‘My husband dragged me into a sex trafficking ring’ – victims reveal truth behind human trafficking

A mom holds a photograph of her missing teenaged daughter Dua. Many people from her part of Vietnam have a story about bride trafficking, similar to the custom of ukuthwala practised in SA.

A mom holds a photograph of her missing teenaged daughter Dua. Many people from her part of Vietnam have a story about bride trafficking, similar to the custom of ukuthwala practised in SA. NHAC NGUYEN/AFP via Getty Images

At first, when Valerie Madondo was arrested she was relieved.

Finally she was free, she thought – free from four years of being raped and abused and from the drugs her captors had forced on her constantly. But her nightmare was far from over.

She was released from police custody when a group of people came to fetch her – but those people were the very ones who’d been holding her captive.

Valerie’s story puts a human face on the scourge of human trafficking in South Africa, where people – usually women and children – are held captive in a depraved underworld where sex and drugs rule.

In recent years, SA has seen a spike in cases of human trafficking. The victims, girls and women often undocumented foreigners from neighbouring African states, tend to be voiceless. Either without anyone working tirelessly to have them free, or without loved ones with means to save them.

“For every 130 girls or women on the planet, one is a modern slave,” says Grace Forrest, founder and director of Walk Free, an international human rights organisation focused on ending modern slavery.

Valerie came to Pretoria from Zimbabwe in 2010, hoping to find work to support her two young boys back home in Masvingo, the then-29-year-old Valerie told Drum in 2017.

She found odd jobs as a domestic worker and a street vendor. When a group of South African women she knew in passing told her they could arrange an interview for her for a job at a supermarket in Johannesburg, she leapt at the opportunity.

This could be the break she’d been hoping for, she thought, a good job with a regular salary. But there was no job – instead her “helpful” acquaintances were selling her as a sex slave to a syndicate that dealt in prostitutes and drugs.

She went to Rosettenville for the “interview” where she was drugged and gang raped, locked up and barely given enough food to survive. Her attempts to escape were futile as she was too drugged up to get very far from the dilapidated house where she and other young women were forced to work as prostitutes.

Valerie and the other women were allowed out to sell drugs for their captors and it was in 2014, four years after Valerie was abducted, that she was arrested by police for selling the very substances she had become addicted to.

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A girl walks on a gravel road leading to Upper Ntlabathi village near Flagstaff, Eastern Cape, one of the SA provinces where girls as young as 13 are often forced into marriage with older men.

“Modern slavery,” according to the NGO, “is an umbrella term, which encompasses several types of exploitation, including forced labour, human trafficking and forced marriage.”

World Day Against Trafficking is marked annually on 30 July to educate people that practices such as ukuthwala, forced labour and recruiting someone for making them a drug mule or for forced labour and/or sex is a criminal offence.

The cops, Valerie told Drum in 2017, weren’t interested in her story and the Zimbabwean felt even more hopeless and helpless.

However, then minister of police Fikile Mbalula, speaking after the recent return home of Princess Mahlangu, a Bloemfontein woman who was trafficked to Malaysia, vowed cops would treat all information about the trafficking of women seriously going forward.

“If someone says they have been trafficked, the police must investigate and prove otherwise if it’s not,” he said.

Valerie at the time alleged her captors bribed the police officers to release her before she could be charged. She was taken back to her personal hell where she was forced to have sex with more men to make up for the money he hadn’t made while she was in custody.

Read more | Kidnapped Yeoville twins’ mom and neighbour recount girls’ escape from ‘rapist’

There are no accurate figures of how many women and children are subjected to the kind of ordeal Valerie found herself in, but experts estimate thousands of people have been trafficked in similar circumstances in South Africa.

Human trafficking is on the rise, according to Marcel van der Watt, an expert in the field of organised crime, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation.

“Anti-trafficking legislation came in 2015 but I can tell you the cases of human trafficking in South Africa are increasing.

“The absence of reliable statistics means there is no clarity on how big the problem is,’’ adds Van der Watt.

