An Unorganised Response to an Organised Crime

By Published On: 25th November 2020

Image: Bill Oxford (Unsplash)

Human trafficking is not a new phenomenon, but rather one that has recently captured the public’s attention as conspiracy theories move into the mainstream and kidnappings become ever more prevalent in South Africa (SA).

While quantifying the crime is a statistical and elusive nightmare, we can be fairly certain that traffickers consolidate their illegal activities by taking advantage of structural failures within society.

Improving the country’s response to the crime rests largely on the state’s capacity to implement the internationally lauded, victim-centered Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons (PACOTIP) Act No. 7 of 2013.

Human trafficking is a crime of context. In SA, it’s perpetuated by a conflation of forces, to name a few – persistent inequality, snowballing unemployment, widespread gender-based and sexual violence, poor oversight from the state, and a law enforcement faced with both severe resource constraints and a crisis of integrity, as more known-cases of collusion with trafficker’s surface. Common types of trafficking seen in SA are; labour trafficking, domestic servitude, sex trafficking and forced marriages.

The PACOTIP Act sets out to address the crime through a three-pronged strategy of Prevention, Protection and Prosecution. Successful implementation of the Act necessitates durable political will and deliberate coordination, yet the government’s response remains deeply fragmented, both horizontally and vertically. Coordination is largely absent between stakeholders and it is here, that implementation of the Prevention, Protection and Prosecution policy unravels.

A closer look at the Prosecution agenda uncovers a fragmented and poorly capacitated response that can be enriched through a strategy to build a cohesive, well-coordinated response.

Since 2013, the criminal justice system has been sluggish in acquainting itself with the now, not so new crime of human trafficking. As our courts fail to prosecute most cases of trafficking, they are signalling to traffickers a decreased risk in their criminal activities. The low risk, high reward perception of the crime continues to fuel the ambitions of traffickers in SA.

A central reason for the disappointing number of prosecutions boils down to a fragmented enforcement of the PACOTIP Act, culminating in poor investigative work by law enforcement. Prosecutors are often forced to rely on the testimonies of victims, many of which are too afraid to testify or prefer to move on with their lives, as the slow wheel of justice plays out in lengthy court proceedings.

In light of this, investigations need to produce reliable evidence that depends less on the victim’s testimony and more on the proactive, honest and informed investigations of law enforcement.

The South African Police Service (SAPS) is the sole body tasked with investigating crimes of human trafficking. At the station level, SAPS is notorious for accepting bribes.

Traffickers have the means to offer SAPS officials sizeable enticements to ignore their criminal activities, to tip them off before raids, and to sell escaped victims back to them. Researchers spoke to a SAPS official who said that counter-trafficking activities are not as effective as expected and went on to identify the cause of this ineffectiveness as corruption. Sadly, the only stakeholder tasked to investigate the crime is often known to be supporting the activities of traffickers, directly undermining investigations and ultimately prosecutions.

Corruption is only one part of the story. SAPS faces a crisis of competency to investigate complex crimes. SAPS officers often do not have sound legal knowledge of organised crime. At a station level, investigations typically rely on the information made available by communities, witnesses or those directly affected. No distinction in tactic is adopted between general crimes and crimes committed by syndicates and so, where information or evidence is not overtly presented, the crime is likely to be left undetected. This implies that at a station level, the investigating officer would likely use the same tactic to investigate a mugging and a case of human trafficking.

In my experience, it is more common than not, to find officers at the station level who have never heard of the PACOTIP Act, cannot clearly define human trafficking and almost no insight into identifying victims or the crime itself, unless overtly stated. Researchers have concluded that the frontline is ill-equipped to identify victims, handle victims appropriately and fulfill their PACOTIP mandates.

To fill these gaps, we need to see a greater emphasis on building capacity within law enforcement and criminal courts. Some researchers suggest the creation of a specialised unit that is well trained and versed in detecting victims and prosecuting perpetrators. To support this strategy, there needs to be a rapid rollout of training for the frontline. While the state itself has failed here, a network of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have recognised the urgent need for training.

As things stand, training under PACOTIP is meant to be carried out by the particular departments. However, this is not happening to the extent needed, and consequently NGOs have worked to fill this gap through unregulated, ad-hoc training.

In a survey of 14 anti-trafficking NGOs across the country, 43% indicated that they had already trained the frontline and first responders on victim identification and next steps. Most often they train social workers, healthcare workers and law enforcement. Some NGOs reported training legal professionals, frontline workers in airports and hotel staff.

Despite NGOs voluntarily fulfilling the state’s role in training of first responders, 69% of surveyed NGOs have never received any training material from the government. Interestingly, 92% of the training carried out by NGOs are ‘once-off’ training rather than continuous, on-going learning.

Although NGOs are well-placed to carry out training, with a presence in every province of the country, they face numerous challenges with training first responders. The most commonly listed challenges are funding or resource constraints (where their own funds inhibit their potential to increase the number of trainings they are able to carry out), attendance and willingness. Other challenges faced are attitudes towards training staff and a lack of perceived legitimacy over the sessions, as they are not formally endorsed by the SAPS or the state.

Identifying these challenges is the first step to resolving them. If enabled by the state through formalised collaboration, the NGO-network has the potential to coordinate training under one programme and for it to be administered evenly across the country. Such a programme would address variations in content and the fragmented distribution of training, as well as facilitate continuous training with a positive feedback loop. It would also increase perceived legitimacy of the trainings and, if subsidised by the state (with its allocated budget for trainings), will overcome challenges of resource constraints.

Without proper training for law enforcement and other first responders, victims will continue to go undetected, cases poorly investigated and traffickers will continue to operate with impunity. While the state may not have the capacity to rollout training in a precise and coordinated way, working with and providing central coordination to, the network anti-trafficking NGOs already active in trainings, has the potential to transform investigations and prosecutions, ultimately increasing the risk of the crime.

Here you can read more on how NGOs can improve the state’s response to human trafficking.

If you suspect a situation of human trafficking, please call the 24-hour National Human Trafficking Hotline on 0800 222 777 or submit a tip on their website here.

Jaynisha Patel is a project officer at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR). She has an MPhil in Politics, Philosophy and Economics and her current work focuses on inclusive development in post-conflict states in Africa at the IJR.

Article first published on The Art of Politics.

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