BEREA — For eight weeks, ‘Maphoka Ntisa desperately searched for her 14-year-old granddaughter Tlalane Makhonofane who had vanished from their Sekamaneng home on the night of September 7.
In those miserable and anxiety-filled weeks, she was sent from pillar to post until she was disillusioned.
At times her hopes were raised with leads that sounded promising but would turn out to be false.
Her granddaughter had just vanished, leaving no clues behind.
Then two weeks ago ‘Maphoka got the news she had been dreading during her search: her granddaughter was dead.
In the end it was death that found Tlalane.
On November 7, exactly two months since Tlalane’s disappearance, ‘Maphoka was told that her granddaughter was lying dead in a morgue at a South African hospital.
Tlalane was yesterday laid to rest in Sekamaneng, on the outskirts of Maseru, but her grandmother can’t stop grieving and searching for answers.
‘Maphoka wants answers to many questions.
She wants to know how Tlalane ended up in Johannesburg.
What was the 14-year-old girl doing there?
Who took her there?
And, most importantly, what killed her?
It’s a case that has shocked the Berea village of Sekamaneng, 8km from the capital Maseru.
Despite claims that she was involved in a road-traffic accident, ‘Maphoka suspects that Tlalane was a victim of human trafficking.
She doesn’t have evidence yet but she believes that Tlalane was lured to South Africa with promises of a good job.
Her fears are not unfounded though.
The United States of America’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2008 shows that Lesotho is a transit country for women and children trafficked for forced labour and commercial sexual exploitation.
It says most of the victims are under-age girls and desperate women who are lured to South Africa with promises of good jobs.
They are exploited in return for food and other basic needs.
“After migrating to neighbouring South Africa in search of work, some vulnerable Basotho women and girls become victims of trafficking for domestic labour or commercial sexual exploitation,” the report says.
The last time ‘Maphoka saw her granddaughter was on September 7 when she retired for the night.
The next morning Tlalane was nowhere to be found.
‘Maphoka recalls how Tlalane’s mother broke the news of her disappearance.
“She found Tlalane’s clothes — which she had been wearing when she went to bed — on a chair. That was when she told me my granddaughter was missing,” ‘Maphoka recalls.
“Clothes which Tlalane’s mother had bought her recently were all gone. Her bag was also not there.”
She says what followed was a frantic search that was to continue for the next two months until the family received the sad news of Tlalane’s death.
“Family members were shocked by her disappearance,” ‘Maphoka says, with emotion almost choking her.
“No one knew where she was. Teachers said she had not reported for school that day.”
Tlalane’s uncle Patsi Ntisa, who took over the search, said they reported her disappearance to Mabote police later that day.
“The police said we should make ‘missing persons’ reports on radio while investigations were being carried out, which we did,” Ntisa says.
Then came a phone call that provided what sounded like a breakthrough lead.
A woman who identified herself only as Letsie is said to have called Tlalane’s mother claiming that she knew where the missing girl was.
“The woman said she had seen her at one family in Lekhalaneng, in Maseru,” Ntisa says.
“She said we should collect her quickly because Tlalane was with really bad people.”
Hopes high, they rushed to the house.
But disappointment awaited them.
“A lady I found there said she did not know Tlalane,” Ntisa says.
“I was also convinced the lady could not be hiding her.”
But when a friend told him he had once seen about 10 girls sleeping in a room at the same house Ntisa decided to go back.
This time round he took the Thamae police along.
“I went back with Thamae police and asked to check that room,” he says.
“I had not checked it the first time I went there because the lady had told me the room was rented and the owner had gone to work.”
They did not find Tlalane but the owners of the house were taken in by the police for questioning.
They denied the allegations and were allowed to go.
Ntisa says soon after that Letsie started calling them again.
“She would ask us to call her, saying if we went to that house we would find Tlalane,” he says.
“And sometimes, when we tried to call back, her number would be unavailable.
