MAPUTSOE — Excitement is mounting as the countdown to next year’s Fifa World Cup continues — and so is fear of an upsurge in cases of human trafficking in southern Africa.
South Africa hosts the global showcase from June 10 to July 11 next year, with an estimated 500 000 international fans set to descend on the region for the tournament.
While there is an air of anticipation by fans and businesses alike, governments in the region also fear the influx of foreigners could trigger a rise in human rights abuses, particularly against women and young girls.
The extent of the apprehension was clearly evident on Friday when Lesotho and South Africa held a joint human trafficking sensitisation campaign in Maputsoe.
The campaign — which incidentally came within the framework of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence — saw officials calling for an “intensive” operation to combat the threat posed by human trafficking.
South Africa’s head of department of police, roads and transport, Mzilozi Molala, said human trafficking in the two countries is a serious problem.
“Both Lesotho and South Africa are experiencing this problem where women and young girls are being sold between and outside the two countries like animals,” Molala said.
He said the Ficksburg border post was being used as a smuggling point by syndicates, adding the practice is expected to intensify during the upcoming football tournament.
“We are hosting the Fifa World Cup next year and syndicates will intensify their activities,” he said.
Molala said a joint force was needed between South Africans and Basotho in order to strengthen the fight against human trafficking.
“This is human abuse. Let us report such people who sell our women and young girls. This behaviour perpetuates the spread of HIV and Aids,” Molala said.
Speaking at the same occasion, the Minister of Gender, Sports and Recreation, ‘Mathabiso Lepono, said people who are found to be involved in human trafficking should be severely punished.
Lepono added that government would soon pass a law to address issues of human trafficking.
“Government is still drafting a bill on the prevention of human trafficking. In the meantime, our security agencies are going to join forces to bring human traffickers to justice,” Lepono said.
She urged young girls and women not to be cheated into slavery.
“I appeal to you girls and women to stand your ground if anyone wants to prey on you. It is not true that there is a lot of money in South Africa.
“You should use the opportunities you have to improve your lives, not to be dragged into dirty work,” she said.
Twenty-three-year-old Tefetso Lehlaka from St Luke, Maputsoe, said he was not aware human trafficking was such a problem until his sister became a victim last year.
Tefetso’s sister, Celina, 25, was one of several village girls taken by an unidentified man with promises of good jobs in Durban, in 2003.
Sheer desperation, says Tefetso, had made his sister readily agree to what promised to be a better life in South Africa.
But Celina came back home sick and empty-handed in December last year. She died in February.
Lehlaka said he only realised this year his late sister was a victim of human trafficking.
“We had always been close with my sister. She came home excited the other day and told me she had been offered a well paying job.
“She told me a certain man had offered her and some of her friends jobs in Durban,” Lehlaka said.
He said they had both been excited, thinking they would be able to fend for themselves, since their mother had just died.
“I remember she said they had been promised monthly salaries of R2 000 each. We thought it was a lot of money.
“We had already made plans on how we were going to use the money. We would even move out of the old house we were renting and look for better accommodation elsewhere.”
But he said his sister ordered him not to tell anyone about the job — not even their mother’s sister, who was now occasionally checking on them.
“She gave strict orders not to tell anyone, not even my friends. She said it was our secret. I obeyed until she left.
“I accompanied her to the border post that night.
She told me to go back home before I could see the man, whom she said would help them cross over to Ficksburg because most of them did not have passports.”
Lehlaka said he waited excitedly for the rest of the month hoping she would either come home or send him some money. Neither came.
“I convinced myself it would not be possible for her to come home after just one month. But months passed by and I never heard from her.
“I did not even know where to look for her. I just waited but she did not come. No one ever said they had met her or knew where she was. I was worried sick about her. I thought she had died.”
Last year, when he had already given up on his sister, Letlaka said he received a message from fellow villagers that his sister was at the border post.
“I went there to look for her. It took me about an hour to find her, only to realise later that she was the person I had been passing by all this time. She was frail and sick. She was lifeless.”
Lehlaka took his sister home and later to the hospital. Celina got better enough to tell her brother what had happened.
“She told me they were being used as sex slaves in Durban, where they were not able to do anything or go anywhere.
“She said they were locked in and drugged and forbidden from contacting anyone.
“She said when she fell sick no one took her to the doctor.
“Celina said she was later dumped at the Ficksburg bus stop, on the other side of the border post, because her condition had continued to deteriorate.”
Celina died two months later.
Maretsélisitsoe Mohlanka, an elderly villager from Ha-‘Mathata in Maputsoe, said rampant smuggling of young girls by con-artists had become a cause for concern in the area.
Mohlanka said at least seven young girls in her village had recently been lured to South Africa with promises of good jobs.
“They were all young girls between the ages of 15 and 20. Some were still going to school but dropped out when an unknown woman came looking for girls who needed employment,” Mohlanka said.
She said they were not able to report such matters to the police because ‘victims’ would have gone willingly.
“The young girls are not kidnapped. They give their consent.”
Meanwhile, the Director of Gender, ‘Matau Futho Letsatsi — who also spoke at Friday’s sensitisation campaign — said human trafficking was a problem all over the country.
She said it was shocking to find that in some instances, family members agree to their children’s trafficking.
“It is even worse in a situation where family members consent to their children’s smuggling. That is a violation of human rights.”
She said the Lesotho and South African governments were determined to eradicate human trafficking.
“We are all to blame. So we all have to stand together to fight this scourge.”