2021 Trafficking in Persons Report: South Africa

SOUTH AFRICA: Tier 2 Watch List

The Government of South Africa does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. These efforts included continuing to prosecute and convict traffickers, sentencing convicted traffickers to substantial terms of imprisonment, and continuing a few investigations into officials allegedly complicit in trafficking. In addition, the government passed and began implementing, including training officials on, standard operating procedures (SOPs) for referring trafficking victims to care. However, the government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period, even considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity. Corruption and official complicity in human trafficking remained a significant obstacle, and the government did not take action in most reported cases. Law enforcement was notably less engaged on trafficking during the reporting period, and multiple observers reported agencies did not investigate some reported trafficking cases, even when they had the resources and cooperative survivors to help build cases. While the government maintained modest shelter and protection services for victims, it identified substantially fewer victims and only referred approximately half of those identified to care. Moreover, some law enforcement continued to inappropriately arrest and detain suspected sex trafficking victims during raids targeting commercial sex establishments. The government removed, and did not replace, a key official who led inter-ministerial anti-trafficking efforts, which hampered coordination. For the eighth consecutive year, the government did not promulgate implementing regulations for the 2013 Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons (PACOTIP) act’s immigration provisions. Therefore South Africa was downgraded to Tier 2 Watch List.


Increase efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict officials complicit in trafficking crimes and traffickers within organized crime syndicates. • Increase efforts to identify human trafficking victims and, using the victim referral SOPs, systematically refer them to care. • Increase human trafficking training to South African Police Service (SAPS) officers throughout the country, to include strengthening SAPS capacity and computer forensics to investigate child exploitation leads. • Fill the role of Chair of the National Intersectoral Committee on Trafficking in Persons (NICTIP) to lead interagency anti-trafficking efforts. • Pass Department of Home Affairs (DHA) implementing regulations. • Increase resources and training for front-line responders to identify trafficking victims, including by screening for trafficking indicators among vulnerable populations, such as women in commercial sex, children, LGBTQI+ persons—including refugees and migrants—and Cuban medical workers. • Promulgate the immigration provisions in Sections 15, 16, and 31(2)(b)(ii) of PACOTIP. • Amend the anti-trafficking law to remove sentencing provisions that allow fines in lieu of imprisonment for sex trafficking crimes. • Ensure victims are issued appropriate immigration identification documents to receive protective services. • Extend the availability of drug rehabilitation services to trafficking victims. • Accredit or establish additional trafficking-specific shelters for male, female, transgender, and child victims. • Reduce demand for commercial sex, including by prosecuting individuals, including police, who purchase commercial sex and launching an education campaign. • Establish a channel for civil society to safely report allegations of official corruption and complicity to the government.


The government decreased anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts, including maintaining insufficient efforts to address widespread official complicity in trafficking. PACOTIP criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties of up to life imprisonment, a fine of up to 100 million South African rand (ZAR) ($6.82 million), or both. The penalties were sufficiently stringent; however, with regard to sex trafficking, by allowing for a fine in lieu of imprisonment, the prescribed punishment was not commensurate with those for other serious crimes, such as rape. The implementing regulations for PACOTIP’s immigration provisions found in Sections 15, 16, and 31(2)(b)(ii) have not been promulgated; therefore, critical sections of the act remained inactive for the eighth consecutive year. The Criminal Law (Sexual Offenses and related matters) Amendment Act of 2007 (CLAA) also criminalized the sex trafficking of children and adults and prescribed penalties of up to life in prison; these penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with other serious crimes, such as rape. The Basic Conditions of Employment Act of 1997 (BCEA), amended in 2014, criminalized forced labor and prescribed maximum penalties of three to six years’ imprisonment. In addition, the Children’s Amendment Act of 2005 prescribed penalties of five years to life imprisonment or fines for the use, procurement, or offer of a child for slavery, commercial sexual exploitation, or to commit crimes. Prosecutors sometimes relied on the Prevention of Organized Crime Act of 1998 in combination with CLAA, which added additional charges—such as money laundering, racketeering, or criminal gang activity—and increased penalties of convicted defendants.

