South Africa and 2010: The Church’s Role in Countering Human Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation

“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” – Nelson Mandela

2009 marked fifteen years of freedom from the chains of the apartheid era for South Africa, a time to celebrate the successes of a peaceful transition to democracy and the many improvements to the lives of ordinary men and women in the intervening years. Sadly, however, not all is rosy in this fledgling democracy.

Ongoing widespread poverty and unemployment mean many of South Africa’s citizens go hungry. HIV and AIDS is ravaging the land, leaving thousands of orphans in child-headed households. While successful economic policies have resulted in a booming economy, a negative spin-off has been the thousands of immigrants, legitimate and otherwise, who have flooded into South Africa seeking to share in these newfound material benefits. Sadly, some of these new immigrants are members of crime syndicates—criminal parasites who have introduced South Africans to a frightening new twenty-first-century reality, one that feeds off the vulnerability of the poor, the unemployed, the uneducated, and the orphaned. Human trafficking, as in many parts of the world, is becoming a booming business on the tip of the African continent.

Human Trafficking—Fast Facts and Figures
Human trafficking, a modern-day form of slavery, is acknowledged to be the third largest international criminal activity, after arms smuggling and drug trafficking. Worldwide, trafficking in persons generates profits in excess of US$12 billion a year for those who, by force and deception, sell human lives into slavery and sexual bondage.1

The U.S. State Department estimates that approximately 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders annually, while many others are trafficked intra-nationally. Trafficking is a lucrative business, because unlike arms or drugs which are sold once, humans can be sold and resold again and again, and the majority of those who are trapped, tricked, and trafficked, are sold for sexual exploitation as prostitutes.2

2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup
The staging of the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup in South Africa from 11 June to 11 July 2010 has been cause for national celebration, and has provided thousands of jobs as hundreds of man-hours and materials are poured into the construction of soccer stadiums and preparations for hosting the tournament in venues around the country. South Africans are justifiably proud of being chosen to host this prestigious world sporting event.

But there is a major downside to the staging of the World Cup. Most experts in the field of counter-trafficking argue that there is a correlation between demand for the services of prostitutes and large numbers of male tourists attending major sporting events, and there is great concern that trafficking in South Africa will increase as thousands of tourists descend upon the country, visa requirements are relaxed, and schools are closed for a five-week, mid-year holiday period.3 Many feel that this extended school holiday places already vulnerable and unsupervised children at further risk, as they are drawn to soccer venues or fan parks where they will be vulnerable to traffickers.

The influx of tourists, coupled with a relaxation of visa requirements, also provides both cover and opportunity for traffickers to import women and children for the purposes of prostitution. Justice Department sources say that they have information that women are already being brought in to the country and kept “underground” in residential areas in anticipation of increased demand for the services of prostitutes during the World Cup.4

While some, including former South African police commissioner, Jackie Selebi, have called for the legalization of prostitution ahead of the 2010 Soccer World Cup in order to “legitimately” meet the anticipated increased demand from soccer tourists and decrease the risk of trafficking, evidence from countries with legalized prostitution indicates that trafficking in fact increases when prostitution is legalized.5

Additionally, legalized prostitution makes it much more difficult for law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute trafficking offences. Although the South African Law Reform Commission reported recently that any new legislation around the issue is unlikely to see the light of day before 2011,6 regardless of the eventual outcome of any such legislative changes, it is evident that there is an urgent need for concerted action on the part of both government and community structures (NGOs, faith-based organisations, community organizations, and churches) to develop strategies to combat the scourge of human trafficking in South Africa.

A Biblical Response to Trafficking
Christians are called to follow the example of Christ, who came to “…preach good news to the poor… (to) proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 3:18-19). Indeed, the history of the abolitionist movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is filled with the names of Christians such as William Wilberforce, John Newton, Granville Sharp, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and others who worked tirelessly to end slavery. Likewise, twenty-first-century followers of Christ must heed the call to set at liberty those who are captive and oppressed.

The South African Church Response to Human Trafficking
It is difficult to assess the scale of trafficking occurring in South Africa, but it is known to be both a major source and destination country for trafficked persons on the African continent. There are a number of churches, faith-based organizations, and ministries in South Africa that are already working to counter this scourge. Both the Catholic Church and the Salvation Army have put out position papers on human trafficking and have initiated national anti-trafficking programmes in their constituencies. Some of the other faith-based organisations and ministries involved in counter-trafficking work include Inter Outreach Ministries, STOP (Stop Trafficking in Persons), and Straatwerk.

Countering trafficking is no easy task and needs a four-pronged attack if success is to be achieved:

  • Specific anti-trafficking legislation and legal structures need to be in place to investigate and successfully prosecute traffickers.
  • Communities need information and education that will enable them to avoid the snares of traffickers.
  • Those who are poor and unemployed need to be assisted and given skills that will make them less vulnerable and enable them to feed their families.
  • Rescue and rehabilitation programmes need to be in place to assist trafficking victims.

