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Human trafficking in South Africa: an elusive statistical nightmare

Due to the lack of reliable statistics surrounding human trafficking, there is no real scope of how large the problem really is, making it more difficult to police. Shutterstock

Human trafficking is a global crime affecting countless victims around the world. Yet its actual scope remains a mystery. The methodologies used to arrive at estimates about its nature and extent have been widely criticised as flawed or lacking in scientific rigour.

In South Africa, claims by anti-trafficking campaigners and NGOs include that 30,000 children are trafficked into the country annually as part of the sex trade. The same figure has been used by the Department of Home Affairs to justify recently introduced visa regulations aimed at combating child trafficking.

But this number has been discredited as “exaggerated and unsubstantiated”.

Human trafficking has become a focus of attention in the country following the introduction of the onerous and controversial visa requirements. In addition, a new act aimed at preventing trafficking is expected to be operational in the next few weeks. It defines trafficking to include the recruitment, transportation, sale or harbour of people by means of force, deceit, the abuse of vulnerability and the abuse of power for exploitation.

A statistical dilemma

But the absence of reliable statistics means that there is no clarity on just how big the problem is.

Inflated guesstimates continue to be used by those trying to stop the crime. But they create a credibility dilemma, detract from a constructive conversation and frustrate efforts to understand the multi-layered realities of the problem.

Notwithstanding the lack of reliable numbers, the problem is prevalent in South Africa. The number of cases being reported suggests it is on the increase. The situation may in fact be far more chronic and severe than we know.

It is well documented that South Africa is a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking. This is backed up by a forthcoming book, Long Walk to Nowhere: Forced Migration, Exploitation and Human Trafficking in South Africa, by social scientist Philip Frankel. He dismisses sceptics and exposes some of the unexplored and undocumented crevices in the mining and labour sector suggestive of human trafficking.

My ongoing research draws on the experiences of role-players in counter-human trafficking. These include all the responding agencies including civil society, survivors and ex-perpetrators.

Preliminary themes highlight multiple accounts of undocumented cases, direct and indirect complicity by political elites and bureaucratic officials, the paucity of border controls, corruption and a culture of impunity.

This toxic concoction makes human trafficking an attractive business with high returns and low risk. For example, trafficking in persons for sexual exploitation is the most documented type of trafficking, locally and internationally. Yet none of the international syndicates dominating the sex trade have ever been successfully prosecuted in South Africa.

A hidden and subversive crime

Society’s justifiable preoccupation with numbers to understand the scope of the problem does little to promote understanding of the complex issues associated with human trafficking.

Measures to combat the trade cannot be divorced from numerous other structural issues. These include racism, poverty, unemployment, education and inequality – all of which interpenetrate at some point.

The problem is further compounded by the absence of an official database on human trafficking. There are also no crime codes in the police service which capture the complexities of each reported incident. Associated human trafficking offences are still subsumed into crimes such rape, sexual assault, kidnapping, abduction and domestic violence. Much of this is due to an inability by some police officials or investigators to positively identify trafficking cases.

Many labour and sex trafficking victims don’t even know they are victims of a crime. Others, mostly children, are exploited in a distorted net of “culture”. These include aberrant forms of ukuthwala – meaning “to carry” in isiXhosa and isiZulu – a customary practice used to bypass extensive and lengthy marriage rituals.


Awareness about human trafficking across all sectors of society remains low. In addition, perceptions are often fuelled by skewed media representations. Hollywood movies like Taken and dramatic elements such as the use of force, kidnapping, and the brutality of perpetrators dominate discourses.

Misinformation is further fuelled by the fact that significant elements such as deceit, fraud, grooming, manipulation and trauma bonding often go unreported.

The possible link between missing persons and human trafficking also begs to be interrogated. In February 2014, the South African Police Services’ Missing Persons Bureau reported that 2641 adults and 754 children remain missing from cases reported between 2011 and 2013, a significant number for a mere two years.

Angie Motaung of Bana Ba Kae (“where are the children”), an NGO that works to alleviate the plight of children in poor communities in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital city, says that “there could be as many as 1000 children missing from homes across the city”.

Quantitative and qualitative data

Instead of trying to quantify the problem in terms of the number of human trafficking victims, the question we should be asking is: which communities are most vulnerable to human trafficking?

This would open the door to finding connections between measurable quantities on the one hand and qualities which cannot be counted but should be mapped on the other. Such a connection is crucial to understand the configuration of relationships in which the problem of human trafficking is rooted.

The hidden nature of the crime requires unconventional thinking and flexible methodologies to scope the problem. Every member of society should be empowered to be a co-participant in both quantitative and qualitative data collection. Community based participatory research methods could be used to do so. This would help find significant themes in the seemingly insignificant events of everyday life which may suggest the presence of “hidden transcripts” related to human trafficking.

Human trafficking presents a confluence of complexities. This denies us the convenience of an unambiguous and quantified understanding. The key lies in harnessing the complexity of the problem and acknowledging its deep and dense sociological abyss.

We need to redefine success in a way that is sensitive to the structural limitations of any given context. By doing so we may move towards a more even-handed understanding of the scope, nature and extent of human trafficking. It may also be more suitable to framing more appropriate policy and enforcement responses.

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