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Human trafficking: Don’t be complicit by silence


Susan Marx is a South African-American international human rights practitioner who lived and worked in Afghanistan from 2007-2010. She specialises in gender-based violence, anti-human trafficking, rule of law and other human rights programmes. She holds an MSt in International Human Rights Law from Oxford University, an MA from UCLA, and a BA from the University of Southern California. She has worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, Timor-Leste, Solomon Islands, and throughout sub-Saharan Africa. She currently works in Eswatini and lives in Pretoria, South Africa, from where she continues to assist in evacuation attempts for her colleagues and staff from Kabul.

Human trafficking is a multibillion-dollar global criminal enterprise. It often happens in plain view – and we often choose to look the other way.

On a calendar littered with “annual days” celebrating many worthy causes, the “World Day against Human Trafficking” on 30 July commemorates the horrific reality of somewhere between 20 and 40 million people worldwide currently suspected to be victims of human trafficking. Human trafficking brings in more revenue than Google, Starbucks, Nike and the NFL combined: an estimated $150-billion per annum of illicit trade.

For the past 14 months, I’ve supported the Africa Prosecutors Association’s (APA) efforts to better investigate and prosecute this crime. Alongside other trafficking experts, including Dr Marcel van der Watt of the Department of Police Practice at Unisa, we’ve worked with the prosecutors-general and senior state prosecutors from a dozen southern African countries to improve anti-trafficking legislation and transboundary co-operation and provide training for front-line responders.

It became clear that trafficking is not only a terrible crime, but a terribly misunderstood crime. From a South African perspective specifically, human trafficking is not limited to either the trafficking of exotic females for sex or the Facebook-fuelled stories of blonde children being abducted. Trafficking in our country is far more invisible, insidious, and frequently hidden right under our noses. Establishing the true scope of the problem remains an elusive statistical nightmare.

Consider that most trafficking victims in South Africa are in fact, South Africans. They are lured across provincial borders from poorer, rural areas with the promise of a brighter future in our urban centres, industrial zones, or cash-crop growing regions. In fact, human trafficking does not even require crossing a border, but rather includes any “recruitment, transportation, sale or harbouring of people by means of force, deceit, the abuse of vulnerability and the abuse of power for any form or manner of exploitation”.

Simply put, any abuse that takes advantage of someone because of a vulnerability such as addiction, age, gender, social or economic circumstance, which leads that person to believe that he or she has no reasonable alternative but to submit to exploitation can be considered a trafficking crime.

In a country marred by inequalities and prone to exploitation of unskilled, invisible, and informal work, how certain can we be that the food we eat, the shops we frequent, and the labour we rely on is not tainted with trafficked labour? Can we wittingly or unwittingly be complicit?

Clearly, trafficking is complex and requires coordination among many stakeholders. The government and criminal justice system have a foundational role to play with the SAPS, Department of Home Affairs and the National Prosecuting Authority at the front-end of this response. Unfortunately, a recent global report on human trafficking essentially gives our government a failing grade.

But should there not also be a moral obligation for ordinary people, as both employers and consumers, to understand the labour chains that put food on our tables, staff our restaurants and deploy hawkers and beggars on our street corners? And, if the moral argument does not sit well, then the ethical one is unavoidable. Even though most of us might not be directly involved in corrupt practices involving human trafficking, how often do we look the other way in times of exploitation? Should we be asking more difficult questions?

So next time you’re at the nail salon, massage parlour, or visiting a wine farm or restaurant and something doesn’t seem right – please visit call the South African Human Trafficking Hotline: 0800 222 777.

Don’t be silent. Silence is complicity. DM



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