South Africa's New Slave Trade and the Campaign to Stop It

A teenage girl waits near a hotel in Bloemfontein

Melanie Hamman
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For a South African victim of human trafficking, this was the endgame. On a freezing night last July, Sindiswa, 17, lay curled in a fetal position in bed No. 7 of a state-run hospice in central Bloemfontein. Well-used fly strips hung between fluorescent lights, pale blue paint flaked off the walls, and fresh blood stained her sheets, the rusty bedpost and the linoleum floor. Sindiswa had full-blown AIDS and tuberculosis, and she was three months pregnant. Sweat poured from her forehead as she whispered her story through parched lips covered with sores. A few blocks away, the roars of rugby fans erupted from Free State Stadium. In June the roars will be from fans of the World Cup. (See pictures of South Africa.)

Sindiswa's family was one of the poorest families in Indwe, the poorest district in Eastern Cape, one of the poorest provinces in South Africa. Ninety-five percent of the residents of her township fall below the poverty line, more than a quarter have HIV, and most survive by clinging to government grants. Orphaned at 16, she had to leave school to support herself. Last February, a woman from a neighboring town offered to find work for her and her 15-year-old best friend, Elizabeth, who, like Sindiswa, was poor but was also desperate to escape her violent older sister. (I have changed Elizabeth's name to protect her identity.)

After driving them eight hours north to Bloemfontein, the recruiter sold them to a Nigerian drug and human-trafficking syndicate in exchange for $120 and crack cocaine. "[The recruiter] said we could find a job," Sindiswa recalled, "but as soon as we got here, she told us, 'No. You have to go into the streets and sell yourselves.' " The buyer, Jude, forced them into prostitution on the streets of central Bloemfontein for 12 straight hours every night. Each morning, he collected their earnings — Sindiswa averaged $40 per night; Elizabeth, $65. Elizabeth tried to escape three times, once absconding for several weeks. Jude always found her or used Sindiswa as a hostage to lure her back, then enlisted an enforcer named Rasta to beat her. (See pictures of violence in South Africa.)

It is unclear if Sindiswa contracted HIV before or after she was sold, but some of her clients didn't use condoms. She was diagnosed with the virus only a week before I met her. When she was too sick to stand and thus useless as a slave, Jude had thrown her onto the street. Nurses expected her to die within days.

Despite more than a dozen international conventions banning slavery in the past 150 years, there are more slaves today than at any point in human history. Slaves are those forced to perform services for no pay beyond subsistence and for the profit of others who hold them through fraud and violence. While most are held in debt bondage in the poorest regions of South Asia, some are trafficked in the midst of thriving development. Such is the case here in Africa's wealthiest country, the host of this year's World Cup. While South Africa invests billions to prepare its infrastructure for the half-million visitors expected to attend, tens of thousands of children have become ensnared in sexual slavery, and those who profit from their abuse are also preparing for the tournament. During a three-week investigation into human-trafficking syndicates operating near two stadiums, I found a lucrative trade in child sex. The children, sold for as little as $45, can earn more than $600 per night for their captors. "I'm really looking forward to doing more business during the World Cup," said a trafficker. We were speaking at his base overlooking Port Elizabeth's new Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. Already, he had done brisk business among the stadium's construction workers.

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