Sheltering the victims of South Africa’s ‘second pandemic’

“It was really challenging as many of the long-term shelters were closed and I had no more space to house these GBV victims, so all I could do was encourage the women to open a case against their abuser at the police station. – Brown Lekekela, Green Door shelter

“Stepping into the shelter is like eating a box of mixed chocolates. You step in and you don’t know what chocolate is going to pop up today. While we are still practising the covid-19 protocols, it could be anything from a mother giving birth or going into labour, to electricity that has run out, to a resident having to go to hospital and for us needing to arrange transport for her.”  

This is what a typical day full of surprises looks like in the shoes of St Anne’s Homes mother bird Joy Lange. Lange’s nest lies peacefully within the industrial hub of Woodstock, Cape Town, where women and children fleeing from violence are offered a second chance at life.  

 

Haven for GBV victim, St Anne’s Homes, in Woodstock, Cape Town may have a grey exterior but boasts multicoloured walls on the inside. Photo: Emma O’Connor.

Cape Town born and bred, Lange is executive director of gender-based violence (GBV) shelter, St Anne’s Homes; an executive member of the National Shelter Movement of South Africa (NSM); and the woman holding GBV victims hands and keeping a roof over their heads through their rehabilitation.  

St Anne’s Homes mother bird, Joy Lange, standing at in front of her nest. Photo: Emma O’Connor.

While South Africa has been fighting the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a second pandemic raging through the land ferociously for years. This pandemic is the killing of women and children by South African men. This is a pandemic that does not necessarily require more beds in a hospital, but more beds in GBV shelters to aid and rehabilitate our nation’s vulnerable women and children.  

Rehabilitating a traumatised woman coming from violence involves various forms of counselling to aid emotional healing and confidence building. Along with counselling services, GBV shelters often provide childcare, women empowerment programmes, skill development, and essential needs such as meals, healthcare, and toiletries. The aim of GBV shelters is to rehabilitate a GBV survivor to a point where they can get a job and become self-reliant.

GBV survivor and St Anne’s Homes resident, Roxanne Nel, holding the product of her newly acquired skill – sewing. Photo: Emma O’Connor.

Gender-based violence is broadly defined by GBV and USAid researcher, Shelah Bloom, as “the general term used to capture violence that occurs as a result of the normative role expectations associated with each gender, along with the unequal power relationships between genders, within the context of a specific society.”  

Covid-19 exacerbated GBV 

This second pandemic was not brought on by covid-19, but rather heightened exponentially because of it. Between April 1, 2019, and March 31, 2020, prior to the covid-19 outbreak in South Africa, crime statistics reported that a total of 2 695 women were murdered in South Africa during the 12-month period. This equates to a woman being murdered every three hours within South Africa. 

Non-profit organisation and lifeline for GBV victimsTEARS Foundation, operates as a database and a web/mobi site that provides crisis intervention, advocacy and counselling for those affected by GBV. TEARS intervention specialist and GBV survivor, Monica Moagi, notes how she and her organisation were working around the clock to accommodate the increased need of their GBV services since the start of the national lockdown 

“It was just overwhelming. The minute there was lockdown, that was when you really got to know your partner and understand their anger, and that is where the rise of GBV occurred. That is when we saw the demand for our services and the use of our hotline rise by 100%,” says Moagi.  

Similarly, the World Health Organisation notes in a research paper published on March 26, 2020, that while the covid-19 pandemic does not suddenly create the issue of GBV, it can exacerbate the risk of violence for women. 

The challenge is, now there is an added stress of getting tested for covid-19, which GBV victims are not emotionally prepared to go through.”

Stress, the disruption of social and protective networks, and decreased access to services all can exacerbate the risk of violence for women,” says the paper. “Other services, such as hotlines, crisis centres, shelters, legal aid and protection services may also be scaled back, further reducing access to the few sources of help that women in abusive relationships might have.” 

Getting into a shelter 

With increased pressure from the anti-GBV movement to put measures in place to aid victims, the government scrambled to try implement GBV services (such as sheltering) during the South African lockdown. GBV victims were, however, turning instead to established, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for help.  

According to Moagi, this is due to the lack of facilities that government shelters provided GBV victims. To be housed at a governmentimplemented shelter, a GBV victim was required to have a coronavirus test before being allowed in.  

“There was no system in place in government shelters where they could house and isolate people while being tested, and then later move them to the shelter once they had tested negative for covid-19,” Moagi said. “The challenge is, now there is an added stress of getting tested for covid-19, which GBV victims are not emotionally prepared to go through.”  

“The first payment these shelters received from the government only came last month [September], when it was due in April. Ultimately, they went five months without a government subsidy that makes up the majority of their funding.”

In the interim, GBV victims had to isolate themselves until their covid-19 test came back negative. The sad reality is that this could often mean the victims would have to go home and stay with their abusers 

NGO shelters thankfully used a different approach to ensure that the necessary covid-19 measures were met. GBV victims were either isolated within the shelter itself for a period of 14 days (provided the shelter had enough space), or a staged approach was used that involved the collaboration of various NGO shelters working together.  

Covid-19 informative posters decorate the walls of St Anne’s Homes to ensure that the residents and staff remain safe in these uncertain times. Photo: Emma O’Connor.

This staged approach is what 17 shelters in Western Cape worked tirelessly to execute to continue providing GBV support for women and children during the pandemic  

Four of these 17 shelters were small, which acted as stage-one shelters. The GBV victim would go into one of those four shelters for twoweeks of quarantine,” Lange explained. “Thereafter they would go to one of the other 13 shelters, which acted as stage-two shelters where they would stay for a minimum of threemonths.”  

