Plus ca change… plus ca reste la meme…

In the months leading up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, while most people were celebrating the coming of the world’s biggest sporting event to African shores, some were greatly concerned that the event would possibly lead to an increase in human trafficking. One such person was the Minister for Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities, Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya who, at rally against human trafficking in Midrand in May 2010, expressed concern over this possibility, stating that women and children were most likely to be trafficked. These concerns were not ill founded. After all, South Africa – with its 72 official ports of entry, an expansive coastline and porous inland border, as well as its status as the sub-regional economic hegemon – has historically been the site of several trafficking rings.

It is unsurprising that events on the grandiose scale of the FIFA World Cup would attract criminal elements. With a high influx of travellers, it is arguably easier to get into the country undetected. The inevitable international gathering of supporters provides a potential market for every kind of business. Unfortunately for some, the businesses this attracts are often unsavoury.

Many victims, mostly women and children escaping poverty in their home countries, cross into South Africa with the hope of finding any form of lucrative employment during the tournament. Their desperation and lust for money often makes them fall prey to human traffickers seeking cheap (often free) labour. Some victims of human trafficking are prostituted; others are turned into petty criminals, while others are forced to be cheap labour or modern day slaves for the customers of the people who trafficked them. It is not only poverty and desperation that result in women and children becoming victims of trafficking rings. Other primary factors are gender discrimination, family breakdown, culture, as well as economic and political instability in the countries of origin.

African, Chinese and South East Asian nationals reportedly run most of these rings and nearly all go unnoticed. The reasons why these underground movements are often not unearthed are rooted in the very nature of human trafficking in the region and internationally. Most of the people trafficked come to South Africa with falsified travel documents and bogus promises of employment and a better life. Many are unaware that what is being done to them is illegal therefore most cases go unreported. Those who are aware are often afraid that reporting could lead to their deportation. The result is that multitudes of victims of human trafficking never come forward.

Walking in inner city Johannesburg on Friday 30 June, I set out looking for possible victims of human trafficking and/or anyone connected to the trade. I was met by a heavy wall of silence. No one was willing to come forward with their story, even though I had read in many papers prior to the World Cup and during, that Hillbrow was the hub of Gauteng’s human trafficking. I had ventured in vain. The irony of my lack of discovery lay in the fact that most of the women who are trafficked to South Africa, some of whom may have come to the country during and in the months immediately prior to the World Cup, have taken to sex work. Sex work, a highly controversial matter, remains criminalized in South Africa and is thus a profession shrouded in secrecy quite like human trafficking. There are organizations like the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) and ACTS who advocate for greater protection of sex workers and who have been calling for the decriminalization of sex work, something they believe could also reduce human trafficking. However, the government has remained steadfast in its refusal to decriminalise the trade. While the two are interrelated, it is possible to tackle human trafficking without having to decriminalise sex work, but how?

For most South Africans, the only surefire way to curb human trafficking is to adopt stricter immigration laws, making it harder for human traffickers to get their victims into South Africa. However, the reality is that South Africa has fairly stringent immigration laws, but this is crippled by an inadequacy of trained immigration personnel. In addition, a lot of trafficking occurs within the country’s borders and is not trans-national thus cannot be regulated by the tightening of immigration laws. Internally, human trafficking is yet to be criminalised and though an Anti-Human Trafficking Bill was passed in March this year there has been little progress since. Parliament needs to move swiftly and enact the legislation, because human trafficking did not come with the World Cup and it will not just disappear now that the dust of the all the fanfare has settled .. The hordes of supporters who flew in, have flown out.. but those who were trafficked could be here to stay. All is not doom and gloom though; South Africa is already a signatory of the Palermo Protocol dealing with the crime and is developing a national action plan to combat the plague, so there is some hope, if only just a little.

The question remains, how South Africa, with all its laws and regulations, still fails to protect the vulnerable. This question remains unanswered as thousands of women and children continue to be trafficked into the country annually. Though, as with everything else, the answer is indeed in plain sight: It is not enough to legislate; implementation and enforcement must follow. If the scourge of human trafficking is to be done away with – as the African saying goes – it will take the entire community to do so. The government, police, lawyers, community elders, you, me, everyone has a duty to protect defenseless women and children against this crime…

Together we can.

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