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24 March 2010

Study reveals human trafficking as a serious problem in South Africa

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)
Press Release

Human trafficking in South Africa is a serious problem and warrants intervention on all fronts, according to a study released at a National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) conference on human trafficking, ending today (24 March 2010).

The report, Tsireledzani: Understanding the dimensions of human trafficking in southern Africa, says victims are mostly women, girls and boys trafficked for variety of purposes, including prostitution, pornography, domestic servitude, forced labour, begging, criminal activity (including drug trafficking), and trafficking for the removal of body parts (or muti). Young boys are trafficked to smuggle drugs and for other criminal activities.
Conducted on behalf of the South African government’s National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) the study identified a number of trafficking flows into South Africa:

    •    Intercontinental trafficking (to South Africa from outside of Africa). South Africa is a destination county for long-distance flows for people (mainly women) trafficked from Thailand, Philippines, India, China, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and the Ukraine. The main point of entry of this trafficking stream is OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg.
    •    Trafficking to South Africa from other African countries. People are trafficked from within Africa across the extensive land borders of South Africa, mostly from Mozambique and Zimbabwe and to a lesser extent Malawi, Swaziland and Lesotho. Longer-distance trafficking involve victims trafficked from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Angola, Rwanda, Kenya, Cameroon, Nigeria and Somalia. All documented cases in this last category are women trafficked for both sexual and labour exploitation.
    •    Domestic trafficking. The largest movement of trafficked people is from rural areas to cities. Women, girls and boys -and to a lesser extent, men – are the targets of traffickers for prostitution for the same purposes listed . The albino community was identified as vulnerable to human traffickers for the harvesting of body parts, due the belief of a ‘white’ skin having potent powers.

Trafficking of South Africans out of South Africa is less of a problem, but 8 cases were identified between January 2004 and January 2008. Destination countries included Ireland, Zimbabwe, Israel, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Macau. In all cases, the victims were women trafficked for either sexual exploitation, labour exploitation or forced marriage.

The study confirmed that, as elsewhere, women constitute the largest group of victims in human trafficking in South Africa, with the main purpose of sexual exploitation. Young girls are also trafficked for sexual exploitation because they are perceived to present less of a risk in terms of HIV and AIDS and because of the ‘sexual desirability of youth’.
The HSRC study was commissioned by the NPA’s as one pillar of its programme of assistance to the South African government to prevent, react to human trafficking and provide support to victims of crime, known as Tsireledzani (TshiVenda for ‘protect’) and funded by the European Union. The study was conducted to obtain a more detailed national picture of human trafficking in South Africa that can help guide new policies to combat the practice. It is the first comprehensive study of the problem in South Africa.
While South Africa was the main focus, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe were also included in the study.

The main findings include:


Human trafficking is driven by networks situated in source countries with links to South Africa as the destination country. Perpetrators and intermediaries include large organised-crime networks. South African men with ex-military backgrounds work together with these syndicates.


Points of destination for victims of trafficking in South Africa are the major cities where the greatest demand exists. Towns like Barberton and Bloemfontein, which are close to national borders, are also destination points for victims of trafficking. Border towns like Musina also have ‘safe houses’ where victims trafficked from Zimbabwe can be kept until they can be moved on. Safe-houses in Johannesburg are used as temporary housing for victims trafficked through OR Tambo Airport. Victims trafficked for labour exploitation, usually boys, are taken to agricultural areas.

Relationship of human trafficking to other forms of crime

There is a distinct trafficking-narcotics nexus, as criminal syndicates are usually involved in several areas of illegal activities – including smuggling, weapons and narcotics trafficking. Trafficked women may also be involved in the ancillary line of selling drugs to their clients. In many cases of trafficking for sexual exploitation, victims are made dependent on narcotics to reduce their capacity to leave. Young boys are also trafficked to sell drugs.

Collusion of officials as facilitating factor

The collusion of border and other immigration officials is a key factor facilitating trafficking. Human trafficking syndicates target border posts where lax border controls and vulnerability to bribery enable the illegal transportation of a variety of goods. The Lebombo border was identified as one of the land ports of entry where these problems operate on a large scale. The same problems were cited regarding OR Tambo Airport.

Aggravating factors

Factors that facilitate and aggravate human trafficking in South Africa include poverty and inequality; the lack of educational and employment opportunities in surrounding countries and within the country; lax security at ports of entry; collusion of government officials; the lack of trained personnel to identify and handle trafficking cases; and societal beliefs that tolerate violence against women and children.

Limitations of the study:

The researchers emphasise that they experienced serious difficulties in conducting the study. South Africa is not collecting even basic national-level data which will allow sound estimates about the scale of the problem. They also had difficulty accessing key informants in government departments, because government databases of contacts were not made available.  Still, as an exploratory study, the HSRC report confirms a portrait of human trafficking in South Africa that requires serious action by government and civil society to track and address the problem.

The full report with the executive summary of the study can be accessed here:


Please direct all enquiries to:
Ina van der Linde,
Media Liaison, HSRC

Cell phone: 082 331 0614