“A lot of women we have supported face two nightmares – the brutality of slavery-like conditions and, post-escape, getting officials to believe them or, even worse, finding themselves imprisoned for crimes their traffickers forced them to commit,” according to Shenaaz Khan from Recovery Life Institute, a non-profit counselling centre in Robertsham in the south of Johannesburg.

Traffickers use major SA cities as a transit point to Europe. Often rural children who are exploited have been offered the false “opportunity” of an education or a better life, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Anti-trafficking campaigners and NGOs believe more than 30 000 children are trafficked into the country each year for the sex trade.

Even some of the zama zamas – illegal miners who toil in abandoned mineshafts in SA – are trafficked people, says social scientist and the author of Long Walk to Nowhere: Forced Migration, Exploitation and Human Trafficking in South Africa, Philip Frankel.

He and Van der Watt believe South Africa’s porous borders and corruption levels make human trafficking an attractive business, one with high returns and low risks.

Read more | Foundation sounds alarm on cases of ukuthwala still being practised in rural parts of South Africa

In 2012, we spoke to a victim whose husband dragged her into a sex-trafficking ring. “I married him as a teenager,” Bongiwe* told Drum.

“He was exciting and we explored South Africa, taking holidays across the country. But he became physically abusive, and I discovered that he was involved in criminal activities.”

After six years of surviving in an abusive relationship, Bongiwe found the courage to leave him. However, years later, they re-connected.

“We had both moved on with our lives and, when I saw him again, he had a child,” Bongiwe said. “He told me he was struggling to raise him [the child] because the mother had run away.”

She agreed to help look after the child and became a prisoner in her ex’s home from where he was running a prostitution ring.

“He wouldn’t let me leave the house and I had to help him give the girls tik [a street drug],” she said.

“He told his friends, who acted as bodyguards, to have their way with me, and I was raped.”

Her ex threatened to harm her family if she did not keep silent.

“He also bribed police officers and some of them were clients,” she continued. “I was trapped and I became too scared to sleep.”

One day she managed to steal a cellphone and she made a call from the toilet to a friend. “I had to flush the toilet so that he could not hear that I was talking to someone,” she told Drum.

“My friend said he knew someone who was not corrupt and, the following day, the person stormed in with the Hawks and rescued us.” Bongiwe relocated to another province, but her nightmare was far from over. “I’m afraid of the dark and have to take sleeping pills,” she revealed.

“I can’t leave the house because I constantly have to look over my shoulder. I hope that one day I can have a normal life, but I still have a long way to go.”

The South African Law Reform Commission recommends that enactment of a new statute is required to deal specifically with the issue of forced marriage to send a powerful symbolic message to perpetrators and ordinary South Africans alike, Maite Modiba, South African State Law Advisor in the Department of Justice and Correctional Services, told Drum recently following calls by Eugenia Nothemba Gxowa Foundation (ENGF) to criminalise ukuthwa.

“The new legislation would be an opportunity to make an unequivocal statement against forced marriages, clarifying in the process the question of marriageable age,” Maite said.

“It would also consolidate the applicable principles in one instrument and send a powerful symbolic signal in defence of women’s rights.”

When it comes to human trafficking, legally, at least, there has been some progress.

“In the past, there was no offence for human trafficking,” say Esther Rose of Hope for Women SA, an organisation in partnership with Life Church.

“Crimes would be prosecuted as rape or abduction. But now, under the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act, it is an offence with serious penalties.”

However, Dr Monique Emser, member of the KwaZulu-Natal Human Trafficking, Prostitution, Pornography and Brothels Task Team, says it’s not easy for victims to turn against their traffickers.

Sometimes they develop a psychological condition called the Stockholm syndrome. “This is when someone who has been victimised begins to identify with the captors,” she explains.

“Even when they are rescued, they do not want to testify against them because they see them as someone who helped them by providing food and shelter.”

Dr Emser says South Africans need to wake up and accept the truth about human trafficking.

  • Missing Children SA: Call 072-647-7464 Email inahibanfo@missingchildren. org.za
  • People Opposing Women Abuse: Call 011-642-4345 or 011-642-4346 Email info@powa.co.za
  • Stop Trafficking of People: Email info@stoptrafficking.org.za
  • SA National Human Trafficking Call 0800-222-777

*Not her real name