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.  


It’s a life of shame, humiliation and stigma during covid-19

In South Africa, stigma and discrimination have mostly been associated with persons living with HIV and tuberculosis, but in the Mangolongolo community, Johannesburg, they are now also causing fear and panic among coronavirus survivors.

The unpaved road is riddled with many bumps, like that of an abandoned village. Coming from the R29 Main Reef Road, the narrow lane takes you to the shacks from your right. It is 3pm and the heat is unbearable. Crowds of people huddle close to each other in small circles, while loud maskandi music conceals the sound of the community.  

Situated on the outskirts of Johannesburg, Mangolongolo is inhabited by approximately 3 000 people.  

This community is blighted by lots of challenges, not least among them a range of health issues. The situation is complicated by a rising problem of denialism, along with stigma and discrimination which have taken hold during the covid-19 pandemic. In February 2020 the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that fear of the pandemic had resulted in stigma and discrimination for those who recovered from the virus. The United Nations (UN) echoed this, noting that stigma and discrimination, exacerbated by covid-19, are major concerns 

The virus man in a small community

For communities such as Mangolongolohowever, stigma and discrimination against covid-19 survivors are made worse by the lack of knowledge and entrenched cultural beliefs. “I will never get the virus and I don’t think I will ever get tested for it. The less I think about coronavirus, the better,” said Blessing Nqiwa (25)resident ofMangolongolo. 

Locals say there is only one man believed to have had coronavirus in the entire community. They refer to him as ‘Mister Covid’. 

“I will call for you the only person I know who was taken by the covid-19 response team,” says a woman in her 60s who sells fatcakes at the main entrance to the community. I can’t help but notice the looks of concern and consciousness from people around. I am shocked to discover that not one of the people who have formed a ring around me is wearing a face mask 

am the only one with a mask on. It feels as if I am an alien on a different planet. I feel I must take the mask off to get a sense of relief.  

The streets look busy, with vendors hawking cigarettes, cow heads and other food items. The drainare stocked with garbage.  It does not take me long to learn that wearing a face mask is considered strange in this community, even in the thick of the coronavirus. This heightened sense of denialism fuels the disturbing degree of stigma and discrimination.  

For one man (Mister Covid), this is particularly concerning. Even though he was taken to a treatment centre to be tested for covid-19, Victor Shezi*(37) tested negative. Shezi’s journey back home was, however, shockingly met with consternation by the people of his community. Afraid of contracting the virus, people shunned him. After he spent a week in the hospital, his community became worried because they thought he might have contracted the virus and could be a potential carrier.  

Amid coronavirus pandemic, the world is also dealing with the social stigma of covid-19 survivors during this time. However, the WHO advises people to take effective action to help combat the disease and to avoid fuelling fear and stigma. Photo: Zikhona Klaas.

“I was surprised when I heard that people said I had covid-19,” Shezi says, quirking his eyebrows. “I never thought I’d be considered a threat to the people I live with every day. But the stigma and discrimination only raiseShezi’s confidence and his awareness about the pandemic.  

When he finally comes to meet with me outside the main entrance, I am amazed at his sense of consciousness. While my hand is readied for a handshake on his arrival, it is rejected with an elbow greeting. I feel embarrassed for a moment, but I am impressed by his level of awareness. He wears a black BMW customized face mask. Unlike other people, Shezi looks very confident and well informed about safety measures.  

“Some people have a problem that I wear a mask and don’t allow anyone to come close to my spaza shop window without a mask,” he says. “I am labelled for this and even called names, but I am unmoved by these names because I know all about the risks of coronavirus, and how to protect myself.”   

Shezi got sick in August, during level two of the national coronavirus lockdown. He had a high fever, sore throat and difficulty breathing. He spent a week at the local Johannesburg public hospital, Charlotte Maxeke, and was discharged aftetesting negative. He says even children young enough to be his kids call him names every time they pass by his shop.   

He invites me to his home and shows me around his house. It has a long brown board that divides his spaza shop from his bedroom, which is very noticeable from the door. The spaza window iso small, only a hand could fit through it. Just outside his house, two women and a man sit on a brown bench, sunbathing. I join them. 