Good Samaritan Brown Lekekela single-handedly runs stage-one shelter Green Door, with the hope that he acts as a vector for change in South Africa’s second pandemicGreen Door temporarily houses GBV victims located in the heart of one of Johannesburg’s ruthless and poverty ridden townshipsDiepsloot. Green Door houses women for up to fivedays to begin the covid-19 quarantine process in a safe space, while Lekekela arranges an alternative shelter for the women to stay in on a long-term basis.  

Having a mere six beds in three-bedroom house, and an endless number of GBV victims seeking helpcovid-19 forced Lekekela to cut his already small capacity by half.  

A bed in a GBV shelter became highly sort-after in the midst of the global pandemic. Photo: Emma O’Connor

“As the covid-19 numbers were rising, so was the number of women needing help,” Lekekela said. “It was really challenging, as many of the long-term shelters were closed and I had no more space to house these women, so all I could do was encourage the women to open a case against their abusers at the police station.”  

Getting to a shelter 

The coronavirus pandemic has not only created numerous hurdles for GBV victims getting safely into a GBV shelter but has also increased the difficulty of victims leaving their abusers to physically get to a shelter. Level five of the national lockdown stipulated that South Africans must remain in their homes unless performing essential services. This meant that coming up with an excuse to leave the presence of your abuser would have been even more difficult for a GBV victim under the umbrella of a pandemic 

The inability of abuse victims to safely get to a shelter could have been seen among the quiet corridors of GBV shelters in Eastern Cape. Shelter manager at Masimanyane Women’s Shelter in East London, and Eastern Cape NSM representative Chrislynn Moonieyan noticed that her shelter was not as busy during the national lockdown period as she had initially anticipated it would be. 

“We know that violence against women was continuing in the country during lockdown, but we weren’t seeing a reflection of this in our shelters,” said a concerned Moonieyan.  

During the first week of the national lockdown, from March 27 to March 31, police ministry spokesperson Brigadier Peters told Africa Check that “the police received 2 300 complaints in relation to GBV. The question is, how do these complaint numbers fare in relation to previous years? According to Peters, an average of 1 673 GBV complaints were made per week in 2019. Therefore, these numbers suggest that not only was GBV continuing throughout the national lockdown, but its frequency also increased.    

Children coming from a past of violence are given a second chance at life and an education in St Anne’s Homes. Photo: Emma O’Connor.

Having to reassess the lockdown situation, Moonieyan tells Wits Vuvuzela that from her experience “the lockdown regulations acted as a barrier to women trying to receive GBV services, and “people were also just too fearful of the virus to seek GBV services.  

The sentiment is echoed in a brief published by UN Women that explores the impact covid-19 has had on the provision of essential services for women experiencing violence during the pandemic. According to UN Women, GBV victims “may have more difficulties in promptly reporting violence and obtaining essential police and justice services, either physically, or through helplines, as they live 24/7 with their abusers and have no privacy to make such phone calls.  

With little privacy away from one’s abuser, the importance of planning one’s escape plan becomes a lifeordeath situation for GBV victims amid a global pandemic. Working side by side with victims at St Anne’s Homes, Lange emphasises the need for a victim escape plan, by relaying the story of a brave woman whose husband locked her up in their home during the national lockdown.  

Working closely with her residents, Lange recalls various success stories of her past residents who she still keeps in touch with10-years later. Photo: Emma O’Connor

One of the women who came in during lockdown had planned her exit by writing down the details of the people who had previously assisted her in building an abuse case against her husband, on a 5x5cm piece of paper that she hid under her breastThe woman landed up getting quite sick and needed to go to the clinic. After her husband briefly left her alone in the clinic queue while he got his cigarettes, the woman just ran and never looked back, Lange told Wits Vuvuzela. From the smile on Lange’s face, it is evident she is proud of the powerful women she crosses paths with daily. 

Running a shelter in the time of covid-19 

Keeping the doors of an NGO shelter open during the covid-19 pandemic, however, comes at a massive cost for a shelter. Relying largely on private and corporate donations to bolster the costs involved with running a GBV shelter and providing rehabilitation services means getting funding is a struggle at the best of times. With the added financial and economic blow that covid-19 dealt to South Africans, this task became even harder for NGO shelters.  

Fortunately we have a three-year funding contract with a company,” Moonieyan tells Wits Vuvuzela with a sense of relief. “What we needed to do was renegotiate with our donor to redirect our funds. We had to ensure there was enough PPE (personal protection equipment) for the staff and our clients; enough vitamins and immune boosters; and enough food to provide good nutrition,’’ says MoonieyanAll our costs were suddenly going up because everyone was staying at home all day, which also increased the maintenance needed within the shelter.Moonieyan says she igrateful that her shelter was able to continue providing such an essential service.

Providing three meals per day with the adequate amount of nutrition ensures the residents of a GBV shelter remain healthy, however this is not small task. Photo: Emma O’Connor

With some shelters receiving a government subsidy for their GBV services, Moonieyan notes that these shelters were left worse off, even with the government’s support. “Working with other shelters, I know that those who were involved with government funding were really badly off,” Moonieyan recalls. “The first payment these shelters received from the government only came last month [September], when it was due in April. Ultimately, they went five months without a government subsidy that makes up the majority of their funding.”  

