken to be a sex worker. Often, says Holmes, victims are afraid to report the crime in case they are viewed as complicit – because of drug abuse, sex work, or being in the country illegally. 

“A victim might be afraid to enter a police station in case he or she says ‘my passport or ID was stolen’ but they’re mistakenly held, or some such worry,” she explains.

This is where the US Trafficking in Persons report comes in: recommendations to South Africa include much more rigorous formal screening processes to supplement the improved legislation. The report cites cases where victims have been deported before the crimes could be investigated, others where perpetrators have been deported before facing charges, and other problems arising where officials simply did not recognise a possible human trafficking case. It suggests screening all potential deportees as possible victims of trafficking.

Further, the report emphasises the need to train all officers throughout all levels of law enforcement on the matter of human trafficking. The legislation already mandates the development of training modules for various government agencies, as well as awareness programmes for the general public, some of which have been rolled out already. The SAPS has a Human Trafficking Desk within its Organised Crime Unit as well, but, says Holmes, echoing the report, it’s crucial to ensure that such crimes are identified at the door.   

The numbers game where nobody wins

Human trafficking has for some years been at the centre of a data-driven bunfight between various clusters of experts. These include estimates ranging from 30,000 children in slavery in South Africa annually to 45,000 children in prostitution. The DA’s Lorraine Botha wrote that the party “noted with concern” the possibility of as many as 100,000 victims claimed by the Walk Free Foundation. On the other side of the spectrum, AfricaCheck blasted press reports for “exaggerat[ing] the problem” of child trafficking, also releasing a “fact sheet” on the issue overall. In the latter, the publication tabled scaremongering against available data and criticised a risk of “undue emphasis” on human trafficking due to “limited evidence”. Conviction rates were also cited; however, these have historically been pitifully low, and provide no real indication of the scope of the problem. In 2013, convictions were in the single digits; in the same year, the Thai embassy in Pretoria alone reported assisting and repatriating 180 Thai women it identified as trafficking victims.

The distinction here is that a lack of known or documented evidence does not discount the existence of evidence: the trouble is rather that the evidence we do have is either disorganised or polarised, with one side potentially overstating the case and the other potentially understating it.

“Notwithstanding the lack of reliable numbers, the problem is prevalent in South Africa,” argues Marcel van der Watt, lecturer in police practice at Unisa. “The number of cases being reported suggests it is on the increase. The situation may in fact be far more chronic and severe than we know.”

The Global Slavery Index  ranks South Africa 27th out of 167 countries for slavery prevalence, and puts the percentage of the population living in modern slavery at 0.45% or a rather more concerning 248,700. This, however, is at best an educated guess, since it’s extrapolated from population samples. But do the numbers actually matter, in the grand scheme of things? What is more important, whether there are 50,000, 100,000 or 200,000 victims, or the how, the why, and the management? It’s a loaded question: to some extent, the scope of the problem influences resource allocation, but more important, the lack of numbers is symptomatic of a far bigger problem – a lack of understanding. The how, the why, and the management cannot be understood where there is a lack of in-depth, evidence-based research.

Holmes summarises the problem: “We can’t give figures and say ‘There are so many people for this, there are so many people for that’. People don’t report it. They go into hiding.”

What’s in a name?

The starting point – both for research and general public awareness – is to unpack what’s meant by human trafficking. The current Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act 2013 encompasses a broader definition of trafficking than the UN’s, and covers any perpetrator who delivers, recruits, transports, harbours, sells, transfers, leases or receives another human being for the purposes of exploitation. This does not necessarily mean the victims are smuggled from another country – as with some of the abovementioned cases, victims can be trafficked locally.

Central to this is method: trafficking involves the use of force, coercion or the threat of harm; it may involve fraud or deception; there may be abduction; there may be abuse of power or there may be an exchange of money or benefits, directly or indirectly. Lastly, the adoption of a child or a forced marriage for the purposes of exploitation are also included.

A common misconception is the conflation of human trafficking and prostitution. Many cases of human trafficking do not involve sex work, and many cases of sex work do not involve human trafficking.

Another misconception: it’s not just about women and children. A large number of cases fall within the fishing and agriculture sectors, for example, or domestic work. In one year alone, 75 Indonesian men were found off the South African coast in forced labour conditions on fishing vessels, according to the US Trafficking in Persons Report 2014.  According to the same report, migrant boys and young men are particularly vulnerable to exploitative working conditions in a number of sectors, threatened with deportation if they do not comply. And then there is the issue of child labour and forced begging, sometimes by children with disabilities. This, too, falls under human trafficking.   

Plugging the holes

So what will it take to ensure the Act does its job in practice? Time, for starters: the trickle-down effect is not immediate.

“These people are predators,” Holmes points out. “It happens in little dorpies, in big towns, on farms, in the borders. It knows no gender or age or race.” Although certain demographic groups, such as LBGTI persons or those who are poor, unemployed or migrating, are at particular risk, Holmes issues a sobering reminder: nobody is immune. “Some people fall in love online,” she points out. “They think they have found their prince on a white horse. Traffickers are clever. They will take advantage of whatever your vulnerability is. They get what they want.”

Awareness, for both NGOs and the public sector, has been critical. Campaigns have been held in schools, public areas and even door to door. “Everybody must start realising the urgency,” Holmes says. “If they notice something strange, say something. Even if they think it’s nothing.”

If South Africa is to make the most of the new legislation, it will be essential, according to the US report, to crack down on corruption. Within border controls, police, and government. Holmes echoes this, citing a case of two trafficking victims who crossed three borders apparently undetected. “Someone, somewhere, must have looked away,” she argues.

Government has noted the need for prevention as well as cure. The wheels of justice do turn when they have the chance, Holmes agrees. But there’s an enduring shroud of secrecy.

“The sentences are not just ‘sommer sommer’ she says. “But it’s still getting the cases into the system that’s the problem.” DM

Photo by Global Panorama via Flickr.


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