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Wholesale tragedy: human trafficking in South Africa


While exact numbers are hard to come by, it is presumed that at least 20-35 million people a year are the victims of human trafficking for industrial, agricultural, and sexual purposes.

It is pervasive, horrific, and almost completely under-reported and under-scrutinized. The tragedy of human trafficking has reached epic levels, with numbers so staggering, the very thought of them leaves the mind to wonder why the practice is not dealt with more directly and by more countries. It is estimated that at least 130 countries around the world deal with, at least to one extent or another, the insidious and lucrative industry of human trafficking. While exact numbers are hard to come by, it is presumed that at least 20-35 million people a year are the victims of human trafficking for industrial, agricultural, and sexual purposes.

South Africa has become a major hub for many countries along human trafficking routes, and has a sizeable amount of human trafficking syndicates of their own. According to National Freedom Network, which monitors the international human trafficking trade, 80% of human trafficking in South Africa is dedicated to the sex trade. However, in South Africa, trafficking in people for use in the mining and agricultural industries is also at all-time highs. Many estimate, it is trafficking for these vocations which accounts for at least 70% of human trafficking worldwide.


According to Phillip Frankel, author of the Long Walk to Nowhere, “The international markets are relatively low risk and highly lucrative. So much so, that the sale of people to mines, factories, brothels, farms and industries is second in scale only to worldwide trafficking of narcotics and armaments.” In the 2016 U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report, along with South Africa, listed Nigeria, China, Russia, Bulgaria, and Thailand as home to some of the largest trafficking syndicates worldwide. The National Freedom Network, a watchdog group that monitors international human trafficking, states that these syndicates and networks “operate with little resistance.”

A recent article, by Govan Whittles of The Guardian highlighted the issues with prosecutions, in South Africa in particular, when he wrote, “South Africa has never prosecuted a high-level human trafficking syndicate, despite being internationally regarded as being an ‘ideal location’ for the multinational criminal industry.” Marcel Van der Watt, a human trafficking intelligence manager at the National Freedom Network, points to “porous borders and fragmented law enforcement and corruption” as some of the key reasons why major prosecutions of human trafficking rings in South Africa are hard to come by. In South Africa, traffickers are not only able to elude law enforcement, but in some instances they are able to control police through the use of bribery or getting officers addicted to drugs in order to gain favor from them. Phillip Frankel goes one step further when he writes, “some syndicates appear, and I say this very carefully, to involve high-level police officials.”

In fact, many of the trafficking elements that do wind up facing prosecution are minor syndicates that operate more for lower-scale financial opportunities, than to establish a major transnational trafficking circuit. These types of groups are known as “bakkie-brigades.” These are low-level traffickers who pose as employment agencies, and lure unsuspecting victims to large cities. They will often prey upon the desperation of others by coaxing them into meeting at a hotel, where the traffickers will subsequently take away the victim’s travel documents and identification and sell them into forced labor. In South Africa, the majority of these victims will find themselves forced to work in the agricultural, mineral, and sexual industries.

What makes the human trafficking situation in South Africa even more dire, is how the country has become a major transfer point for other transnational trafficking operations. South Africa has become know as a transit point for victims to be from countries in the Far East, onto other countries like Italy, Turkey, and various location in Latin America. One reason for this may be that South African passports are notoriously easy to forge and duplicate. And Though this has been an ongoing problem in South Africa during the so-called “Post-Mandela” era, it took until 2013 for the country to enact any specific laws to counteract the human trafficking trade. These two aspects undoubtedly make South Africa a prime locale for criminal trafficking organizations to ply their trade.

Frankel, Van der Watt, and other experts that have monitored and examined the issue of human trafficking, particularly in South Africa, cite that there exists a very distinct “lack of political will,” on the part of the nation’s leadership to combat the highly-lucrative industry. In addition, Frankel and others note an increasing rise of organized crime intertwining itself with higher and higher levels of government in South Africa. Many of these criminal organizations dip their hands into the large mining industry in South Africa. However, this industry is fraught with danger. So human trafficking has become a key source for new workers to perform the often deadly task of mining. South Africa is internationally recognized for having the “highest mortality and work-time injury rates in the mining industry,” according to Frankel. These elements together lead those like Phillip Frankel to conclude, “South Africa has a perfect climate for labour exploitation, trafficking and slavery…from which there is no easy exit.”