The coronavirus pandemic has proved to provide more challenges to South African society every day. The lockdown that was supposed to aid in keeping the nation’s people safe from contracting the virus created the ultimate paradox for GBV victims by imposing a toxic environment of victims being locked up with the peril of their abusers.  

Not only had GBV increased during the pandemic, but covid-19 also created various barriers to GBV victims getting into shelters, to shelters, and the ability of the shelters to adequately provide their services. Despite all these barriers, NGO shelters and phenomenal individuals at St Anne’s Homes, Green Door and Masimanyane Women’s Shelter worked tirelessly to continue the fight against GBV by caring for and sheltering the survivors of South Africa’s second pandemic.  

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Life after death in the time of covid-19

The covid-19 pandemic, and corresponding health restrictions placed on hospitals and funerals in South Africa, have completely changed the way we grieve and say goodbye to our loved ones. 

“Standing there in the cemetery, looking at the deep holes all around me, I just remember being overwhelmed with anxiety,” recalled Margarida Khadhraoui about the day of her brother’s burial.

“They’re probably all filled now,” she reflected.

Khadhraoui, a 50-year-old mother of two young boys, is just one of the many South Africans who have experienced loss during the covid-19 lockdown period, which began in March. The nationwide lockdown was characterised by various health restrictions, with one being a ban on all hospital visitations to prevent new coronavirus infections. These health restrictions compromised people in different ways, but for many it affectedtheir last moments with their loved ones, along with their grieving process.

Lost final moments

The ban on hospital visitations remained throughout the duration of South Africa’s strictest levels of lockdown, being levels five, four and three. In August some hospitals began to allow visitations, with News 24 reporting that covid-19 patients at the “end of life” stages would be allowed visitors, but still in line with strict safety protocols.

Khadhraoui was not so lucky. Her brother, Alvaro Jose Oliveira Goncalves, passed away right before such exceptions were established, so she was unable to visit him before he died.

“The most difficult part of it all was that when my brother was admitted, we weren’t able to visit him. Usually when someone is ill, you go see them and it almost gives them that push to fight and carry on, but we couldn’t,” said Khadhraoui.

Khadhraoui remembered her brother having flu-like symptoms a few days before he was admitted to hospital, but he had not thought a covid-19 test was necessary. He assured Khadhraoui that he was fine and, because he had no pre-existing issues that would put him at a higher risk for covid-19, she let it go.

Early one Friday morning in late July, Khadhraoui received a distressed phone call from her sister-in-law, who exclaimed, “Margi, Alvaro can’t breathe!”

Khadhraoui told Wits Vuvuzela, “It was all so sudden. He had some symptoms, but he was fine, and then her couldn’t breathe two days later. We managed to get the paramedics to the house that morning.”

She added, “His oxygen level was at 56, which is really bad. Your normal level should sit at 94 or 95, so they immediately put him on oxygen and rushed him to the hospital.”

Goncalves was first diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia, which is an infection in the lungs caused by bacteria. It was later confirmed that he had tested positive for the coronavirus as well. Goncalves stayed in Linksfield Hospital for two weeks, and remained on a ventilator throughout.

The day before he passed, he was intubated and placed in an induced coma.

“I knew he wasn’t going to make it. I could feel it. I told my husband, ‘my brother’s leaving us,’ and I got the phone call 10 minutes later,” said Khadhraoui.

While rummaging through her bag for tissues to conceal tear-filled eyes, she said, “I couldn’t be there to hold his hand, tell him that I’m there for him or tell him to not be scared. I don’t think he necessarily needed it … I was the one that needed it.”

Stefanie Bove, a clinical psychologist of 16 years, explained that the covid-19 restrictions, and new circumstances created by the pandemic, will have an effect on the grieving process experienced by individuals who have lost loved ones.

“Grieving under these circumstances will definitely affect one’s general mental wellbeing, more so than usual. And the restrictions will play a role in the prolonged grieving process,” said Bove.

Bove, who consults for Saheti School in Senderwood and has her own private practice in the Bedfordview area, confirmed that she has had more people coming in for grief counselling than before the start of the pandemic.

Bove told Wits Vuvuzela, “I think that most grief now will result in complicated grief because there are so many new factors that have come into play. For example, not being able to have contact with loved ones or not really being able to say goodbye.”

Complicated grief refers to a prolonged grieving process, as described by Mayo Clinic, an American academic healthcare company. It is associated with, for example, difficulty in recovering from loss and resuming one’s normal life.

While psychologists may have different versions of what a normal grieving period is, Bove explained that a normal grieving period usually lasts three months. With the new circumstances created by the pandemic, however, Bove believes new factors have made it more complex and difficult to predict.

Khadhraoui recognised the covid-19 health restrictions, which prevented her from seeing her brother, as a big challenge for her.

“I needed that comfort,’’ she said. ‘‘I still struggle to come to terms with the fact that he is gone. And I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it.”

Rushed goodbyes

Another area disrupted by the covid-19 pandemic and lockdown restrictions in South Africa was the funeral industry.

The health restrictions placed on funerals denied many South Africans control over the way in which they laid their loved ones to rest. Funerals play a big role in how we say goodbye to our loved ones and so, according to Bove, can also have implications on ones grieving process.

“Rituals are so important because it’s essentially saying goodbye officially. Covid has meant that those rituals are thwarted, resulting in an even deeper sense of loss of control, and death already has that effect,” said Bove.

In many religions, white candles are often lit during funerals or after someone has died, as a symbol of remembrance for the soul that has passed on and in order to strengthen prayers. Photo: Catia De Castro.

