HazelThompson's Blog

Sex Trafficking in South Africa
August 30, 2013, 4:09 pm
Filed under: Sex Trafficking South Africa


The Girl with the Number 7 Football Shirt

As the countdown to the football fest in South Africa has begun, a darker more horrible game is taking place next to the shiny new stadiums. The sex industry is gearing up for a World Cup of  its own and there are very few people to stop it.

By Hazel Thompson

We enter the building quickly, with just the torch lights of the team guiding us through the blackened alleyway to the entrances of the apartments. The gangs who are running this place have purposely removed lighting from the majority of the building, so that neighbors cannot see what is going on.  But we are about to find out. A female officer knocks firmly on a boarded door, with the whole team right behind her. The members of the Vice Squad carry handguns, but choose in most circumstances not to wear body armor, so to not escalate situations.   A tall Nigerian man stands back looking bemused as the team enters the building they suspect is being used as a brothel in the Brooklyn neighborhood a few minute´s walk away from the sex tourism centre of Koeberg Road. Straight away each member of the team spread out, like a coordinated military unit, their torch light moving around the rooms, looking for evidence like search lights hunting for bombers in London skies during the blitz. The flashes of light expose the dilapidated rooms. In the kitchen an officer is searching a soiled sofa for evidence.  Large pieces of paint are peeling off the moldy ceiling and there is a gaping hole where a stove must once have been.  The smell of the place hits the officers as they scramble in to the house. The team is navigating around vomit and faeces on the floors, so filthy that the surfaces appears to move in the shadows, the piles of rotting rubbish surrounding the building adds to the stench.

In the only room with a light bulb,  Assistant Chief of the vice squad Neil Arendse, finds a large box of condoms.  And then, there she is.

A young girl in a bright green and red striped football sweatshirt with the number 7 on the back, slumped over at the end of a single bed.  She seems confused and scared. Her movements are slow as if she has been drugged.  Operational officer of the Vice Squad, Thomas Rautenbach and a couple of female officers go over to speak to her. In a voice hardly audible, she tells the officers she is 19 years old and from Pretoria.  That she had been offered work in Cape Town. But she had been tricked and forced to work in the brothel.  It is not the first time the officers hear this kind of story, but unless the girl agrees to come with them voluntarily, the laws of South Africa permit them to do nothing.The situation is becoming desperate and the window of opportunity for this girls´ escape is narrowing fast.  Members of the gang that is running this brothel is slowly starting to gather outside. The Nigerian man who was at the door comes into the room, and the girl hangs her head lower, as if life is draining out of her. She is visibly shaking with fear.   Thomas Rautenbach is begging the girl to come with him, offering to pretend that she is under arrest so she can leave the house.  But slowly her voice grows quieter, the fight leaves her and she gives in to her situation. The team will have to leave her there. In that house. On that bed.

The other game in Cape Town                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Welcome to Cape Town. In a few weeks time South Africa will be the focus of the world’s attention, millions of eyes will be watching the football action in the stadiums of the host cities. But not far away from the football pitches, in dark alleys and respectable looking houses in leafy suburbs alike, a far darker game is being played.  It is a game that is trafficking hundreds of young lives and feeding them to the sex industry in Cape Town. More often than not the vice squad is powerless to help or even put a stop to it. The legal framework simply does not exist.  The “slum brothel” that is run by Nigerian and Cameroonian gangs in Brooklyn, Cape Town is just the last stop on a long night for Thomas Rautenbach and his officers.