The Directorate of Priority Crime Investigation (DPCI, or Hawks) collaborated closely with the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to compile evidence and build cases. Together they investigated 31 cases of trafficking during the reporting period. This is an increase compared to investigating 24 new cases in the previous reporting period. Most suspected traffickers were foreign nationals, particularly from Nigeria, China, and Bangladesh. The government prosecuted 31 new trafficking cases of an unknown number of individuals and continued prosecutions in 14 cases from prior reporting periods, compared to prosecution of 71 individuals for trafficking crimes in an unknown number of cases during the previous reporting period. The government convicted seven traffickers in an unknown number of cases, compared to the conviction of eight traffickers in five cases in the previous year. Judges sentenced two traffickers to life imprisonment and five traffickers to between 22 and 25 years’ imprisonment. While in the previous year, judges utilized the solicitation of sex trafficking victims section of the anti-trafficking act and convicted 34 people for sexual exploitation, grooming for sexual exploitation, solicitation, and keeping a brothel, the government did not report data for these provisions during the reporting period.

The government continued, from prior reporting periods, some law enforcement actions against government officials allegedly complicit in human trafficking offenses. The court convicted a former Johannesburg Metro Police Department superintendent on three counts of rape and human trafficking; he awaited sentencing at the close of the reporting period. A 2019 case against four police officers in Pretoria accused of human trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion of 10 Bangladeshi nationals remained ongoing. The government did not report an update on the Ministry of Defense’s December 2019 task team created to investigate sexual exploitation and abuse cases within its armed forces dating back to 2014. The government placed a “prominent person” under investigation for labor exploitation and money laundering involving 105 Ethiopian victims allegedly forced to make counterfeit goods in two factories.

Despite these actions, NGOs and researchers continued to report widespread official complicity in human trafficking that went unaddressed, particularly among the Department of Home Affairs (DHA), the Department of Social Development (DSD), SAPS, and the DPCI. An academic report made allegations that law enforcement protected traffickers, including that at least three dozen police protected or tipped off traffickers, SAPS officials leaked information on operations to traffickers, and DSD returned survivors to their traffickers. The government reported allegation that a SAPS official forced individuals to work on her farm but did not report whether it was investigating the case. International organizations reported that in one trafficking case, police returned a victim to her trafficker. Some officials committed sex trafficking by forcing individuals to perform commercial sex acts in exchange for visas or residence permits. Civil society reported to law enforcement cases of sex trafficking of Basotho women from Lesotho in South African brothels, but law enforcement did not take action that resulted in investigations, prosecutions, or convictions. Observers reported the lack of progress over several years to disrupt the suspected traffickers was due to official complicity of both Basotho and South African officials closely linked to the brothels. There were continued reports of officials accepting bribes to: falsify trafficking victims’ travel documents, not report trafficking in brothels, not prosecute pimps who facilitated trafficking, and facilitate deportation of migrants so farm or factory managers would not have to pay their workers. Some police accepted kickbacks from organized criminal syndicates, which often facilitated trafficking, and some police did not pursue traffickers out of fear of reprisals. NGOs and asylum applicants reported immigration officials sought bribes from asylum seekers seeking legal permits to remain in the country, which may have increased vulnerability to traffickers. Civil society and observers continued to report that the government lacked a safe process, free from retribution, for reporting alleged police corruption and complicity, and that even when civil society did report such allegations, the government did not respond. In the previous reporting period, the government and four NGOs began negotiating memoranda of understanding on procedures for the NGOs to safely submit sensitive information, including on corruption and official complicity; the parties did not finalize these memoranda during the reporting period.

Law enforcement agencies, particularly SAPS, had insufficient resources to address all reported trafficking cases, including child trafficking leads. Even when agencies had sufficient resources and civil society referred suspected trafficking cases, however, civil society reported that some law enforcement units were notably less responsive to trafficking referrals than in previous years and were, on multiple occasions, unwilling to initiate investigations into the reported cases. Western Cape and City of Cape Town had “Vice Squads” within their law enforcement that had responsibility to proactively identify sex trafficking within commercial sex establishments. Some observers reported positive experiences working with the unit, while others noted they were only reactive and did not proactively investigate tips of alleged sex trafficking. In part due to the pandemic, the government did not comprehensively monitor or investigate forced child labor or the labor trafficking of adults in the agricultural, mining, construction, and fishing sectors. NGOs that provided trafficking victim care reported police were noticeably less responsive to their case inquiries and did not provide status updates on ongoing cases. Victims reported this lack of clarity on their case status, as well as the frequent delays in court cases and low prospects of success, dissuaded them from participating in trials against their traffickers.