The first restrictions placed on funerals began before lockdown, on March 15, when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a national state of disaster. Restrictions included a limit of 50 attendants at funerals. When lockdown began, further restrictions were added to the government gazette, such as a one-hour limit on funeral services and a ban on night vigils.

South Africa is known for its cultural diversity and so naturally there are many different funeral rituals. Consequently, health restrictions have disrupted these rituals.

Nelisiwe Makaringe, a 19-year-old first-year student at the University of Johannesburg, studying public management and governance, was affected by these restrictions during her nephew’s funeral.

Makaringe and her nephew, Sifiso Mo’koena, were the same age and grew up together. She often referred to him as her brother when talking.  Mo’koena passed away suddenly in May from an unknown cause.

“He became really sick one day and started having cramps in his stomach, so he went to Thelle Mogoerane Hospital [in Vosloorus]. We still don’t know what his cause of death was because the hospital records say, ‘natural death’, but he was negative for covid,” said Makaringe.

Although Mo’koena did not pass away from the coronavirus, Makaringe disclosed that the family was still affected by the pandemic due to the funeral restrictions, as some of their African and Christian rituals were not allowed.

Makaringe told Wits Vuvuzela, “With African homes, the deceased usually comes home in the casket a day before and stays overnight at the home. We then have the funeral and memorial the next morning, and afterwards people usually cook and have a celebration. We weren’t able to do any of that.”

Makaringe said the inability to bury Mo’koena the way they had hoped to, had an impact on the way she and her family have grieved.

“The funeral was so rushed. We weren’t even able to have a memorial service. How can you have a funeral in one hour?” exclaimed Makaringe, an air of frustration in her voice.

“I was very close to him and I feel like I wasn’t able to say goodbye. We weren’t able to grieve properly.”

“Afterwards, I felt like he hadn’t died,” Makaringe added.

Funeral home workers have been on the front lines during the lockdown, so they have witnessed the way in which families have been affected by funeral restrictions.

Willem Schuwte, an assistant manager at AVBOB Funeral Parlour for the Johannesburg Central Business District branch, has been involved in funeral arrangements during the lockdown period and has had to interact with, and assist, families throughout.

AVBOB is one of the few funeral parlours that offer grief counselling to the families they assist.

Schuwte told Wits Vuvuzela, “A lot more people have requested [grieving counsellors] during lockdown. I definitely think that families have been affected by these restrictions.”

Dealing with families during this time has been extremely challenging for Schuwte due to the families’ reluctance to accept the new health restrictions. Schuwte explained that the body should go straight from the mortuary to the grave site, as outlined by covid-19 health regulations in South Africa.

“[The new process] doesn’t fit in with some beliefs, and families don’t always understand or want to comply when they are told that their loved one can’t be transported or buried the way they want,” said Schuwte.

Bove reiterated the importance of funerals in relation to grief. She said, “When you’re not given a chance to attend or pay your last respects correctly, it complicates the grieving process.”

 

Technology: A saving grace

Technology has proved to be helpful in many ways amid the pandemic. One such way has been through the ability to livestream funerals when family members or friends have been unable to attend.

Schuwte has seen many families utilise technology to livestream funerals via Zoom, Facebook and other online platforms. He said, “A lot of families have been livestreaming. It’s become the new norm, and I think it’s a trend that’s going to stick around.”

Livestreaming funerals has not only provided a way for those who cannot attend to say goodbye to their loved one, but has also eliminated the high risk of being exposed to the coronavirus when attending physically.

The high risk of funeral gatherings has been continuously seen throughout the lockdown period in South Africa. During the initial level-five lockdown period, three funerals in Eastern Cape accounted for more than 200 covid-19 cases, as reported by News 24.

Sumentha Naidoo, a 45-year-old mother of three and logistics manager at Whirlpool (a home appliances company), personally experienced the benefits of technology when she was able to attend her uncle’s funeral online.

Naidoo’s 71-year-old uncle passed away from the coronavirus in August. He had previously attended a family member’s funeral and his family believes he was exposed to the virus there. Due to the unfortunate circumstances, the family decided it would be best to have the funeral via Zoom.

“The family did it over Zoom because they didn’t want to put anyone in that position, especially since my uncle had gotten the virus from a funeral,” Naidoo told Wits Vuvuzela.

She added, “We would’ve been scared too, because we (Naidoo, her husband and children) had just recovered from the virus ourselves.”

Sumentha Naidoo acknowledged the difficultly of not having, or being able to give, physical comfort following the death of a loved one during the national lockdown in South Africa. Pictured: Sumentha Naidoo and husband, Jogi Naidoo. Photo: Catia De Castro

Naidoo explained that, although technology had been extremely useful, she wished there was no need for it, as physical support and comfort are important when grieving.

“With Christians, but especially in our Indian culture, friends and family come together the very same night someone dies. There are always people around, and that support is so important. The family was missing that embrace of a loved one, and it’s a big part of mourning,” said Naidoo.

Bove highlighted the way covid-19 restrictions have changed the expected behaviour at funerals and prevented people from conveying compassion during the sensitive period after loss.

“Social distancing makes it so difficult when you’re not able to extend normal gestures of love and care. And even afterwards, there’s no celebration. This could all prolong the normal grieving process,” said Bove.

Many South Africans have experienced loss under the already stressful context of the global pandemic, but all have been unique in their own personal way.

Khadhraoui struggled to hold back tears and subtly wiped her nose as she described her experience.

Tearfully she said, “We were only a year apart but, being the oldest, I was almost like a mother to him. Whenever there was a crisis, he knew, ‘Margi will fix it’. I felt like it was my responsibility to look after him, and I couldn’t even be there to hold his hand.”

