MMA’s Child Protection & Trafficking Programme Head, Melanie Hamman and has followed up her article in Saturday Star (11/02/2012 p.11) with a second article that gives more of an insiders insight into the progress made in efforts to begin to combat this highly complex issue in South Africa.

Combating human trafficking in SA: Where we’re really at

The issue of human trafficking is one that this paper has reported on before, having only a few weeks ago published my editorial of the issue. It’s possible that readers were left wondering after reading it, where exactly SA is in dealing with the issue? Hopefully this will help to answer that question.

Human trafficking is just another issue amongst all the numerous social issues that our country has to deal with, and the levels of which we don’t really know because of lack of data on the crime, only recently being increasingly identified. And no, SA doesn’t yet have comprehensive legislation criminalizing the crime in its entirety. But it’s not that nothing is being done – something is being done, slowly, with perhaps not enough motivation. But there is action. Being an observer and activist you could either, dejectedly throw your hands up in the air and say things will never get better; or you could be hopeful and encouraged where you see things improving, however slowly, and get involved.

I attended an information session on South Africa’s proposed Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Persons Bill earlier this year, hosted by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development. It was a session for representatives of the courts of Gauteng: court employees and magistrates. Upon a few weeks of reflection of the day, I’ve been struck by my peculiar opposing mix of feelings regarding it: one having been concern, the other that I was admittedly a little encouraged (which is in itself peculiar for me, being the increasingly cynical and jaded activist that I am).

It was concerning to sit in a room watching and listening to presentations on everything from the basic definition of human trafficking, victim identification and assistance, to case conferencing and management and the intelligence approach to human trafficking , all presented by experts in their respective areas. I wasn’t concerned because of what I was hearing. I was concerned because those who were attending the session and hearing all of this for the first time, were employees of the system who one would hope would be aware of this issue more than others, it being a component of the criminal landscape in South Africa.

These thoughts made me realize afresh the mammoth task that remains for our country to begin to get to grips with a crime that has been and continues to be a part of the criminal landscape of SA, organized or otherwise. It also remains one of the plethora of issues within our country’s socio-economic landscape that largely affect the most impoverished and vulnerable people in South Africa; most frequently women and children.

We have made progress as a nation in our battle against human trafficking, however slowly that rate of progress may be. This understanding stems from my own personal experience, when an encounter I had with a social worker in 2009 left me utterly dismayed. During an investigation (at the time as a documentary photographer alongside a fellow journalist) in mid 2009, in the Eastern Cape and Free State. One night an operation led to the rescue of a 15-year-old girl ‘Elizabeth’ (a pseudonym) from her pimp in Bloemfontein. Having been lured to Bloemfontein under the false pretense of work by a recruiter, Elizabeth ended up in forced prostitution. She’d tried to escape on various occasions but was always found and suffered the consequences.  Upon handing her over to the social worker, to my incredible astonishment, the social worker professed that “She [the 15-year-old victim] was not trafficked because she went willingly.” This statement revealed to me just how little was understood about the crime by the very people who were meant to assist victims.

For the purposes of clarity, according to the internationally accepted definition of trafficking of children, as well the South African Children’s Act which criminalizes the trafficking of minors for any purpose – the child’s ‘willingness’ is irrelevant. A child cannot give their consent. And in this case, it being under false pretense (i.e.: fraud), the notion of going willingly was even more irrelevant. Our law is in place to protect children from this very risk, and within the definition of trafficking of minors in the Children’s Act, abusing a position of power over those in a position of vulnerability, constitutes means of trafficking, just as fraud does.

So sitting in that room a few weeks ago, with all those magistrates and court employees, hearing a social worker present on the increasing number of cases of trafficking they’re dealing with, and the deepening understanding of the severe psychological and emotional trauma suffered by many victims, was indeed encouraging for me. It’s an indication that in this fight against the trafficking and slavery of human beings in South Africa, things are getting better, slowly. Efforts to assist victims appear to be improving. The increasing number of victims able to reach assistance, points to them being increasingly identified. Increased victim identification is a result of those who would probably come into contact with a victim are able to now identify them, when previously they had been unable to (note previously mentioned social worker who missed one right under her nose) Those who would probably come in contact with a victim would also be police officers, healthcare workers, and even parents – who now, better informed, may not perceive the child to have merely run away, but had in fact been trafficked, and thus report their disappearance.

So while I found it strange that those attending the information session were hearing it all for the first time, I am encouraged that wheels of governance and bureaucracy are moving, and that the NPA’s Intersectoral Task Team and their Strategy to Counter Human Trafficking is bearing a small but viable amount of fruit.

South Africa will hopefully see an increase in the number of victims rescued, and an increase in the arrests of traffickers, recruiters, accomplices, facilitators and buyers/users – not because the crime of human trafficking is growing, but because it is beginning to be identified, documented and reported where previously it was not.  The shifts while small are huge for those involved.

Melanie Hamman

Programme Head: Child Protection & Trafficking – Media Monitoring Africa

Saturday Star, 14 April 2012, pg.14