The evening started in Koeberg Road where the team fined prostitutes soliciting work on on one of Cape Town´s well know ‘sex tourism’ street. The girls all look very young and come here from all over South Africa.
Most of their customers are ‘foreigners’ and ‘tourists’ and some of the girls explain that they use a flat nearby to take their customers to.  Before Thomas Rautenbach and his squad even move their operation to the suspected slum brothel, they have picked up and processed 21 girls from a stretch of road no longer than one kilometer. They can only move in on this brothel because a member of the public has made a complaint. Unless that happens, the law gives the team of hand selected experts no power to do so-called inspections to find evidence of brothels, prostitution and trafficking. But a complaint was made, and so now they are here. Every next apartment and room the Vice Squad enters in the house gets worse.   Room by room the team checks the occupants and searches for evidence that this property is being used as a brothel. Large boxes of condoms and used and unused condom packets are found on every surface. In every single room there are girls drugged and lying on old beds and sofas. Officers demand and check the papers of the men running the place. All of them seem to be claiming asylum. When asked what they are claiming asylum from, they have no answers.  Most of the visas seem to just consist of a piece of paper that appeared easy to forge.  The South African border is porous and the system allows the traffickers´ business to flourish.

Some organizations such as S.W.E.A.T (Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce)  in South Africa are fighting for the decriminalization of the sex trade, stating that legalization of the trade would stop ‘sex racketing’ and that there is an hysteria a bout trafficking, claiming it isn’t connected to the sex industry.   J.P Smith has been on a crusade for the last decade to clean up the sex industry operating in his constituency which includes Green point, where the main Cape Town Stadium hosting the world cup games is.  He noticed that the overall quality of an area was affected by the existence of an adult shop or escort bars, with ‘slum buildings’ and he started to personally patrol the streets and buildings to get the escort bars and illegal brothels closed down. Then he set up the Vice Squad. In doing so J.P. Smith has become a target of hate from the sex industry and even had his life threatened. Now he is worried again for his constituency and that the up and coming World Cup will once again make the local sex industry boom and he has this warning to tourists coming to his country:
“As for the tourists coming for the World Cup, we shall uphold the law as far as we can here in South Africa. They need to understand that prostitution is a criminal offence in South Africa,” he says.
“Our women and children are not a tradable commodity, they are not for sale. If you want to do that, go to another country,” he warns. J.P. Smith is very concerned that South Africa is at risk of becoming the next Thailand, as South Africa has all the same ingredients, especially poverty.  But it is not only poorer communities that are directly affected by the sex trade and trafficking.

Work permit for a salon
A few nights before the Vice Squad visited the slum brothel in Brooklyn, the officers found themselves in the Table View area inspecting brothels in expensive properties, situated in quiet suburban leafy streets.
Two of the brothels are doing business a stone´s throw away from thriving churches and a park full of playing children, highlighting, how this industry operates right under the general public’s noses.
As chief of the Vice Squad Neil Arendse enters one of the brothels, three well dressed males in their mid-twenties try to escape through the garage where their car is parked. Caught red handed, they pretend they thought it was a shebeem where they could by alcohol.
“You are young, good looking guys. Why are you paying for sex?” Neil Arendse ask them. But all he can do is ask. As they were not caught in the act, the vice squad has no legal reason to arrest them. The best Neil Arendse can hope for is that he has deterred them from using a brothel again.  As the team enters enter the next brothel, they find two very young looking Asian girls huddled in the corner of a room.  One of the girls looks like she has been punched in the nose. A third young girl is crying, sitting on the bed in front of a laptop computer writing on a popular South African escort site.
Not long after the team has gained entry, the ‘owner’ of the establishment arrives.  He is a short white haired and bearded Dutch man in his late 50’s, wearing a bright orange lacrosse shirt, black shorts and plastic Crocs shoes.  He is warning the Vice Squad team in no uncertain terms that he is fully aware of his rights as a ‘citizen’ and owner.   His “girlfriend” an older Chinese lady enters the scene, claiming that the girls on the property are her relatives. The girls are huddled in the corner, holding each other and keeping their heads down. As Neil Arendse and his team check their papers, it emerges that they only have visas and work permits to work in a salon.  But the presence of a high quantity of used condoms found wrapped in newspapers in the bathroom bin tells the Vice Squad that this is no ordinary salon. These condoms are, according to Neil Arendse evidence enough,  to prosecute the property owners for running a brothel.

