As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in South Africa, and traffickers exploit victims from South Africa abroad. Traffickers recruit victims from neighboring countries and rural areas within South Africa, particularly Gauteng, and exploit them in sex trafficking locally and in urban centers, such as Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, and Bloemfontein. Traffickers force both adults and children, particularly those from poor and rural areas and migrants, into labor in domestic service, mining, food services, construction, criminal activities, agriculture, and the fishing sector. Traffickers may exploit South Africans in forced labor on vineyards and fruit and vegetable farms across the country.
High unemployment, low wages, and pandemic-related restrictions increased vulnerability of exploitation, particularly of youth, Black women, and foreign migrants. Traffickers recruit victims who lack employment and struggle with substance addiction, and commonly use substance addiction to control victims, including children. Parents with substance addiction sometimes exploit their children in sex trafficking to pay for drugs. Traffickers increasingly entice foreign and South African women and girls with the promise of marriage and then force them into labor after marriage. Abuse of the custom of ukuthwala, a cultural norm that can manifest into forced marriage, may contribute to vulnerability of girls and women to exploitation, particularly in Eastern Cape and KZN. According to a study, in 2021, approximately 500,000 children had dropped out of school, resulting in a total of 750,000 children not enrolled in school; high death rates from the pandemic increased the orphan population, leaving more children vulnerable to exploitation. There were some reports of boys lured out of the country for fake sports scholarships and then forced into exploitation.
Traffickers recruit both foreign and South African victims through fake job advertisements on social media and classified advertisement forums, which proliferated during the pandemic, including advertisements for webcam modeling, hospitality, mining, and domestic work. Some fake advertisements, particularly for domestic work, specifically request Zimbabwean or Malawian applicants. Because domestic workers may not have formal contracts, employers fired many without notice or pay during the pandemic, rendering them vulnerable to potential exploitation. Some employers restricted workers’ movements and forced them to remain at worksites during the pandemic, which increased the workers’ vulnerability to forced labor and abuse by employers. Despite high unemployment, migrants travel from East and Southern Africa to South Africa looking for economic opportunity or fleeing conflict, particularly from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Mozambique, and are vulnerable to exploitation. Due to the pandemic, the government issued a blanket extension of refugee and asylum certificates, but many employers and banks failed to recognize the extensions, resulting in loss of employment and frozen back accounts, rendering asylum seekers increasingly vulnerable to traffickers. Local refugee rights groups reported that, due to the pandemic, DHA shuttered its offices in 2020, resulting in asylum seekers unable to obtain asylum seeker certificates. The lack of valid documentation limited asylum seeker’s ability to access protection and services.
Official complicity in trafficking crimes, especially by police, facilitated the operation of traffickers and organized syndicates engaging in trafficking. Syndicates, often dominated by Nigerians, force women from Nigeria and countries bordering South Africa into commercial sex, primarily in brothels and other commercial-front establishments. South African trafficking rings exploit girls as young as 10 years old in sex trafficking. Some well-known brothels, previously identified as locations of sex trafficking, continue to operate with officials’ tacit approval. In some cases, traffickers exploit women in brothels disguised as bed and breakfasts. Syndicates also recruit South African women to Europe and Asia, where traffickers force some into commercial sex, domestic service, or drug smuggling. Mozambican crime syndicates use the eastern border of Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga to transport South African men to other parts of the country for forced labor, through the same routes used by syndicates to facilitate other crimes. Syndicates also exploit miners, both South African and foreign migrants, sometimes known as zama zamas, in illegal gold, diamond, and coal mining. Traffickers operating in South Africa are mostly from Nigeria and South Africa; however, there were reports of traffickers from Bangladesh, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Undocumented children, including many child trafficking victims from Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Zimbabwe, are unable to access education and government services, which increases their risk of statelessness and vulnerability to trafficking. Recruiters entice women from the Middle East, Asia, and countries bordering South Africa with offers of legitimate employment, but upon arrival, some subject the women to domestic servitude or forced labor in the service sector. Traffickers exploit Basotho women in sex trafficking and domestic servitude and men in labor trafficking, particularly in the mining sector, in South Africa. Traffickers exploit foreign male victims aboard fishing vessels in South Africa’s territorial waters. Asian workers may travel to South Africa via commercial flights to disembark on fishing vessels where they are exploited. Traffickers subject Pakistanis and Bangladeshis to forced labor through debt-based coercion in businesses owned by their co-nationals. In one case, a Nepali trafficker fraudulently recruited a Nepali man to South Africa and exploited him in forced labor. Traffickers exploit young men from neighboring countries who migrate to South Africa for farm work; some are subsequently arrested and deported as undocumented immigrants. Owners of privately-owned PRC businesses exploit PRC national, South African, and Malawian adults and children in factories, sweatshops, and other businesses. The Cuban government may have forced 187 Cuban medical workers to work in South Africa, operating in all provinces to combat the pandemic. These agreements typically require payment directly to the Government of Cuba, which gives the medical workers between 5 and 15 percent of the salary only after they complete the mission and return home.