OPINION | The fueling of xenophobic tensions is not helping in the fight against human trafficking

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Foreign nationals in South Africa are being blamed for human trafficking.

Foreign nationals in South Africa are being blamed for human trafficking.

As tension increases between foreign nationals in South Africa and unemployed youths, we are seeing claims that immigrants are responsible for human trafficking. Nkanyiso Ngqulunga questions whether this is, in fact, fair.


South African society is reported to have one of the worst levels of inequality in the world.

This inevitably leads to growing national discontentment, community unrest and various social ills.

These social conflicts are a natural consequence of a disproportionate number of black people that continue to live in abject poverty and experience endemic unemployment almost three decades after the democratic breakthrough.

Social media has given ordinary South Africans a platform to voice their anger, most arguing that foreign nationals (mostly from West Africa) are responsible for the increase of human trafficking cases in the country. Some have argued that human trafficking is on the rise and the government is not doing enough to deal with it. But is this true?

These social media conversations have far-reaching consequences because they have the potential to pose a threat to the well-being of foreign nationals living in South Africa, while also deepening tensions between them and unemployed black youths in South African townships.

Human trafficking is a global phenomenon, but it is an insurmountable challenge.

For example, in 2019 the global statistics on human trafficking according to a US State Department report suggest there were 11 841 (1 024) prosecutions, with 9 548 (498) convictions and  118 932 (13,875) victims identified. The numbers in brackets are those of labour trafficking prosecutions, convictions, and victims identified.

READ | Human trafficking ring: Hawks rescue sex slaves, arrest five in swoop on three properties

The June 2020 US State Department report makes use of a tier system which is mandated by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). It demonstrates each country’s efforts to deal with human trafficking. The report specifically makes the case for sustainable programmes, by proposing the establishment of human trafficking units, securing convictions as well as expanding departments dealing with human trafficking.

According to the 2020 report, South Africa is on Tier 2. This means South Africa falls into the category of countries whose governments fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards. It does not, however, fully meet the requirements for the elimination of trafficking. This includes the government’s efforts to deal with the issue, the training of police, making arrests and securing prosecutions.

One of the measures the government put in place in 2013 was the implementation of legislation that specifically deals with the prevention and combating of trafficking of persons. This was also after the UN identified South Africa as one of the hotspots for human trafficking. 

It is important to understand that the incapacity of the criminal justice system and prevalence of corrupt government officials have denied us a chance to be able to empirically conclude that human trafficking is indeed on the rise in South Africa.

What is not helping in the fueling of xenophobia/Afrophobia in the human trafficking fight is comments that come from government officials. 

This was evidenced in the Minister of Finance’s press conference utterances earlier this year, where he was heard saying that his vision for a post-Covid-19 economy is one wherein the restaurant and hospitality industries are compelled by law to hire black South Africans and not foreign nationals.

READ | Stop sharing fake news about human trafficking and kidnapping cops urge

Tito Mboweni needs to be reminded that our country’s economic woes do not begin with waiter and waitress jobs, but rather the untransformed patterns of ownership, wealth distribution and related monopolies.

Mboweni, just like other ANC government officials, fails to account for why white males are still dominant in our economy, almost three decades into democracy. So he piggy bags on tension between black youths and African nationals.

The reality is that the government’s nonchalant and cowardice attitude of directionlessness on such important national security issues presents us with a ticking time bomb.

A truly liberational government will deal with crime (such as human trafficking) decisively without playing into self-defeating Afrophobic/xenophobic rhetoric with an appreciation that this does nothing else but fester black-on-black violence.

– Nkanyiso Ngqulunga is an activist.


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