The scene is set in a land far, far away: a happy couple have a beautiful baby girl. The baby girl is kidnapped by a wicked woman, taken from her parents. The little girl is locked in a tower and grows up being told that she is the daughter of the wicked woman. She is never allowed out of the tower, told that it is the only safe place in the world, and that leaving will bring upon her great harm, even death. The young girlʼs special skills are used by the wicked woman to her own benefit, manipulating the young girl into obedience and capitulation. Some may identify the story Iʼm paraphrasing as none other than the fairytale Rapunzel, or more recently, Disneyʼs variation of it with ʻTangledʼ, and no, this is not a review of said film. This is an example, of how subtle the crime of human trafficking is and how it has perhaps even been mythologised, no longer being noticed when it occurs. Itʼs unlikely that those who watched Tangled saw the crime of human trafficking play out, but when you examine this story, itʼs exactly that, without the label.

This was the inspiration for the title of my Media Monitoring Africa report A Tangled Web: Human Trafficking, Child Protectection & the Media. As a metaphor, a web does nicely to describe human trafficking: a thing with many threads, sticky, dangerous, and unseen by victims. The sticky threads each different yet inseparable, certainly not linear, clean, neat and easily spotted…well unless youʼre the spider that is. When I talk with people about my work, Iʼve noticed generally two different responses. One being: “I heard about that, itʼs so terrible!” or something to that effect, and thatʼs the end of that. People are familiar with the term of human trafficking, but it is not necessarily something people want to talk about. Alternately I may encounter an activist type (much like myself) whoʼs more in the current affairs or social justice loop and finds the topic engaging. I hear about what theyʼve heard or read, or that theyʼve seen the movie Taken and how appalling it is. I usually end up responding that in South Africa it doesnʼt really look like it does, say, in Eastern Europe, and no the movie Taken isnʼt a very good representation of the reality of human trafficking for thousands of people across the globe, certainly not in South Africa. It is far more mundane: not as titillating, not as exciting and not as heroic; though far more brutal than the average citizen would like to imagine. Victims of human trafficking donʼt have ʻsuper heroʼ dads to save them. More often than not victimsʼ families wouldnʼt have any help in finding them once they go missing, or possibly not even think twice about their sudden absence.

In South Africa there is no one singular human trafficking modus operandi, nor is there only one type of victim – though a commonality all victims share is vulnerability. The crime is yet to be comprehensively legislated in South Africa, with prosecutors having to prosecute cases through the ʻback doorʼ of one or other aspects of the crimes, be it kidnapping, fraud, extortion, rape, immigration fraud etc. There are currently only two pieces of legislation which directly criminalize human trafficking, the Childrenʼs Act – criminalises the trafficking of children for any purpose, and the Sexual Offences Act which does so for the purpose of sexual exploitation of adults. Human Trafficking in South Africa however is bigger than this, and is greater than the sum of its various parts, occurring in countless various ways like all those sticky threads of a spidersweb.

Sex workers are not all trafficking victims, however many in South Africa are (and historically have been) by the internationally recognised definition of the crime even if they themselves donʼt know and cannot say they are. Children and adults kidnapped and murdered for muthi (organs or body parts) are victims of human trafficking, even though those who commit the crime donʼt know they were committing anything other than murder. Migrant workers lured to South Africa, their documents ʻkept for safe keepingʼ, and kept in slave-like conditions, forced to work for little pay beyond subsistence, are victims of human trafficking. Women or girls who are kidnapped, used as ʻsex slavesʼ (I would ask you to really think about what that really means) or young girls (minors) forced to marry someone against their will, made to do so through payments, manipulation, fraud, family pressure or culture, can also be victims of human trafficking. A missing child, and all those unsolved missing persons files at police stations across South Africa, may be victims to the unseen crime – I sometimes wonder just how many have been – as I do of child beggars on street corners. Children, and adults, forced to beg would constitute human trafficking too.

A recent story covered in the media, about a foreign national, an exotic dancer, found at OR Tambo airport and deported because of errors with her documentation – the possibility of her being a victim of trafficking is not so unlikely. The local strip club industry is allegedly a haven for trafficking syndicates well-practiced in corruption. Then thereʼs the drug mule, lured under false promises of work, only to be forced to do things they never would have, through threats, violence, manipulation, coercion etc. Under the definition of trafficking one of the purposes is defined as forced drug running. These and countless other scenarios are often not communicated in South Africaʼs mainstream media as human trafficking. Itʼs realities, the subtle hidden ways it is perpetrated, the ease at which those who prey on victims can undertake their crimes and go about their ʻbusinessʼ remains hidden. Human trafficking is sometimes unwittingly masked by different labels, covered and discussed as something else. By any other name, human trafficking remains human trafficking, not using the term doesnʼt mean it ceases to be so. As a crime, made up of various components, to know and be able to identify these parts helps to understand the crime, regardless of what label has any one of its parts has otherwise been known as, and anyone involved at any time in any singular part, is liable to the trafficking offense.

South Africa is still in its infancy in coming to understand human trafficking in all its facets in our specific context. But letʼs not sideline it. Identifying and naming it when it happens will aid efforts to understand and combat it. In addition, not naming it, particularly for victims, nullifies the severity of what was perpetrated against them. Human trafficking needs to be further investigated, looked for where it may not be thought to exist, and when found, communicated as such to South African citizens. Our media can play an important role in changing how human trafficking is communicated, and MMAʼs goal is to break through the myths of human trafficking with its reality.

By Melanie Hamman – Programme Head: Child Protection & Trafficking

Saturday Star (11/02/2012, p.11)