“I heard that people who have the virus are not supposed to come back to the community because they can be a danger to us,” says Smangele Ntuli (35). “I didn’t want Mister Covid(Shezi) anywhere close to me. I am already dealing with my own disease. I couldn’t afford to get sick again.  


 Shezi could not be saved from the stigma and discrimination even in a public gathering like the one we are having.  

“We don’t know who came up with that name,” giggles Welile Shabangu, a neighbour, who is amused by the question.  “It’s probably people from the main entrance: they know everything that happens in this community.  

 I panicked for a while when he went to the hospital, but I doubted he had the virus,” he says 

Disease labelling deepened in South Africa 

A survey by the National Institute of Health says about 20% of people experienced anxiety, fear and thinking too much as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.  

 This ties into 201research by BioMed Centralwhich found that stigma enables varieties of discrimination that ultimately deny people full social acceptance, reduce their opportunities and fuel social inequalities. The research further notes that stigma could reinforce stereotypes of people with various health conditions.   

Throughout the pandemic, there have been concerns that people with underlying medical conditions are at heightened risk of fatality. This fear is compounded by preexisting challenges, with reports of increased levels of stigma and discrimination suffered by people living with HIV in countries such as South Africa.  

A civil organisation, the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD) identifies South Africa as one of the countries with the highest prejudice and discrimination against covid-19 patients. In other parts of the continent, such as Kenya and Ethiopia, stigmatisation has been in relatively verbal and physical formsays ACCORD.  

A line of people standing outside the Malvern clinic entrance without masks. Most of the residents in this region, including Mangolongolo community go to this local clinic for WI-FI connection and not for covid related inquiries. Photo: Zikhona Klaas.

In the Mangolongolo community, Shezi is not alone. A family had to relocate a relative who had Tand also contracted the coronavirus. The patient had to be moved away because of the fear of being labelled a virus carrier, says Ntuli.  

“We were all afraid when we saw the covid response team wearing full white clothes at our gate,” said Gugu Shabangu, a resident who witnessed Shezi’s departure to hospital. “Things were never the same. He is a businessman around and had customers who bought from him before that.” 

Shabangu says many people, some even looking out from their houses, were shocked by what had happened. “I think the attitude of people towards Shezi changed from that day. It started as a joke and never changed,” she says. 

A Wits University professor, Lenore Mandersoncompares the coronavirus stigma to that of the HIV epidemic in South Africa.  

“We have seen in our history that denying diseases is either to control behaviour or to control a country as a whole, she says.  

She concludes that stereotypes could fuel the transmission of the disease in communities. The WHO has also reinforced this view by observing that the spread of the virus could be worsened by stigma and discrimination that force people to hide their illness.  

Alison Best, a TB HIV Care communication manager, highlights these issues as serious problems for response to the pandemic, in an article 

As a result, blaming and shaming will mean that those affected by the disease may find it difficult to seek help or disclose their positive status to others, thereby inhibiting the process of testing, isolation and contact tracing,” Best says.  

Meanwhile, the problems of stigma and discrimination during this pandemic stretch beyond infection rates in communities. More than ever, health workers are perhaps at the worst receiving end of the situation.  

“We have seen in our history that dining diseases is either to control behaviour or to control a country as a whole “

While they risk their lives to save others, many end up being ostracised in their communities because of the nature of their job and their levels of exposure to infected patients. In Nepal, for example, the Nepali Times reports that many health workers were even threatened by their neighbours and landlords, who feared they would spread the virus.  

Lizzy Poe*, 30, a nurse at Johannesburg private hospital, Netcare Garden City, has suffered stigma and discrimination in public transport many times.  “I remember one day I was running to get into a taxi, and I had shortness of breath and started coughing non-stop,” says Poe. “One passenger got out of the taxi with a bad attitude afterwards. I felt bad.”  

Poe later tested positive for coronavirus and had to protect her children because of fear, by not telling them she had the virus, as means of controlling the situation.   