The Church can make a positive contribution to all of these strategies. Here’s how it can help:

Legislation and legal structures. The South African government has drafted comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation based on the UN Trafficking Protocol, and by the time this article is published in early 2010, this legislation should have been enacted. Additionally, anti-trafficking structures have been created within the South African Police Services and the National Prosecuting Service.

The Church has a duty to use its moral voice to influence the legislative process, and has been particularly vocal recently in its opposition to proposed changes in the Sexual Offences Act of 1957, aimed at legalizing prostitution. Legislation to criminalize the buyers of sex services could be another useful tool in the fight against human trafficking, and the Church can and should lobby government for the enactment of such legislation, which has proven to be extremely effective in Sweden.8

Information and awareness. “The strength of the Church lies in conversation.” This is the opinion of Major Marieke Venter, who heads up the Salvation Army Anti Human Trafficking task team. Human trafficking is an “underground” crime, and many are unaware that it is happening on their doorsteps. The Church is the ideal vehicle to raise awareness of the issue in communities. Both churches and faith-based organisations are already currently involved in raising awareness and educating communities about the dangers of trafficking. But more could be done.

Churches can and should use the pulpit as a platform to warn and educate congregations on relevant moral and social concerns surrounding trafficking. Church members should be encouraged to take the message out to their communities, in particular to those such as teachers, nurses, and social workers who work with vulnerable sectors of the population. Many churches also have ministries working to alleviate poverty or provide skills in vulnerable communities, and these ministries could be used as platforms for spreading awareness.

Prevention. It is a sad fact that many victims are trafficked by family members, often in response to circumstances of dire poverty. People who have food and employment will have no need to sell their children to traffickers. While many churches in South Africa are actively involved in poverty alleviation through soup kitchens, feeding schemes, and skills training programmes for the unemployed, every church needs to realize the need for action to prevent the root causes.

Corinne Sandenbergh of STOP, a faith-based non-profit organisation (NPO) working to raise awareness, as well as to rescue and rehabilitate victims, commented that “every church must take ownership of its own neighbourhood.” Churches must act to combat trafficking in any way possible. When planning ministry activities, churches need to be asking themselves: “Can this ministry activity in any way also be used to counter human trafficking and how?”

Rescue and Rehabilitation. A number of churches and ministries are involved in both rescue and rehabilitation work with victims of trafficking, particularly those caught up in prostitution. This is another counter-trafficking focus area where the Church can be particularly effective. Churches can provide safe houses for rescued victims and those going through rehabilitation programmes. They can provide love, care, counseling, and fellowship to help victims deal with low self-worth, trauma, and the effects of drugs and alcohol. They can help equip rescued victims with new skills so that they can find alternative means of employment.

Although there are already a number of churches and ministries involved in the fight against human trafficking in South Africa, trafficking will never be effectively countered until there is united action. The Church needs to partner with NGOs, other organizations, and governments to combat the scourge of twenty-first-century slavery. There will be many challenges and difficulties, but like William Wilberforce, who devoted fifty years of his life to the abolition of slavery, if the Church shows determination to overcome these challenges, and a willingness to persevere, the battle may be won.

One of the saddest comments I heard repeatedly while interviewing some of those working in faith-based anti-trafficking NPOs was that some pastors in South Africa are not willing to get involved in ministries that they have not initiated. This trend may be related to indifference, ignorance, lack of resources, or even arrogance, but whatever its source, it is a trend that must be challenged.

Not every church may have the resources (human and/or financial) to initiate and maintain ministries aimed at countering human trafficking, but every church can pray into the issue, every church can support others who are working in the field, every church can use its voice and its community platform to raise awareness, and every church can and should reflect biblical attitudes of love, acceptance, forgiveness, concern, and care to those who are trafficked into or caught up in prostitution.

If the Church is to follow the example of Jesus in setting at liberty those who are oppressed, it would do well to heed the warning of eighteenth-century Anglo Irish politician and abolitionist Edmund Burke, who said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”



2. Statistic from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime: Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, February 2009

3. NGO Pulse report

4. From an article published in The Mercury, 16 July 2009, p. 3 

5. From “Ten Reasons for Not Legalizing Prostitution And a Legal Response to the Demand for Prostitution” by Janice G. Raymond

6. 2010.htm

7. and

8. See article by Gunilla Ekberg

Born in Zimbabwe and a resident of Pietermaritzburg, Gill Dobson is the communications director of African Enterprise South Africa. Trained as a graphic designer, but with a love for writing, Dobson is passionate about using her gifts to serve God.