The pandemic reduced the government’s capacity to provide training; thus, it trained fewer law enforcement, social workers, and judicial officials on trafficking than in the previous reporting period. Nevertheless, it collaborated with international organizations to hold 12 in-person and virtual anti-trafficking trainings. The trainings reached 283 officials, including from police, social services, and labor officials. This was a decrease from leading 24 interdisciplinary trainings that reached 359 front-line officials and collaborating with NGOs and an international organization to conduct another 16 trainings that reached at least 680 participants during the previous reporting period. Police lacked training on trafficking, particularly in how to conduct anti-trafficking investigations and treat trafficking survivors.


The government decreased victim identification and protection efforts. The government and NGOs identified 16 trafficking victims. In prior reporting periods, the government did not disaggregate the number of victims that it newly identified during the reporting period. The government’s ongoing cases involved 226 victims, including those identified in previous reporting periods. This was a substantial decrease from prior years when there were 377 victims (2019) and 260 victims (2018) involved in ongoing cases. More than half of the victims involved in ongoing cases came from outside of South Africa, including 91 victims from Mozambique, significant numbers from Bangladesh, China, and Zimbabwe, and several victims from Lesotho, Botswana, and Mozambique. Most agencies, including SAPS, DSD, NPA, and the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (DOJCD), had procedures to identify and refer trafficking victims to care, in accordance with PACOTIP. Implementation of these procedures varied by department and province, with some officials aware of the referral procedures, particularly regarding vulnerable groups. To fill this gap, the government adopted new SOPs for trafficking victim identification and referral to care. With an international organization, the government began conducting trainings on the SOPs, which reached more than 100 officials, and continued to rollout the SOPs to all provinces. In some cases, officials continued to arrest suspected sex trafficking victims, and in at least one case, officials returned a victim to her trafficker.

The government provided shelter and/or services to 105 victims, a large decrease from referring more than 210 victims to services in the previous reporting period. NGOs criticized SAPS for not identifying victims; some SAPS officers failed to follow referral guidelines. The DHA had no formal, written procedures to guide the handling of trafficking cases; for the second year, draft regulations awaited approval by the DHA Minister at the close of the reporting period. Although a range of government and non-government entities identified victims, DSD was responsible for designating and certifying trafficking victim status and authorizing the provision of protective services. In addition, DSD was responsible for monitoring the provision of protective services, preparing victim-witnesses for court, and accompanying them through trial and repatriation, if applicable. NGOs reported that front-line officials responsible for receiving referrals were often unreachable, and that DSD and SAPS sometimes were not informed of their responsibilities to certify and refer victims, a necessary step before victims could receive care of any kind. In prior years, NGOs reported that SAPS sometimes left victims at shelters without first contacting DSD; there was no evidence this had changed, although it was unclear whether SAPS brought victims to shelters generally during the pandemic. While SAPS was supposed to open investigations for all suspected trafficking victims identified and coordinate with the provincial DSD representative, NGOs reported this was not consistently done, making case follow-up difficult. Observers reported there was an insufficient number of shelters and that some DSD shelters occasionally refused to accept trafficking victims due to security concerns or drug addiction. There were no reports that the government ameliorated these issues during the reporting period. Police indicated they often did not have interpreters to acquire victim-witness statements within the two-day window during which charges must be filed, even if interpreters existed in the province.

The government continued oversight and partial funding of 13 accredited NGO-run multipurpose shelters and oversaw 88 shelters that provided temporary care to victims for up to 72 hours. In some rural areas, however, NGOs reported that due to insufficient space in shelters, officials turned away female victims of crime. The government provided NGOs a stipend on a per-person, per-night basis for the safe houses. NGOs, however, reported they could not always access available funds with the urgency required after identifying victims. Only one shelter provided care exclusively for trafficking victims, and only one shelter provided care for male trafficking victims; no shelters provided care exclusively for male victims. LGBTQI+ persons, particularly transgender persons and migrants, were especially at high risk for trafficking due to social stigmatization; there was one shelter dedicated solely for victims from the LGBTQI+ community, in the Western Cape. Shelters accessible to persons with disabilities provided limited services; however, the government did not report if any victims received these services during the reporting period. The overall quality of victim care varied dramatically by province, gender, and circumstance. Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), and Western Cape provinces generally offered adequate standards of care in urban areas; trafficking victims in these provinces, even if identified in a rural area, were generally able to access care. Victim care in other provinces was sometimes inadequate; to address this, authorities sometimes transferred victims from provinces offering low levels of care to provinces offering high levels of care. The government operated a network of 55 Thuthuzela Care Centers (TCCs)—full-service crisis centers to assist victims of rape and sexual violence, including potential trafficking victims, but did not report if TCCs assisted any victims of trafficking during the reporting period. NGOs reported that government shelter staff sometimes failed to keep victims informed about their case status or to provide dependency counseling and adequate security. Victims could not seek employment while receiving initial assistance, but South African citizens, South African residents, and registered refugees could seek employment while a court case was pending; other foreign victims could not seek employment, even if they cooperated with law enforcement and their trials extended several years. As in prior years, there was at least one NGO report of a case in which police arrested and detained suspected sex trafficking victims. For the second year, the government reported it did not arrest or prosecute any trafficking victims for immigration offenses. The government provided repatriation assistance to four foreign trafficking victims identified in South Africa.

