SOUTH AFRICAN BODY SNATCHERS: Years In Hell – Human Traffic Survivor Tells It All


SHE survived years of rape and molestation at the hands of family members, drug addiction, jail, kidnapping, forced prostitution and finally robbery and gang rape. But, Chanel (surname withheld) (26) says she overcame her past, forgave the unforgivable and now lives free.

‘I am not ashamed of what happened anymore. I tell my story, so others may know you can rebuild your life and be happy again. ‘I was molested and groomed for bigger things by a family member since I was six. ‘It started by playing with dolls and then ‘keeping a secret’. ‘I was first raped at nine years old. ‘My mom took me to the psychologist but the person who did it to me, went with, so I never said anything. ‘After my parents divorced, we moved from Richards Bay to Johannesburg, but the abuse continued, this time by another family member. ‘When I was 13, I finally told one friend and then my mom, who went to the police.


‘He was arrested, but I had been so severely and regularly abused by then, that I mixed up times, places and events in court, so he was acquitted.’ While the man she accused of rape went on with his life, Chanel ran back to her original home. ‘I had nowhere else to go.’ Her original rapist started trafficking her for income and after school, she was given a list of names on a daily basis, with what they had paid for. She escaped again to Johannesburg, where she was quickly sucked into a life of serious crack addiction to dull the pain and trauma. While visiting a friend in Hillbrow, four Nigerians burst into the room and stuffed her in a car. ‘I sat in a dark room with nothing but a mattress. It had a little gap under the door where they pushed things through.’ Three weeks of hell followed when she was kept high and trafficked into prostitution. Finally, her abductors sent her to the streets with a phone, confident she was fully enslaved to them through her addiction.


As soon as she was out, she contacted one of her childhood tormentors, who went to the police. ‘It was the only number I could remember.’ Kempton Park, Edenvale and Booysens police stations and others partook in the sting operation, where she and other women were liberated. ‘That day, I forgave that man, because regardless of what he did to me as a child, he rescued me.’ Still, the ordeal was not over, because the drugs had done their work. ‘I kept on using drugs, was convicted of theft and dealing in drugs and finally went to prison.’ One abusive relationship after the other followed until she ran into a childhood friend. They fell in love and she thought the tide had turned for her.

Robbed and raped

But, while sleeping in their apartment, they were overpowered by black thugs and she was raped. The case made headlines and remains unsolved, despite one of them leaving his photo on her phone. ‘I struggle the most to come to terms with this.’ ‘I am now engaged to a wonderful man who helped me to deal with the hurt and the heartache and I have been through inner healing with the help of family and friends. ‘I hope to one day tell my story to victims of human trafficking, rape, and addiction, through the establishment of what I will call the Bell Foundation. ‘I will tell them, they are survivors.’

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 of its nature and extent have been widely criticised as flawed or lacking in scientific rigor. 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 fueled by skewed media representation. 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 for framing more appropriate policy and enforcement responses.



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