For Manderson, social stigma poses a threat of sustaining the spread of the virus. “People will refuse to get tested or reject the behaviours required of them to protect others, she says.  

More education, less stigma 

President Cyril Ramaphosa has called for the condemnation of stigma and discrimination of any form in South Africa.  

“Just as we came together to promote acceptance of people living with HIV and stood firm against victimisation, we must show understanding, tolerance, kindness, empathy and compassion for those who are infected with this virus, and for their families,” the president has said. This call is yet to be heeded in communities such as Mangolongolo. 

Pastor Thembinkosi Zimba, a religious leader at Mangolongolo, explains that denialism in the area existbecause the community is already dealing with many social issues.   

“Already our people are facing challenges that are threatening their livelihoods. Covid-19 seems like it was not the worst challenge they faced during this lockdown,” he says.  

Zimba hosts church cells at the community hall every Wednesday, from 6pm to 7pm. Even though he admits it is difficult to identify or acknowledge discrimination at church because of the religious stancehe believes fighting stigma and discrimination must be a collective effort.  

“As a church, we call people who have recovered from the virus and encourage them by preaching the scripture to them,” Zimba notes  

It will take a serious attempt to educate communities that have little or no knowledge about the pandemic. To this effect, the Gauteng provincial government uses education and social mobility to fight stigma and discrimination by targeting people from various backgrounds.  

“A ward-based strategy was implemented that involves various government and non-governmental organisations and that gears towards intensifying the response to the covid-19 pandemic in the province,” says Kwara Kekana, Gauteng Department of Health spokesperson. 

The Gauteng department of health deployed over 8 000 trained field workers to screen and test people in the province, in efforts to fight the covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Zikhona Klaas.

At a community level, the provincial government has intensified public health awareness about the virus through community radio stationsat taxi ranks and during grant collection days, Kekana says. 

Shezi, even though he did not have the virus, is slowly getting used to being called ‘Mister Covid’. He spends most of his time with his close friends and hopes he might be reintegrated into his community once again 

His best friend is deeply worried about him being called ‘Mister Covid’. Shezi struggled to find his feet after returning from the hospital but received support from his close friend, Brenda Mhlanga  

“I would have been infected if he had the virus,” says 32-year-old Mhlanga. “I cooked his meals and ensured that his business was taken care of. It just happened that he got sick with flu at the wrong time. 

He has been a resident in the Mangolongolo community for nine years and now sells essential goods in his spaza shop.  

“People will always speak badly of you,” he says. “I don’t owe anyone an explanation, so I will just keep quiet until they forget completely. Hopefully, after this pandemic, he concludeshis face shining with a smile.  

FEATURED IMAGE: Amid coronavirus pandemic, the world is also dealing with the social stigma of covid-19 survivors during this time. However, the WHO advises people to take effective action to help combat the disease and to avoid fuelling fear and stigma. Photo Zikhona Klaas.


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.


Fight or flight for foreign nationals

The closure of borders and implementation of lockdown regulations to combat covid-19 in South Africa have had consequences for the wellbeing of foreign nationals, many of whom wrestled with the separation of their families and uncertainty over their migration status.


During level 2 -5 lockdown, Home Affairs offices across South Africa only operated for limited services, making it difficult for foreign nationals to apply for the necessary documentation to remain in the country. Photo: Zinhle Belle


A suitcase packed for England seven months previously obstructs the walkway as it occupies two thirds of the entrance to the Umeala household.  

Its owner, Chioma Umeala (23), has no intention of unpacking her baggage. Her family do not question when she will remove it, despite it causing mild chest congestion, as it packs dust.  

What you can still smell when you approach it, is the cologne of her father, who had helped her carry the bag down the stairs.  

A father’s final send-off, disrupted by the travel ban 

Unlike other students, Umeala’s decision to suspend her academic year abroad was not influenced by the outbreak of covid-19, but induced by her father’s deteriorating health.  

Samuel ‘Sonny’ Umeala (61), a Nigerianborn architect who had lived in South Africa for more than 25 years, lost his battle with an illness on Father’s Day, June 21, in his home in Johannesburg during levelthree lockdown.

