The Long View: Human Trafficking in South Africa

By Sarah Duff

Cape Town has recently been rocked by allegations of human trafficking between the Northern and Western Cape. According to police reports, around six adolescent girls from Prieska had been sold into slavery in Atlantis, for as little as R1200 each. These young women appear to have been the victims of a scam which promised to help them to find employment in Cape Town in exchange for a few hundred rand. Instead, they found themselves enslaved in Atlantis.

Listening to CapeTalk radio’s coverage of this case, I was struck not only by the bravery of the young woman who allegedly alerted the police to her plight, but also to the similarities between this crime and similar events in and around Cape Town over a century ago. We know that human trafficking did not end with the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade during the early nineteenth century. Organisations and campaigns such as the Coalition against Trafficking in Women and the UN’s Blueheart Campaign have drawn the world’s attention to the current trafficking of women and children between developed and developing nations.

The roots of human trafficking – and particularly of women and children – are deep. In The Fox and the Flies: The World of Joseph Silver, Racketeer and Psychopath (2007), Charles van Onselen describes a crime network which operated within the Atlantic world during the late nineteenth century: gangsters lured impoverished young women to London from central and eastern Europe, usually with the promise of employment. Once in Britain these women were drugged, raped, and shipped off to brothels in New York, Buenos Aires, and Cape Town. During the 1840s, some white farmers on the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony were implicated in the systematic kidnapping and enslavement of African children on their farms.

But in many ways, the trafficking and exploitation of young women in Cape Town was a daily occurrence during the final decades of the nineteenth century.  The discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1886) caused South Africa to industrialise. Industry and business expanded; new roads, railways, and a telegraph network connected the country far more closely than ever before. In Cape Town, the city’s population more than quadrupled, from 45,000 in 1875 to 170,000 in 1904. Many of these new Capetonians were immigrants from Europe, but more than half came from within South Africa itself. These internal migrants – who represented all ages and races and both genders – came to Cape Town in search of work. Among these were young women, usually in their early teens, who sought domestic work in the city’s middle-class households.

Domestic work in Victorian South Africa was tough: housekeeping was physically strenuous, hours were long, and pay was very low. Some former domestic servants decided to swop housekeeping for factory work, while a few became involved in prostitution. While it’s certain that some of these women chose prostitution over other forms of employment – it was better paid and women had greater freedom to choose when they worked – it’s also clear that many of Cape Town’s young prostitutes had been lured to the city with promises of well-paid employment. Jane Elizabeth Waterston, Cape Town’s first female doctor, described in 1894 how some young women whom she treated had fallen into sex work:

I…was informed that generally their mistresses had brought them to town – respectable mistresses coming to town, as country ladies are wont to do. When the servants arrive here, old companions, or as they call them, ‘chums’, get hold of them and lead them off. The great direct cause is those dances. They are taken to a dance and never come home again.

The reasons why these girls came to Cape Town were the same as those who travelled this year from Prieska to Atlantis: rural poverty and bad, or little education, meant that their prospects for finding well-paid work in the country’s rural interior were low. Life in the city, they believed, offered them a fairer chance for employment.

Human trafficking today may differ in some respects from that in the nineteenth century – faster communication and travel have had a significant impact – but its causes are identical: poverty, inadequate education, and a continued refusal on the part of governments to respond to the ways in which women are sexually exploited. As Victorian feminists in South Africa, like Waterston, rallied to support young women trapped into prostitution in late-nineteenth-century Cape Town, so we should do the same to protect vulnerable girls today.


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