‘Linky’ and phenomenology lead to new perspective on human trafficking

[notice]A monthly column by Marcel van der Watt, lecturer in the Department of Police Practice at UNISA, former police detective, and current member of the Gauteng Rapid Response Task Team for Human Trafficking.[/notice]

A reading of phenomenology and a recent engagement with Linky*, a modern-day slave who was rescued, compelled me to adjust some of my one dimensional and rigid methods in trying to understand the complex nature of human trafficking as a phenomenon. I realised that I had to reconsider previous reservations about how to study the phenomenon, including reservations about using a poignant term such as ‘slave’ in academic discourse about the subject. I regretfully remembered advice that I followed in a specific court case not to use such ‘emotive’ language during court testimony. I pondered the human trafficking-related cases I either witnessed or investigated over a 10 year period whilst serving in SAPS and recalled a personal habit of constantly reminding myself to stay ‘objective’ and ‘empathetic’ no matter how tragic or hopeless a case or incident appeared. ‘Objectivity’ was, obviously, in the interest of justice and essential to guard against allegations by the defence of bias or overemphasis by the State on the value of indirect or subjective evidence.

My role in the counter-trafficking arena has changed quite significantly over the past two years to that of an academic and civil society stakeholder. Currently engaged in a phenomenological study on human trafficking as a phenomenon, I realise that the notion of objectivity as I ‘personified’ it, was never entirely possible but rather a destination called Atlantis. Phenomenology, as a qualitative research design, includes a radical critique of the modern ideal of objectivity and is described by Moran (2000:4) as a ‘radical, anti-traditional style of philosophising’ which underscores the attempt to find the truth of matters and to describe phenomena as they manifest to consciousness and to the individual experiencing them. Furthermore, phenomenology embraces the notion of epochė which includes the suspension of preconceived ideas and experience by a researcher in order to gain a fresh perspective towards understanding the typical experiences of others (Leedy & Ormrod, 2013:146). After some grappling with the essential phenomenological concepts, I increasingly felt liberated from the obligations, and often unrealistic expectations associated with the notion of ‘objectivity’.

A recent call received through a human trafficking hotline number resulted in the identification of a possible human trafficking victim. After being requested by SAPS to obtain more information regarding the incident, I met with Linky* and a fellow task team member. Linky* was 19 years old and recruited from a neighbouring country. Her version of events that transpired over a period of 13 months reminded me that slavery is very much alive in our country. Instead of a decent job which would allow her to send money home to her family, Linky* worked 7 days a week and slept at most 2 hours every night. She endured brutal beatings and verbal abuse and never received a cent for her labour. Two attempts to escape her captors nearly cost her life with the compounding experience of betrayal by members of an affluent community who exchanged an able and helping hand for one which received money to look the other way. Her utmost appreciation for the role of a local businessman who assisted her after escaping her captors was communicated tearfully and with sincerity.

I realised that my reading of phenomenology had an impact on the way I experienced the case of Linky*. By deciding to be more receptive to emotional and laconic nuances which previously escaped through the scientific cracks of my ‘objectivity’ I so proudly embraced, I now came one step closer to understanding my own and Linky’s* brittleness as human beings and the paradigm shifting potential of a traumatic life experience. I also thought of Jesus’ words in John 8:7 challenging the scribes and Pharisees to throw the first stone if they were without sin and realised the inherent blessing of acknowledging both the existence and hazards of preconceived ideas, ill-informed perceptions and opinions.

You say that you are my judge; I do not know if you are; but take good heed not to judge me ill, because you would put yourself in great peril –Joan of Arc


Leedy, P.D. & Ormrod, J.E. 2013. Practical Research: Planning and Design. 10th Edition.
New Jersey: Pearson.
Moran, D. 2000. Introduction to Phenomenology. London: Routledge.

One Comment

  1. Love that being vulnerable and real is identified as a ‘secular’, recognized research design- love these character trades exhibited in Jesus.