“At the time we kept hoping we would find Tlalane.
“We kept waiting for Letsie to deliver until we eventually gave up.”
After weeks of anxious searches the family eventually received a call saying Tlalane’s picture had been published in a South African newspaper of November 6 under the “missing persons” section.
“I saw the picture and her names,” Ntisa says.
“I called the phone numbers, which were attached to the picture.
“It was a social worker, Morris Mtwanaba, at Tembisa Hospital in Johannesburg who said Tlalane had been hospitalised there.”
He says Mtwanaba told him Tlalane had been transferred to the hospital on September 30.
“Mtwanaba said she had been transferred from the Pretoria Academy Hospital where she had been admitted on September 11,” he says.
Mtwanaba, Ntisa says, had told him a report from the Pretoria Academy Hospital was that Tlalane had been found unconscious on the outskirts of Johannesburg.
Ntisa says he was told Tlalane had been unconscious when she arrived at Tembisa Hospital, “as if she had been drugged”.
He says when she regained consciousness Tlalane had told Mtwanaba that she had come to “Auntie Thandi”.
“She told Mtwanaba that Thandi had then sent her to a Helen, where she was reportedly ordered to work in a hair salon,” Ntisa says.
“Mtwanaba told me Tlalane said she ran away from Helen’s salon after Thandi left her there, and that she did not remember what had happened next.
“Mtwanaba said Tlalane had been so disorientated he had let her rest before they could continue with their conversation.
“But they were not able to talk any further as she died while Morris Mtwanaba was on leave.
“We were hurt by the news that she had died before we could see her.
“We were told she was hit by a car.
“The doctors said the cause of her death was ‘multiple injuries’.
“A road accident case number 556/11/2009 was opened.”
But in an interview with the Sunday Express, Mtwanaba says Tlalane could have been a victim of human trafficking.
“She is one of many girls from Lesotho who are trafficked to South Africa with job promises,” he says.
Mtwanaba says they are still in the process of tracking down “Thandi” to find out how she got Tlalane.
“We are still looking for Thandi,” he says.
“We tried to find her at first but we could not locate the place where Tlalane said Thandi lived.”
South African authorities are worried that human trafficking cases could increase ahead of the football World Cup the country is hosting next year.
The Red Light 2010 Campaign, which seeks to fight human trafficking especially during the tournament in South Africa, says the number of human trafficking cases involving southern Africa women and girls, would increase as the tournament approaches.
“There are fears the world’s most prestigious football event will negatively impact on women and girls from southern Africa, as many acts of human trafficking are certainly expected, looking at the high levels of poverty in the region,” the movement says on its website.
Red Light 2010 says although there is little information available, recent studies show Lesotho has become a focal human trafficking point.
“As Lesotho is completely surrounded by South Africa, every border post is potentially an exit point for the trafficking of women and children into South Africa,” it says.
“However, the Maseru border post is the main centre of trafficking activity, where victims are either forcibly bundled into private vehicles or abducted or voluntarily agree to be taken across the border on false promises of employment.
“Other victims are sex workers who willingly believe they are dealing with genuine paying clients, only to fall prey to violence and abuse.”
Red Light 2010 says a major factor contributing to trafficking is the increase in the levels of prostitution in Lesotho.
“There is no law prohibiting prostitution in Lesotho where it involves consenting adults above the age of 16,” it says.
In Lesotho the absence of a law criminalising trafficking hinders the government’s ability to address the problem.
The government has not yet passed or enacted the Child Protection and Welfare Bill drafted in 2005, which includes a provision prohibiting the trafficking of children under the age of 18.
However, existing statutes prohibiting abduction, kidnapping, and the procurement of women and girls for prostitution could be used to prosecute trafficking.
The Ministry of Home Affairs and the police’s Child and Gender Protection Unit co-operate with the local Unicef and Unesco offices to address reports of children in prostitution.