FEATURED IMAGE: The Braamfontein Cemetary in Johannesburg remained quiet over the weekend of October 31, despite the rise in deaths during the covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Catia De Castro.

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Human trafficking risks heightened in pandemic

The global coronavirus pandemic means the increased risk has brought with it fears that it might put vulnerable individuals and families are likely to beat greater risk of being trafficked.

 

According to the United Nations, 71% of human trafficking cases are women and girls. Photo: Dylan Bettencourt.

 

Human trafficking is defined as the unlawful act of transporting people in order to benefit from their labour and/or sexual exploitation. In a world plagued by a viral pandemic, with people housebound and unable to move freely, can human trafficking be on the rise? The answer seems to be that yes, it can 

Human trafficking during covid-19. 

Trafficking in persons (TIP) is on the rise during the covid-19 pandemic, due to the increased vulnerability of many people around the world according to The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)The UNODC also says job losses and loss of income mean people have been thrust into desperate situations where their only option might be to sell themselves or their children to survive. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says, in a report titled, The impact of the covid-19 pandemic on trafficking in personsthat the global pandemic has placed great strain on the lives of many.  

The UNODC suggests that, during a time when police presence is more visible, criminals trafficking in persons have adapted their modus operandi to the situation the world finds itself inThey have, for instance, branched into trafficking online, where most of the population in lockdowconduct their daytoday activities.  

When asked if human trafficking had increased during covid-19, Peta Ann Small, operations manager at Set Free Foundation, an anti-trafficking non-profit organisation, told Wits Vuvuzela“I think that is definitely true when you have a huge percentage of your population suffering with poverty, where more than approximately 60% of the world’s population live hand to mouth every month, sometimes even every day.” 

Small said that removing people’s ability to earn an income and put food on the table had made them more vulnerable and placed them at risk 

In South Africa as a whole, I think vulnerable people will be at an elevated level (of risk), with so many losing their businesses, along with job losses. Desperate people are often forced into desperate situations and this becomes a major problem,’’ Small said. 

Second to that, the amount of online trafficking has gone through the roof. I think at any one point, two million people are being exploited online. It blows my mind.” 

Small’s suggestion of online exploitation is backed up by an article published by Forbes, which quotes the United Statesbased non-profit organisation, the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), as saying it had recorded a 106% increase in reports of online exploitation. The number had risen from 983 734 in March 2019 to 2 027 520 in March 2020.  

In an interview with Wits Vuvuzelaanti-human trafficking organisation A21 said: “Numbers are difficult to determine as we are still in the midst of the pandemic in a lot of ways. We have, however, seen a drastic increase in the number of calls to our hotline during this time.” 

The Council on Foreign Relations, in a report titled The evolution of human trafficking during the covid-19 pandemic, supports the view that human trafficking has increased during the pandemic. The article pins the increase on several reasons, economic ones topping the list. The council further suggests that covid-19 has created a new kind of victim: It says young women who cannot afford to pay their monthly expenses, such as rent, become vulnerable to sexual exploitation by their landlords.  

Human trafficking in South Africa

Marina Reyneke, operations manager at National Freedom Network, an anti-human trafficking organisation, told Wits Vuvuzela: “South Africa is a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking. Human trafficking also occurs within the borders of the country, for instance from one province or city to another. One type of human trafficking which is unique to South Africa is ‘Ukuthwala, meaning forced marriage.” 

Ukuthwala, according to the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, is a form of trafficking that entails the kidnapping of a female by a man with the purpose of convincing the girls family to enter marriage negotiations. Among the Nguni of ancient Africa, this form of trafficking was a condoned path to marriage, but it did not include raping or having consensual sex with the girl until negotiations for marriage had been done.  

Today, however, Ukuthwala is marked by violence and rape. It takes place mainly in Eastern Cape and involves the kidnapping, rape and forced marriage of minor girls as young as 12 years old.     

According to the TIP report, compiled by the United States of America Department of State, for the year 2020several improvements have been made in the fight against trafficking in South Africa. Efforts to investigate, prosecute and convict officials colluding in trafficking crimes and trafficking organisations continue 

Among the improvements listed in the 2020 TIP report, South Africa saw an increase in South African Police Service (SAPS) training throughout South Africa; rise in resources to aid in the identification of trafficking victimsincluding screening for indicators of trafficking of persons in vulnerable populationsa rise in the issuing of immigration identification documents to ensure protection can be provided to foreign nationals, and the establishment of shelter homes for male and female victims. 

Anti-trafficking organisations say they have seen an increase of human trafficking during covid-19. Photo: Dylan Bettencourt.

A21 told Wits Vuvuzela: “Improvement in the whole system starts in the beginning, which is correct identification and reporting. Training and capacitation of professionals who can identify victims is essentialas well as training for the SAPS in order to open and correctly investigate cases.” 

ECPAT International is an organisation working towards ending sexual exploitation and abuse of children worldwide.  It and the Body Shop, popular toiletries company, issued a report titled ‘Stop sex trafficking of children and young people’. The report suggestthe figures behind trafficking of persons in South Africa are not known, but it is believed there are many victims each year. The focus is on children not protected from sexual exploitationand the presence of HIV/AIDS and about 1.4 million children being orphaned in the year 2007 are cited as major factors. 

An article published by Independent Online, ‘The reality of human trafficking’, claims that more than 53% of the population are vulnerable to being traffickedand fewer than 1% of victims are recovered safely.  

