Research Into the Nature and Scope of Trafficking in Persons in South Africa: Prevalence Insights into the Criminal Justice System and Relevant Reporting Mechanisms

Research Into the Nature and Scope of Trafficking in Persons in South Africa: Prevalence Insights into the Criminal Justice System and Relevant Reporting Mechanisms

Research Into the Nature and Scope of Trafficking in Persons in South Africa: Prevalence Insights into the Criminal Justice System and Relevant Reporting Mechanisms

Executive Summary

Khulisa Management Services (Khulisa), in partnership with the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), was contracted in May 2020 to conduct research on Trafficking in Persons (TIP) in South Africa. The contractual mechanism is a Buy-In Agreement: 7200AA18CA00009 (LASER) with USAID/Southern Africa and USAID/LAB/CDR in collaboration with the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), South Africa through Purdue University/LASER PULSE. The Buy-in Agreement objective is to collect robust and empirically-based qualitative and quantitative data to reveal the nature and magnitude of TIP in South Africa. This research will support efforts to have the data play a more prominent role in public-policy debates, particularly given the hidden and subversive nature of TIP.

Purpose of the Report

The overarching aim of this report was to explore available data and/or lived experiences related to incidents of TIP in South Africa that overlapped, connected with, and/or were reported to any aspect of South Africa’s Criminal Justice System. Given the lack of a centralized database on South African TIP data, this mosaic of evidence was deemed necessary for relevant insights into the nature and prevalence of TIP in South Africa. The report begins by exploring the prevailing ‘evidence’ dissonance regarding TIP in South Africa, particularly as it relates to persistent claims of ‘little evidence’ and the framing of child trafficking and sex trafficking as ‘myth’ in some research. The framework of the Palermo Trafficking Protocol and the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act (PACOTIP) Act 7 of 2013 was employed as the yardstick to understand the basis of this skepticism towards South Africa’s TIP phenomenon, and the arguments to support these claims are questioned. This analysis is then positioned as the background to this study and juxtaposed with evidence collected in this research. On the one end of the spectrum, this includes actual cases or information containing reasonable grounds to infer that a TIP crime or threat exists, and that was reported by civil society organizations to either the South African Police Service (SAPS) or formalized TIP Task Teams (Provincial or National) for further investigations. On the other end, the data includes ongoing and successfully prosecuted TIP cases in South African courts. A cursory, yet insightful analysis of TIP reporting in the media is also explored. The data collected was considered essential as it underwent a continuum of review iterations by a range of actors to establish whether there are reasonable grounds to believe that a case of TIP was perpetrated or not. An established TIP legal framework was used to reach these conclusions. Finally, the data and perspectives originated from sources that are operationally involved in the investigation, prosecution and adjudication of cases, frontline responses to calls for service, and victim-centric interventions and support services. They were therefore able to provide a first-hand account and an informed interpretation of the data.

Research Questions

The research questions relevant to this study are:

  • What is the scope of trafficking, and how does it manifest in South Africa?
  • What are the experiences of TIP victims, and is policy shaped to reflect their voices?
  • What past and present factors have constrained both available data and an understanding of TIP prevalence in South Africa?
  • Who are the role-players involved in TIP, and is the response to counter-trafficking appropriate? In what ways does the criminal justice system require improvement to better manage trafficking crimes?
  • What can be learnt from programs to strengthen the response?

What are the key pathways to impact addressing TIP in South Africa? What are the gaps and recommendations?

Key Finding

The evidence convincingly shows that South Africa is a source, transit, and destination country for TIP and that both victims and perpetrators are significantly undercounted in both research and practice. Sex trafficking continues to make up the overwhelming majority1 of detected, reported, and prosecuted TIP cases, while labor trafficking prosecutions, similar to trends observed internationally, remain limited. The number of ongoing- and successful TIP prosecutions by the Government of South Africa is disproportionately low when compared to calls for response services and data from civil society, available police statistics, media coverage, and practitioner perceptions related to the nature and prevalence of the phenomenon in South Africa. Evidence shows that TIP is fueled by several factors. This includes South Africa’s relentless structural inequalities, unconstrained consumer-level demand for commercial sex and forced labor, corruption and widespread indifference, and several crippling response deficiencies. Historical and ongoing research claims that TIP is “rarely encountered” and that there is “little evidence of sex trafficking” are misleading, obfuscate the day-to-day realities of adult and child trafficking victims, and fail to employ the legally binding definition of the PACOTIP Act in research. Methodological problems include the unjustifiable use of truncated definitions and conceptualizations of TIP, the undercounting of TIP victims, and the rationalization of harm. The study concludes that the cumulative effect of the aforementioned problems significantly constrains a forthright assessment of the nature and prevalence of TIP in South Africa and results in disconnected claims and harm rationalizations that are incongruent with existing laws and, chiefly, incongruent with the evidence presented in this study. The empirical basis in this research includes both quantitative insights and qualitative themes from the following data points:

  • Reporting by three national TIP Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) who have a presence on the provincial and national TIP Task Teams, and one national NGO that works in the area of missing persons
  • Available statistics by the SAPS for the period 2007 to 2021
  • Ongoing TIP prosecutions in South African Courts during 2021
  • Successfully prosecuted TIP Cases in South African Courts for the period 2007 to 2022

When considered as a ‘mosaic of evidence’ and a ‘constellation of circumstances’, the evidence in this study not only accentuate the consistency and coherency of previous TIP research themes (including reports, journal articles, doctoral studies, masters studies, evidence-based media reports, and lived experience survivor autobiographies) but presents a more nuanced perspective on the nature and prevalence of TIP in South Africa. Evidence that hitherto has not been documented is introduced, and recommendations are made for criminal justice practitioners, policy-makers, institutional review boards, government data management, the media, communications and messaging strategy, local and international research funders, counter-corruption, and consumer-level demand reduction for commercial sex and forced labor.

Read or download full report here.