Tshireletso: empowering communities in the fight against 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]

Human trafficking as a phenomenon affects every level of society and no individual, community, country or continent is left unharmed from its disempowering and malignant impact.

'Web of Deceit' (PHOTO: Barnard Gallery)
‘Web of Deceit’ (PHOTO: Barnard Gallery)

Any position of vulnerability predisposes communities to different forms of exploitation which serves as a catalyst for egotistical and criminal gain. Communities often fail to realise the non-linear nature of human trafficking which habitually manifests itself in seemingly insignificant ways. Perceptions about how the problem manifests itself at grassroots level are often fuelled by skewed media representations. Dramatic elements such as force, kidnapping, brutality and monster-like perpetrators dominate discourses whilst subversive themes such as deceit, fraud, grooming, manipulation and the Stockholm syndrome are often underreported.

The lack of available statistics regarding human trafficking in South Africa is yet another factor which compounds progress in understanding its multi-layered complexities. Inflated estimations and gross generalisations regarding the scope and magnitude of the phenomenon do no justice to the quest for scientific rigour or reaching an even-handed understanding. Research on the need for a multidisciplinary response, lack of empirical data on incidents and the dawn of a new and comprehensive legislative instrument have confirmed the need for a professional and formalised civil society response strategy.

Serving humanity
In the spirit of becoming the ‘African university in service of humanity’, staff members within the College of Law of the University of South Africa (UNISA) initiated a community engagement project which endeavours to respond to the complex and subversive nature of human trafficking. Project Tshireletso (Tswana for ‘protect’) will aim to record any crime or incident information which relates to, or suggests the occurrence or possible occurrence of human trafficking and sexual exploitation in South Africa. Geographically this extends to any cross-border or international activity with relevance to the South African situation.

Combined with a review of literature and the experience of the researchers in the criminal investigation of human trafficking, a data capturing tool was developed which aims to record grassroots incidents that are either not reported to law enforcement, or which are reported but lack elements for the registration of a criminal case. The data capturing tool will be refined as new trends emerge and currently consist of 93 variables.

Partnerships with community based organisations are fundamental to the success of project Tshireletso and include Missing Children South Africa, James 127 Trust and UK based Sophie Hayes Foundation. The National Freedom Network (NFN) is a fundamental partner in the project and provides for information gathering structures in all nine provinces. The NFN is a national network of multidisciplinary volunteers consisting of prosecutors, police investigators, social workers, NGO representatives and civil society role players. None of these positions are remunerative in nature and are all filled by people who volunteer their time, expertise and passion. The NFN facilitates a networking capacity, awareness, identification and response strategies to incidents of human trafficking and sexual exploitation in South Africa. Three team members of project Tshireletso are also volunteers attached to the NFN with one of the members being responsible for the NFN case management activity which developed into a civil society nodal point for reporting of human trafficking and sexual exploitation related incidents. Response strategies are then subsequently facilitated through NFN coordinators in each province who are involved in either counter-trafficking task teams or partnerships with SAPS and other relevant role-players. Numerous successes have been achieved over the past 18 months as a result of the NFN’s networking capacity and partnerships with government. These successes include amongst others:

  • The identification, rescue and care of local and foreign trafficking victims (i.e. Thailand, China, Zimbabwe);
  • The arrest of perpetrators;
  • The identification and disruption of brothels and drug posts;
  • The identification and response to syndicate activity through the linkage of fragmented pieces of information received from the community.

The following are the objectives of project Tshireletso:

  • Development and maintenance of a human trafficking data analysis tool to facilitate the capturing and analysis of information received from partnerships and community channels;
  • Identification of crime patterns, ‘hotspot’ areas and linkages amongst reported incidents relating to human trafficking and sexual exploitation;
  • Dissemination of case information to relevant response agencies i.e. SAPS, Department of Social Development (DSD), Home Affairs, NGOs and using networks and mainstream media to communicate crime patterns and threats identified through analysis;
  • Act as a communication catalyst between various response agencies whilst reaching out to affected communities through awareness raising on issues related to modus operandi, and conditions that either drive  people to leave their homes or  attract them to other areas (Push and Pull factors) – thereby fuelling their vulnerability;
  • Training, equipping and empowerment of law enforcement and response agencies with up to date and relevant information on human trafficking trends and patterns whilst endeavouring to act as a bridge between theory, research and practice;
  • Enabling data for the development of best practice guidelines for human trafficking and sexual exploitation response strategies and using it as catalyst to inform, support or challenge policy and action;
  • Nurturing local and international partnerships characterised by integrity, knowledge and service and becoming a leader in the counter-human trafficking and sexual exploitation arena.

Globalisation, information and communications technology (ICT), social networking, the role of the media and increasingly effective transportation systems are not only characteristic of holistic development, but also create opportunities for criminals to use innovative means to commit crimes. The average citizen is not always able to keep abreast of these changes and may therefore not be aware of its double edged potential. Such a knowledge vacuum may cause individuals, communities and organisations to become vulnerable to innovative and subversive methods employed by criminals. In responding to this challenge, we would do well to consider the sentiments of Martin Luther King Jr:

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

Project Tshireletso endeavours to identify those ‘hidden transcripts’ in everyday community life which, if not documented or viewed holistically, may fuel vulnerability in our communities whilst allowing criminal elements to make significant gains.

For more information on becoming involved with the National Freedom Network contact Diane Wilkinson: diane.nfn@gmail.com

For any information offered for the purpose of this project, kindly email caseinfo.nfn@gmail.com. In the event of sensitive information to be shared, kindly send an email with contact details and a request to be contacted to caseinfo.nfn@gmail.com


  1. Thank you Marcel for true leadership and introducing a most inspiring project to be shared through Gateway News – we keep you in our prayers while supporting your relentless efforts!

  2. Fil 3:12-16…we are His light bearers demolishing darkness

  3. Tereasa Ferrari

    When it comes to human trafficking too many speeches and too little ground level work being done to eradicate the problem.

  4. Congratulations all on this very timely initiative.

  5. Anita Du Plessis

    Thank you, Marcel, for this article. Globalisation caused the world to become smaller, yet human trafficking makes it even smaller. The routes are so intertwined and I want to learn and help where I can with what I have.