Officials made some efforts to encourage victims to participate in the investigation and prosecution of traffickers. It provided increased services to victim-witnesses, including psycho-social services and court preparation, the option to testify via video conference, and enhanced shelter and witness protection if the victim-witness faced danger due to his or her participation in the case. In contrast, however, the government only allowed victims 48 hours to decide whether to serve as a witness and receive these services, which was insufficient. Law enforcement took victim statements in confidential and safe environments. The government provided two victims with interpreters, 18 with specialized medical care, 62 with specialized psycho-social support, six with formal letters of recognition, and 26 with transportation. In most of these categories, the numbers of victims who received these services represented large decreases from the previous reporting period. Law enforcement referred 36 victims to the DPCI Coordinator for Trafficking to ensure authorities assigned officers trained in victim-centered investigations to the cases – a large decrease from 164 victims referred in the previous reporting period. While PACOTIP allowed judges to order victim restitution in trafficking cases, judges did not do so in any cases during the reporting period. PACOTIP allowed for trafficking victims to receive relief from deportation; however, the government did not promulgate regulations to implement this provision, and they remained awaiting approval for the second year. As a result, if undocumented foreign national victims did not participate in law enforcement investigations, the government sometimes deported them. DHA often required foreign nationals to renew their immigration paperwork every two weeks, which placed an unnecessary financial and logistical burden on them and the NGOs providing their care. As a result of the pandemic, however, the government may have waived some of these restrictions.


The government decreased efforts to prevent trafficking. The government continued to implement the 2019-2022 National Policy Framework to improve capacity and coordination to combat trafficking among government agencies. During the reporting period, however, the government removed the individual occupying the position of chair of NICTIP, which directed all governmental trafficking efforts and the framework, and did not communicate the change to stakeholders. The position was not filled by the end of the reporting period. NICTIP and its provincial task teams met irregularly to coordinate counter-trafficking efforts, although many officials lacked consistent access to the internet to join virtual meetings. Coordination and communication challenges were exacerbated by the lack of NICTIP leadership and the inconsistent government participation in meetings with civil society. Some of the provincial task teams ceased meeting or functioning. There was no accountability mechanism to ensure these groups met their mandates; officials in positions of authority with the ability to facilitate change rarely attended meetings. The government conducted national awareness-raising activities during the reporting period, although due to the pandemic, there were fewer such activities than in the previous reporting period. The Deputy Minister of DOJCD conducted at least 15 radio interviews on trafficking, and DSD hosted several webinars on topics related to child trafficking.

The Department of Labor made some effort to monitor workplaces for forced labor. The department had an insufficient number of inspectors, and enforcement in the informal and agricultural sectors was inconsistent. While inspectors had the legal authority to investigate private farms, they reported difficulty in securing access. Despite these challenges, however, inspectors made some notable efforts, including raiding a Chinese-owned factory in Durban, where 14 local workers were forced to manufacture face masks; and discovering two makeshift factories where 105 Ethiopians were forced to make counterfeit goods. SAPS operated a hotline that could receive reports of potential trafficking cases; however, the government did not report how many calls the hotline received or whether it identified any trafficking victims as a result of calls to the hotline. The government and civil society directed most trafficking-related calls to the NGO-operated National Human Trafficking Resource Line, which the government advertised. It did not report how many trafficking tips it received during the reporting period but reported a substantial increase in job-vetting requests from individuals who had suspicions about the legitimacy of job offers. The South African National Defense Forces (SANDF) maintained a hotline for reports of sexual exploitation by armed forces but did not report whether it received any calls regarding such exploitation during the reporting period.

