Innocence Lost: The Battle Against Massive Human Trafficking Operations in South Africa

Human trafficking in South Africa has escalated significantly, often going unnoticed, according to Hilary Leong, co-founder and CEO of Awareness for Child Trafficking Africa (ACT Africa). The 2022 human trafficking resource line impact report revealed that out of 3,374 contacts, 76.6% pertained to human trafficking cases.

Gauteng emerged as the primary region for such exploitation, with sex trafficking constituting 49.6% of the contacts. Notably, male victims represented 20% of confirmed cases, marking a substantial increase from the previous year’s 5.3%. On a global scale, it is estimated that 30 million individuals are ensnared in human trafficking, generating profits upwards of $150 billion, a situation exacerbated in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Leong highlighted that South Africa serves as a source, transit, and destination for trafficking, with Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Western Cape being the most affected areas. The economic challenges post-Covid have heightened vulnerabilities, leading to an uptick in trafficking incidents. Predators have increasingly turned to the internet to target potential victims, offering deceptive promises of employment, sports, modeling contracts, and educational opportunities.

Despite its prevalence, human trafficking remains a largely concealed crime, underreported and difficult to detect. Victims are often enticed with seemingly legitimate job offers, only to be coerced into fraudulent activities. The country also grapples with sex and organ trafficking, forced labor, illegal adoptions, and the exploitation of children for criminal activities and begging—modern-day slavery manifestations.

To combat this, ACT Africa, in collaboration with the Department of Social Development, the University of Johannesburg, and other stakeholders, organized The Human Trafficking Campaign to educate students. The event featured “Innocence Lost,” a play by the National Children’s Theatre, based on a true child sex trafficking story, followed by a panel discussion and Q&A session.

Leong expressed concerns over the challenges faced by organizations like ACT Africa, including funding and resource constraints. She emphasized the public’s reluctance to acknowledge the gravity of trafficking, the fear of reporting suspicions, and the lack of confidence in the justice system due to pervasive corruption. Furthermore, she criticized the government’s inadequate response to this crisis, which continues to fuel poverty and unemployment.