In very much the same manner that the police in Chicago prosecuted Al Capone for tax evasion rather than mafia related crimes, the Vice Squad only has the power to fine the owners according to the law for misuse of the property.  Inspections are done at brothels in conjunction with the business act. Each business needs to be registered with the City of Cape Town.  If brothels are registered as businesses, the Vice Squad have the option of using the Land Use Act that states that it is not legal to run a business from a residential area. The girls are not arrested, they are only issued with fines in conjunction with the Cities street and public place by-law, which states no person may solicit or importune a person for the sake of prostitution.

One small-framed Chinese girl has no ID or visa papers, so the team takes her to the local police station for Home Affairs to investigate if she might be trafficked.  She claims to be 22 years old and from Shanghai, but she looks closer to 18 years old or even younger.  As she enters the police compounded she seems to grow more and more anxious.  But she has not been there for more than a few moments, before the Dutch man appears, determined to “get his girl back.”  He did not succeed. Home Affairs met her at the police station and a few days later she was deported back to China.  It was never confirmed if she was trafficked, as there is not yet the social welfare services in place within the South African Social system to properly identify trafficked victims. If this girl is a victim, in being returned to China, she is at risk of being re-trafficked again.

Disrupting the sex industry                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        In the space of one week the Vice Squad in Cape Town has successfully closed down four brothels and found seven trafficked women. Their operations have been gaining momentum and are starting to cause disruption in the industry.
“Business has been quiet since the vice squad has been doing raids. They have scared our clients away,’’ says Charmine, owner of the Dolphin Drive Brothel. She boasts that her brothel is known to have some of the youngest girls in Cape Town, admitting that in the past underage girls have worked for her.  According to Charmine this happened because the girls lied to her about their age. She says that in the last 10 years of running three different brothels, she has seen clients asking for younger and younger girls, at times even requesting virgins when they call up.
“It´s all about supply and demand”, she explains.
But at least for the moment, Charmine´s ability to supply the market with sex has been cut off. Her brothel was closed down by the Vice Squad.

It still hurts after a hundred times
Not many girls ever make it successfully out of the sex industry, but Jasmine* can count herself as one of the lucky ones. She is a a beautiful woman with high cheekbones and kind, almond shaped eyes who was sold into prostitution by her mother, a prostitute herself, at the tender age of 13.  Today the 32 year old woman lives in the Victory Outreach Centre recovery home. Jasmine* has had a roller coaster journey repeatedly trying to get out the sex trade. She used to work for two Germans who were part of the Hells Angels biker gang, who would pick up vulnerable girls in Cape Town.  Once picked up the girls would be moved around their high-end brothels in Mossel Bay, Knysna, Cape Town and George.

These gangsters nearly trafficked Jasmine* to Austria, by pretending to offer her a holiday near Christmas time, but she was saved by a girl warning her that she would never come back.

It is only since coming to Victory Outreach recovery home, where she has been living since November 2009, she finally has escaped from sex industry and the risk of being trafficked.
“What people do not understand is that it´s not easy to just sleep with anybody -especially if you do not know that person. It is difficult the first time, the second time and even if you do it a hundred times, it is still as bad as the first time. It still hurts you, it is still degrading to you as a person, as a woman as a mother and as somebody’s daughter,” she says.  Being safe and out of the industry has opened her eyes.
“I realize now that I am not just a piece of meat, I am also a person. I am gaining back now, my self esteem and my dignity and I am realizing that I am more than just a piece of flesh’’

For 28 year old Thembe* it was not her mother who sold her off for sex. It was her “boyfriend” who trafficked her from Johannesburg to Cape Town.

