Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

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Outside a Cape Town school, a mother patiently waits for her 12-year-old to come running through the gates after the final bell rings.

Her pre-teen is mortified that her mother escorts her home like a baby, she says.

They live only two streets away, but the woman refuses to allow her daughter to walk the short distance with her friends.

"I would rather have an embarrassed child than a missing or dead one."

Numerous viral social media post of child predators grabbing children across the city has her on edge, she admits. She sees as many as 10 a week, with supposed abductions and attempted kidnappings incidents from Mitchells Plain to Woodstock.

But in the age of the internet, unconfirmed reports and hoaxes, are these allegations actually true?

According to the Western Cape Education Department (WCED), four incidents involving Cape Town pupils had been reported in August.

Education MEC Debbie Schafer, the WCED's head of department and the chief director of districts recently met with the head of the province's Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Unit, Brigadier Sonja Harri, to discuss the incidents, Schafer's spokesperson Jessica Shelver told News24.

"Brigadier Harri indicated that SAPS (SA Police Service) are investigating all abductions and attempted abduction cases as a priority. We were not informed exactly what SAPS plans to do to tackle the spate," she said.

Last month, in two separate kidnappings in Zonnebloem, perpetrators allegedly drugged and snatched their victims, and one of the pupils reported the involvement of a white van.

Later that month, a Grade 9 Retreat girl was abducted and sexually assaulted.

The pupil reported that men, driving in a white BMW which had tinted windows, stopped next to her and pulled her into the car before and drove around with her for hours.

An attempted abduction was also reported in Rylands, where a primary school pupil was almost snatched.

Western Cape police spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Andrè Traut said crimes against women and children were at the top of the police's priority list.

"We will use all resources at our disposal to protect the children of this province," he said.

But when asked if authorities had noted an increase in the number of incidents, Traut said crime statistics or comparative figures could not be disclosed due to a moratorium.

Scholars on their way to school are not the only ones being targeted.

Claims of children being followed in public places, such as shopping malls, supposedly by child predators, have also been spreading rapidly.

In one confirmed case, an eight-year-old girl was approached by a man who posed as a promoter earlier this month and he asked her grandmother, who accompanied her, if the child could participate in a promotion at N1 City Mall in Goodwood.

According to police, the woman agreed. Near a garage, the man gave the woman money to buy food and drinks, but when she returned from the shop the two were missing.

The girl managed to escape from her abductor while they walked along the railway line from Goodwood to Century City.

A Belhar mother of two teenaged children told News24 she no longer allowed her son and daughter to be left unaccompanied, even while doing her grocery shopping.

"They are 14 and 17, so for them it's not cool to be seen with their mom in public. I don't care. I have seen the messages, watched the Facebook videos. Even if I have to hold their hands when we go to the shops, I will do it," she said.

"Human trafficking isn't just something that happens in deep, dark Africa. It happens here. There are evil people following our children, boys and girls, waiting for an opportunity to snatch and exploit them. In this day and age, you can't take for granted that your offspring are safe. There are too many sick monsters out there, watching and waiting."

Numerous claims of attempted abductions, kidnappings and suspicious behaviour have gone viral on social media and messaging apps, but national police spokesperson Vishnu Naidoo said that without such incidents being officially reported, the only reasonable conclusion SAPS could draw was that the claims were hoaxes.

Naidoo said it was a reality that children went missing and appealed to social media users to act responsibly and verify information before posting and sharing because they "do nothing more than cause unnecessary panic and paranoia among our communities".

Anti-human trafficking organisation A21's Rene Hanekom said since unconfirmed social media reports started doing the rounds, there was a "massive in increase" in calls from parents and concerned people to the National Human Trafficking Resource Line, which it operates.

"We noted a definite panic that had been created because of the messages. Our line received almost a 100 phone calls per day," she said.

Missing children statistics show that a child goes missing every six hours in South Africa, Hanekom said, for reasons that include murder, sexual exploitation and ransom.

"In relation to human trafficking, there are various types of exploitation. But the more common we see in South Africa is trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation - prostitution, escort agencies and [to work in] massage parlours – [as well as] forced labour in fishing or agriculture, domestic servitude, forced marriage or trafficking for organs/ body parts to be used in traditional medicines or rituals," she explained.

But while the dangers facing children especially are real, Hanekom advised social media users to check the veracity of the posts before sharing.

"[Social] media users can contact their local police station first to verify such information. Many times, if you simply Google the message or information contained in the message or check on, you will realise that the messages are not current, relate to another country or are simply untrue."

Shelver said that while pupils' safety outside the school gates was beyond the department's control, schools needed to ensure that there were safety measures in place at dismissal time.

"We have requested schools to engage with parents. [Pupils] who are picked up at their school by parents or caregivers, should remain within the school property until they have visibly identified their mode of transport," she said.

"[Pupils] who require public transport and are expected to walk to their relevant departure areas, should travel in groups at all times. However, where feasible, parents must please arrange that this is as close to the school as possible."

At Wespoort Primary in Mitchells Plain, letters were sent to pupils' parents which offered additional safety tips to share with their children, principal Rodney Hendricks told News24.

However, the widespread unconfirmed abduction claims had resulted in panic: the school had received numerous calls about "Chinese suspects" and suspicious white bakkies in the vicinity, the exasperated headmaster said.

None of these were confirmed and no incidents involving his pupils have been reported.

Noel Isaacs, the principal of Floreat Primary in Retreat, said it had decided not to go into "panic mode" but to continue as normal and not create alarm.

Class teachers and social workers spoke to the children about safety as a precaution, he said.

Shelver confirmed that WCED head of department Brian Schreuder issued communication to schools to remind them to review and update their safety policies, particularly around access control, and to ensure that pupils were aware of "stranger danger".

"While we do not want to frighten them, they must know that they should be wary and immediately seek help if a stranger approaches them. Learners must be taught not to accept any free food, drinks, money or objects from strangers and should report any suspicious characters to [a teacher] or administrator at the school as soon as possible."

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