This statistic is backed up by A21, which told Wits Vuvuzela: “Statistics are difficult to gauge, as the reality of trafficking means that many victims of trafficking are not found or reported. According to the Global Slavery Index, there is an estimate of 155 000 people who are victims of slavery in South Africa.” 

They continued to say that 54% of the South African population is at risk of trafficking due to the high unemployment figures in the country. Other affected groups include those who lack access to education, drug addicts and people with physical disadvantages.  

The 2020 TIP report for South Africa states that the country was upgraded to tier two from being a lower-level tiertwo watchlist country. This means the government does not fully meet the requirements to combat human trafficking effectively but is making significant progress in doing so.  

The report states that the Directorate of Priority Crime Investigation (Hawks) reported that it investigated 24 possible cases of human trafficking in South Africa, with 13 being potential sex trafficking. Six involved labour trafficking and the remaining five were later finalised anot human trafficking cases. This is a decrease from the 36 possible cases investigated the previous year (2019).  

The government arrested 71 suspected traffickers, a decrease of six suspects from the previous year. Of the 71 suspects arrested, 44 were men and the remaining 27 were women.  Of the 71 suspects, the government convicted eight traffickers, three men and five women, which is the same figure as the previous year.   

An article published by the South African Government News Agency during the covid-19 pandemic urged people to report human trafficking casesConcerning a video that surfaced on social media, which involved a four-year-old girl suffering from an attempted kidnapping, National Police Commissioner General Khehla Sitole emphasised the seriousness of human trafficking. 

In an article published by Independent Online on September 23 2020, the SAPS warned the public against selling and spreading false stories/information regarding human trafficking. This came after ‘human trafficking’ was a top trend on Twitter. SAPS Gauteng spokeswoman Brigadier Mathapelo Peters said the spreading of misinformation continued after the national police commissioner urged individuals not to distribute false stories.   

The article warned the South African public to remain aware at all times of the threat of human traffickingand especially to ensure their kids safety is always prioritisedIt emphasised the threat women and children face.  

Regarding the ratification of international law related to human traffickingthe ECPAT/Body Shop report said the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was ratified by South Africa in 1995. The CRC intends to implement effective measures to increase law enforcement and raise awareness in areas threatened by trafficking, and to promote bilateral agreements between multiple neighbouring nations to prevent trafficking across borders.  

The Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography were ratified by South Africa in June 2003. The Protocol to PreventSuppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, was ratified in February 2004. The ILO Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour was ratified in 1999. Lastly, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the African Child was ratified in 2000.  

The reality of human trafficking

Vanessa Mulder told Wits Vuvuzela about the experiences of a family member who survived human trafficking in South Africa. When she was a very young child, she and her siblings were raised in a family that was poverty stricken and their mother was experimenting with drugs,’’ Mulder saidShe gave her children to another couple, a couple they thought were quite wealthy. From there, what happened was a sequence of traumatic and terrible things where the kids went through emotional, physical and sexual abuse. It is assumed that this was a part of a child pornography syndicate 

Victims of human trafficking resist reporting their abuse due to fear they may be found by their abuser. Photo: Dylan Bettencourt.

She shared memories and remembered experiences only in her late teensdue to drugs given to the kids so, they did not remember, to ensure the perpetrators were not caught.
 

Mulder went on to say that as a result of this syndicate the family member, now in her 40ssuffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID), which is characterised by the existence of two or more personality states.  

Mulder emphasised that her family member has been unable to live a normal life due to the trauma. She was a teacher for some time, but eventually had to step down due to triggers that were appearing. They have not reported the case to the police, as the person fears for her life because of the people involved.  

Mulder says despite years and multiple methods of therapy, the deep-seated trauma in the survivor has been the hardest element to remove. She says three lives were damaged by people who still walk free to this day. 

Understanding and correlating the numbers behind human trafficking has always been near impossible, and amid an ongoing global pandemic this becomes an even more difficult task. There can be no denying that covid-19 has put many individuals and their families in difficult financial circumstances, and these are exactly the kind of people traffickers live off. Most crimes get reported, but out of the fear of retaliation from abusers there are crimes that are not reported: Human trafficking falls into that category, making it even more difficult to use numbers to identify any increase or decrease.  

There may not be a solution, but there are several ways to combat and prevent human trafficking and one can imagine that if government and the necessary NGOs work together in this fight, together they can slash the occurrence of human trafficking in South Africa.  

The South African National Human Trafficking Hotline number, managed and operated by A21, is 0800 222 777, should anybody wish to report cases of human trafficking. 

 

FEATURED IMAGE:  Woman have the highest chance of becoming victims of human trafficking. Photo: Dylan Bettencourt.

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Teachers, the unsung heroes of the pandemic

Primary school teachers at government schools in Benoni and Actonville, Gauteng, have gone beyond the call of duty to ensure the class of 2020 have been protected, educated and well-nourished despite the threats of the covid-19 pandemic.

Arbor student

As an Arbor Primary student raises a victory sign during class, pupils around South Africa celebrate their own victories of receiving an education despite the threat of covid-19, thanks to the endless dedication of primary school teachers. Photo: Niall Higgins

Arriving at the silver gates of Arbor Primary School in Benoni, Gauteng, it is not difficult to understand from where the school derives its name and crest: Strong and sturdy oak, elm and ash trees line the perimeter of the lush grounds. 

Like the nurturing trees, Arbor’s teachers also stand tall and strong as they welcome their arriving learners as if they are precious seeds of a future rooted in the grounds of the school.  