The government took steps to increase data collection and sharing regarding trafficking in the country. The Department of Science collaborated with a foreign donor to develop its first baseline study of the scale and nature of trafficking in South Africa. To further address a self-acknowledged data gap, DOJCD was reportedly developing a new integrated information system to collect data on, and improve responses to, trafficking. With support from an international organization, the government contributed information to a centralized anti-trafficking database that collected national data on criminal cases and victims identified and shared it with countries in the region. Nevertheless, some officials publicly downplayed the existence of trafficking, which stymied public awareness and data collection efforts. The government did not make efforts to reduce demand for commercial sex or forced labor. The Government launched the Generic and Sector Specific Training Manual on the PACOTIP Act during the reporting period, which contained a training plan for peacekeepers. The government did not report providing anti-trafficking training to its peacekeepers during the reporting period.


As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in South Africa, and traffickers exploit victims from South Africa abroad. Traffickers recruit victims from poor countries and poor and/or rural areas within South Africa, particularly Gauteng province, and exploit them in sex trafficking locally and in urban centers, such as Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, and Bloemfontein. South African trafficking rings exploit girls as young as 10 years old in sex trafficking. In some cases, traditional family practices contributed to victims’ vulnerability to traffickers. For example, the practice of ukuthwala continued, the abduction of girls as young as 14 for forced marriage, particularly in remote villages in Western Cape, Eastern Cape, and KZN Provinces; girls in forced marriage are vulnerable to sex trafficking and forced labor by their husbands. Traffickers force foreign and South African LGBTQI+ persons to engage in commercial sex acts. Traffickers sometimes employ forced drug use to coerce sex trafficking victims.

Traffickers force adults and children, particularly those from poor and rural areas and migrants, into labor in domestic service, mining, begging, street vending, food services, criminal activities, agriculture, and the fishing sector. Traffickers reportedly exploit South Africans in forced labor in some fruit and vegetable farms across the country. In 2020, one NGO reported an increase in children forced into commercial sex or labor by their families. Because many domestic workers do not have formal contracts, employers fired many without notice or pay during the pandemic, rendering them vulnerable to traffickers. Some domestic employers restricted workers’ movements and forced them to remain at their worksites during the pandemic, which increased the workers’ vulnerability to forced labor and abuse by those employers. For both internal and transnational trafficking, traffickers increasingly use social media to lure victims to urban centers within South Africa, including posting fake job advertisements on social media. Official complicity in trafficking crimes, especially by police, persisted. Some well-known brothels previously identified as locations of sex trafficking continue to operate with officials’ tacit approval. Some officials seek bribes from asylum seekers and the government rejected most asylum applications, which rendered asylum seekers increasingly vulnerable to traffickers. Some refugees were unable to exercise their right to employment, which may have increased their vulnerability to traffickers.

To a lesser extent, syndicates recruit South African women to Europe and Asia, where traffickers force some into commercial sex, domestic service, or drug smuggling. Traffickers operating in South Africa increasingly are from Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, and Ghana. Syndicates, often dominated by Nigerians, force women from Nigeria and countries bordering South Africa into commercial sex. In some cases, sex traffickers exploit women in brothels disguised as bed and breakfasts. Mozambican crime syndicates use the eastern border of Kruger National Park to transport South African men to other parts of the country for forced labor, which are the same routes the syndicates use to facilitate other crimes. Recruiters entice women from Asia and countries bordering South Africa with offers of legitimate employment but, upon arrival, some subject the women to domestic servitude or forced labor in the service sector. Traffickers exploit women from Lesotho in sex trafficking in South Africa. Traffickers exploit foreign male victims aboard fishing vessels in South Africa’s territorial waters. Traffickers subject Pakistanis and Bangladeshis to forced labor through debt-based coercion in businesses owned by their co-nationals. In one case, a Nepali trafficker fraudulently recruited a Nepali man to South Africa and exploited him in forced labor. Traffickers exploit young men from neighboring countries who migrate to South Africa for farm work; some are subsequently arrested and deported as undocumented immigrants. Chinese businessmen have recruited workers to South Africa and forced them to work in factories. The Cuban government may have forced its citizens to work in South Africa, including at least 187 Cuban doctors and medical staff sent to all provinces to combat the pandemic. These agreements typically require payment directly to the Government of Cuba, which gives the medical workers between 5 and 15 percent of the salary only after they completed the mission and returned home.