He groomed her and manipulated into her to trusting him, playing games with her love for him.  When they reached Cape Town, he was no longer her boyfriend.  He had turned into her pimp. He beat her and forced her to prostitute herself out on Koeberg Road in Maitland.
“He wanted me to make him rich, and forced me to sleep with up to 20 foreigners a day”, Thembe* says.
Now Thembe* is also taking refuge in the Victory Outreach Centre recovery home under the wings of social worker Sister Christine.   According to Sister Christine, she has witnessed how every level of tourism services from the hotel doorman to the taxi drivers, night clubs and The tour operators holiday back in the tourists´ home countries are complicit in the sex trade. During the World Cup, Sister Christine will be working with Project Care, meeting women one on one in Koeberg Road, trying to offer the prostitutes a safe haven, even when the tourist influx will make safe places for these women scarce, especially when there is already a lack of shelters and safe houses in Cape Town.  Charities such as Child Welfare SA (ECPAT) are making a call to the government for the need of specialized services and shelters for sexual exploited and trafficked victims throughout South Africa. The need is great for social welfare and protective services for victims, especially for children. In Cape Town, even though the Vice Squad is finding trafficked victims on a weekly basis,  there is not as yet a specialized shelter for these victims.

But Victory Outreach centre are doing all they can to make a difference with ‘Project Care’,  with the girls who have previously been rescued will now go out in the streets to try and help and rescue others. They do it better than most, Sister Christine explains. Once these girls have escaped, been rehabilitated and found hope, they have the passion, knowledge and experience to be able go deep into this under world, where the Vice Squad wouldn’t even be able to penetrate. But Sister Christine and the Vice Squad can only do so much with the laws of South Africa allowing loopholes for the sex industry to prosper and thrive.

Five years to grow bigger
Megan Briede from Child Welfare SA (ECPAT) believes that the need for a bill is beyond urgent.
“It has been five years in the making and in those five years, how many children have been lost because there is no way to effectively prosecute?  The syndicates and gangs have now had five more years to develop and grow even stronger because we had no way to actually stop them without the legislation”, she says.
She warns that this is a problem that will not go away easily.
“The longer we don’t have the proper legislation, the harder it is going to be to actually clamp down in the end’’.

Megan also highlighted how South Africa’s children are ‘easy pickings’  to traffickers because of the high levels of poverty and unemployment in the country. In UNESCO’s  2007 REPORT looking at root causes and recommendations on Human Trafficking in South Africa, it was highlighted that Poverty is one of the root causes to sexual exploitation and trafficking. Stating ‘It is ultimately poverty, high unemployment and lack of opportunity and the quest of the means of survival, that is the engine driving trafficking in humans’.

Megan warns that the lack of awareness and economic vulnerability is a major cause, a long term cause beyond the world cup.
” There’s a lot of trickery to bring children into the trade and younger girls are at risk, starting at 10 years old, any child living in vulnerable circumstances is open to exploitation”
But she is also concerned by how the problem goes beyond South Africa’s boarders, explaining how there has been a reported increase of children being trafficked across the boarder from nearby African countries with even greater poverty such as Namibia,  Zimbabwe, Mozambique, DRC and Angola.

Comparing past world cups, Megan described the different challenges South Africa faces.
”In germany there was a lot written. There was trafficking, cross boarder trafficking, women coming from Russia and Eastern Europe.
But their structures, their laws are much tighter, even their welfare sector and prosecution is completely different” she says.
”In South Africa we don’t have those resources, we don’t have those structures as strong as a country like Germany. Which makes us much more vulnerable and our children vulnerable. And in Germany where poverty is not such an issue, its harder to entice a child away from home with the promise of nike trainers. You have to take them across a proper boarder, where as in South Africa you can easily take a child across the boarder”

Right now, apart for leading NGO’s such as Child Welfare SA, it is up to J.P. Smith’s Vice Squad to try to make the biggest difference for these girls.  Traffickers thrive on easy pickings of the poor and vulnerable and because of the underground nature of the sex trade it is hard to determine the exact scale of the problem. One thing for certain is that all the experts surrounding the sex trade will agree that trafficking appears to be on the increase.  While the sex industry is preparing itself for a high demand over the World Cup celebrations, hundreds of young girls and women are forced into a darkness from which they may never emerge again.

Like  the girl with the No.7 football shirt the Vice Squad left behind on the sofa in Brooklyn.
Sadly, we don’t even know her name.

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