The pupils, of grades one to seven, with vividly coloured masks covering their noses, mouths and cheeks, sit metres apart from each other, each in perfectly demarcated circle. They giggle as they gaze, squinting, at the sun overhead, oblivious to the dangers now lurking in our viral new world. 

Actonville Primary School, however, seems a stark contrast to the apparent serenity of Arbor. Here, teacher and covid-19 co-ordinator Zuhra Balle stands at the school’s gates on a crisp Monday morning, taking each students temperature and asking important questions: “Have you been coughing lately, Allaina? Feeling out of breath today, Tshepo? Had any headaches, Martin? Keep two metres apart, you two! 

The next learner in line for the temperature gun poses a profound question Balle says she will never forget: “Ma’am, you always ask us all these questions, but why don’t you ever ask us if we sleep at night?” 

The mental and emotional wellbeing of students

Balle tells Wits Vuvuzela that this startling question made her and other teachers worry that students might be suffering symptoms of depression, due to the effects of the covid-19 lockdown. 

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) has advised parents all over the country to watch for warning signs of depression in their children, as South Africa has the eighth highest rate of suicide in the world. 

An article in health publication Spotlight, published in April this yearserved to underline this warning by noting, “Rather than bouncing back’, children instead incorporate trauma into their growth and future lives. 

“Ma’am, you always ask us all these questions, but why don’t you ever ask us if we sleep at night?”

Balle voices her own concern. “Some of these children lost parents, some lost homes and some were abused, so we as teachers had to do something,” she says. We are now in the process of counselling over 200 children and we have a psychologist coming on board full time.”

Seeing her students experiencing stress and anxiety left Balle in need of emotional support too: “I myself broke at one point, I had to give it up because I needed counselling myself.”

The headmistress of Actonville Primary School, Venessa Moodley, reveals that she almost lost her life to covid-19 and therefore understands the severity of the pandemic better than most.  

Anticipating the impact lockdown would have on her pupils, Moodley created a ‘covid survey’ which was distributed to every student. The survey asked questions regarding pupils experiences of illness, anxiety, trauma, violence and poverty 

“This really allowed us to see what was happening to our students beyond the school walls, and to take action by providing aid in any way we could,” says Moodley. 

primary school students

Actonville Primary school students posing in a colourful hallway wearing equally colourful masks. Photo: Niall Higgins

Counselling and care

With these new insights, teachers at Actonville Primary incorporated counselling into the everyday school programmeGrade seven English and creative arts teacher, Rani Chetty, took this course of action to heart 

I was encouraged to really get to know the kids. Every morning, our teachers will start class with a prayer and then open up the class for a discussion on how they are coping and feeling, just so they know we are a family,” says Chetty. 

“I myself broke at one point, I had to give it up because I needed counselling myself.”

Emotional and physical stress are not exclusive to lowerincome schools in Actonville. Just to the north, Arbor Primary has taken steps to address the trauma experienced by its learners due to the covid-19 pandemic 

The principal of Arbor, Patrick Arentson, swiftly decided to enlist religious leaders and mental health professionals to aid his pupils 

“We continue to bring in a ministeby the name of Basil Panayi to de-brief the children and staff, as well as a psychologist who works through the students’ emotions and feelings regarding the lockdown,” he said.

Arbor teacher and pupil

Throughout the covid-19 pandemic, teachers watched over pupils to ensure that they not only received a quality education, but also had access to nutritious food and emotional support. Photo: Niall Higgins.  

Despite accounts of learners being frightened of having their temperatures taken, Arbor Primary’s head girl13-year-old Shadae Figueira-Parratt, says teachers do everything they can to comfort their pupils 

“My one friend has panic attacks sometimes and we call our teachers, who really help a lot when you’re not doing okay,’’ she says with a smile. ‘’One of my friends talks to her teacher about everything she goes through. 

For many teachers and pupilsthe transition to online learning during the lockdown invoked acute anxiety and stress. Schools such as Arbor Primary knew that quick action was essential to preserve the academic year. 

Online learning and overcoming data struggles

As a result, the school established WhatsApp groups and created Google Classroom programmes to relay vital information to its students. Through these platforms, the teachers worked tirelessly to put together course content from scratch. 

Arbor’s deputy headmistress, Wendy Lewis, says educators never stopped working and were incredibly innovative’’ in the face of lockdown restrictions. “We would use our WhatsApp group and online classrooms to create pre-recorded videos of us re-enacting lessons, in order for students to feel as close to being taught in real life as possible,” she says.  

Online learning is not an option for everyone though, since digital divide statistics in South Africa are high. According to broadband company Cable, the cost of data in South Africa is prohibitive, at an average cost of R106.20 for 1GB. 

Additionally, an article in Daily Maverick in July this year stated, “The adverse effects of the [digital] divide are likely to remain a factor in education for the foreseeable future. 

Keeping these statistics in mind, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) did not provide any public primary school with data stipends to accommodate online learning practices during the lockdown.  

This was disappointing for Arbor Primary grade four English teacher and head of department Colleen Liebenberg, who says teaching has now become an expense out of her own pocket. 

“Many students and staff battled with access to data as well as affording it. This meant students would struggle to access video lessons and teachers would sacrifice income to provide classes, because we had to buy data ourselves in order to upload our lessons online,” says Liebenberg. 

Arbor students

Arbor Primary students attending class in the school hall. Photo: Niall Higgins.

The creation of “lockdown packs”

Actonville Primary was hit hard by similar data and financial implications. Despite it being a proud and dedicated school, many of its students cannoafford internet access or smart devices, due to poverty and socio-economic challenges. The school’s 1 356 students battle to even afford the school fee of R1 100 a year.  

Despite these disadvantages, Actonville educators rose to the occasion wholeheartedly and began to create customised workbooks for their learners. 

Actonville teachers became the authors of their own ‘lockdown packs’ and created entirely unique models of learning so that students could continue working from home,” says Moodley. Our teachers filled the gap by doing whatever was necessary. 

In the absence of data stipends, one might assume the DBE would have provided lockdown packs to public schools. According to the Teacher Guidelines for Implementing the Revised Annual Teaching Plans (ATPs) statementhowever, the DBE provided subject guidelines and recommended’ class work, but no physical reading material. 

Poppy Benny, subject adviser at the DBE in Ekhuruleni North, says, We developed resources per subject, which were then shared with teachers online to assist with creating their own learning programmes. 

Arbor’s Lewis says, however, producing these workbooks was necessary but not cheap or easy: “Prepping work for lockdown learners has been a huge sacrifice of time and effort, and printing out and delivering course packs at our own expense has been essential to continuing students’ education.  

Actonville student

During the lockdown, many lower-income students from Actonville Primary and beyond were not taught through online classes due to no access to data or internet devices and therefore, relied on customised learning packs created and distributed by teachers. Photo: Niall Higgins.

Changes to the academic year

On top of limited access to class time, months of formal schooling were losdue to the lockdownIn response, government schools applied ‘curriculum trimming’ as part of their recovery plan by cutting the academic syllabus down to core learning material. 

Subsequently, primary schools will set and moderate their own examination papers this year. Exam marks have, however, been reduced in most cases and class assessment marking will be increased. This does not negate the fact that many students still did not have any schooling at all during the lockdown, and therefore have less training under their belts. 

The pressure on teachers to perform and be trustworthy is huge now, more than ever, especially in disadvantaged areas with little to no class time, says Memory Panayi, head of the language department at Arbor Primary. 

Varying class schedules also led to difficulties in creating and implementing teaching plans. Some children came in on a bi-weekly basis, whereas some stayed home. This meant  teachers had to teach both formally at school and by distance for online students.  

“We essentially had two jobs,” says Arbor’s Liebenberg. “We had to constantly restructure the programme, redo each class prep multiple times and then teach the same class over again because, as time got reduced to complete the syllabus, we had to adapt.” 

Increased poverty and hungry children

What is more, the academic pitfalls are not the only obstacle. As I stroll through the corridors of Actonville Primary, made colourful with posters, to investigate the unique challenges of ‘covid learning’’, an intriguing area catches my eye. It makes me wonder whether academics are, after all, teachers’ only concern.  

The small area contains buckets and patches of fertile soil in sunny locations. These are home to a rich variety of carrots, onions, potatoes and other vegetables.  

Noticing my curiosity, a grade seven teacher and co-ordinator of Actonville Primary’s feeding scheme, Ellen Buthelezi, speaks with a heavy heart. There is no way you can teach a child with an empty stomach. During lockdown, there were literally queues of students lining up outside school looking for a decent meal, she says. 

Her comment implies there are many children from impoverished families, and for them coming to school means getting something to eat. 

Buthelezi senses my sudden gloom and speaks reassuringly. “We currently feed more than 400 students daily and maintain these food gardens to keep our children well-nourished, she says. 

According to a Stats SA report posted in July, more than 62.1%, or six out of 10 South African children between birth and age 17 lack the funds for daily meals. 

The DBE normally contributes to food security through the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) by providing meals to more than nine million learners a year. During the lockdown, howeverthis service came to a halt, leaving many students hungry. 

Actonville Food Garden

Grade seven pupils from Actonville Primary tending to one the school’s food gardens. Photo: Niall Higgins.

Food packs and nutrition schemes

Arbor’s Panayi recalls that during the lockdown, teachers were worried about what was happening to kids at home who did not have food“Wwent and delivered groceries to families personally during lockdown,’’ she saysWhat started as a temporary feeding scheme became a permanent initiative that now feeds more than 40 families. 

When the students finally began returning to school, teachers quickly picked up that they were arriving without lunches. “We then decided to begin an adoptachild scheme by assigning teachers to select and feed students in need,” says Arentson. “Suddenly our teachers began ‘adopting’ more and more children, and they supplied lunches every single day.” 

AActonville Primary too, learners experienced the difference and joy one extra meal could bring to their everyday lives“In the covid lockdown it’s a struggling time,’’ says grade seven pupil Enock Mateke. ‘There wasn’t enough to eat for everyone at school, but now we get nice food packages that we take home, so noone is hungry.

There is no way you can teach a child with an empty stomach.

With justified pride, Actonville deputy head girl Micayla Pillay says, Us grade sevens grew the food garden all by ourselves. We need energy to study, and the fruit we get every day helps a lot!” 

Each school meal adds up to one more child whose future looks a little brighter. 

As the school day comes to a close in Gauteng, precious young seedlingare returned to their guardians by caring ‘gardeners who toil long after their stipulated working hours, tired but unbroken.  

One cannot help but wonder: does the nation know that its teachers are true unsung heroes of the covid-19 pandemic?

Hear the voices of this story in the podcast episode below:

FEATURED IMAGE: As an Arbor Primary student raises a victory sign during class, pupils around South Africa celebrate their own victories of receiving an education despite the threat of covid-19, thanks to the endless dedication of primary school teachers. Photo: Niall Higgins 

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