Like many, the spread of covid-19 had scared Baba Umeala. Thus, his avoidance of a hospital to evade contracting the virus proved as deadly, as he did not receive due treatment for the illness he was fighting.  

The father’s day present anticipated for Baba Umeala has been placed next to a portrait of his family as a tribute to him after his death on June 21. Photo: Zinhle Belle.

For his last Father’s Day, his four girls and last-born son created collages and cards to honour him. Tragedy apprehended their family in the early hours of Sunday morning, however, as condolence messages poured in for the loss of their father. 

The reality the Umealas now faced included the logistical weight of planning a funeral under lockdown, which could accommodate their transnational identity.  

A home usually filled with the posture of a father guiding his family, transitioned overnight into a battlefield where two nationalities would butt heads for the legitimacy of funeral practices.  

In Nigerian culture, a person is meant to be buried in the land where they originated. As a result, his family in Nigeria expected his body to be sent home, for them to carry out the related customs.  

Chioma Umeala explains that burial in Nigeria can take up to six months to plan, as it is described as “the biggest event of a person’s life. 

Putting pressure on their father’s funeral was the policy of procedures for burial under lockdown, which stated that a mortuary may not keep a body for longer than 10 days from the date of death.  

Another hurdle they faced during levelthree lockdown was the travel ban, which had only been relaxed for the mild commencement of interprovincial travel for business purposes. 

Funeral arrangements were impossible to deploy not only due to the limited travel methods, but also by the inflated price of flights caused by the pandemic’s meltdown of the economy.  

This meant Baba Umeala’s Nigerian family were not able to come to South Africa to bury their relative.  

The family were burdened not only with the emotional trauma of this significant loss, but also the moral considerations of the possible customary consequences for not carrying out certain traditions accordingly. Umeala said, “With my father, knowing his culture, he knew that Nigeria is where he would have ended up.”  

The situation resulted imajor conflict and anger between the two sides of the family as the borders seemed to become a physical barrier that solidified their detachment.   

“This was the hardest part of burying my father, as we knew we had an obligation to send him back, but as a family who grew up in South Africa, we could only carry out the customs we were familiar with, that would give us the best closure,” said Umeala.   

Three months after his death, the ban has now been lifted, which has triggered disagreement and resentment as his Nigerian family seek the same closure afforded his immediate family.  

Similar circumstances followed for foreign nationals who saw themselves experiencing family displacement caused by the travel ban. 

The separation of families across borders

Alouise Matekenya (51) sits in an empty office, still set with work-from-home regulations. He positions himself at his desk, eyes glued to a calendar indicating the arrival of October, which to him can only represent the seventh month of the lockdown. What occupies his mind is when he will be reunited with his wife and children, who he has not seen since December 2019.  

Many foreign nationals like him, with employment in South Africa, faced insecurity of their mobility as movement across borders was restricted. Regulations such as the travel ban were initiated from March 18, in preparation for the lockdown strategy known as the National State of Disaster Management Act.  

Separated by only a border, the wife of AlouiseMaMatekenya, remained in Zimbabwe, where she ran their business. The two parents used their phones to regularly negotiate their parenting plan, as she took guard of their twin boys, who attend school in Zimbabwe.  

During this period, Matekenya navigated involuntary single parenthood in South Africa as he became the primary caregiver for his three other children, who remained with him.   

It was very difficult to manage the kids on my own. They were used to their mother coming periodically to check on them as well. Making the kids stay in the house was the most difficult thing to do,’’ said Matekenya.  

Outside of the emotional and socio-economic deprivation caused by the lockdown, Matekenya expressed how the risk of poor health was a lingering thought during the pandemic.  

his association with the virus was set to its “worst possible outcome being death”
Like others, Matekenya experienced the dread of contracting the disease. During this week of leveltwo lockdown, infections in South Africa had reached a stark 650 000 cases, with deaths sitting at 15 500. After witnessing the decline of a colleague’s condition, it alarmed Matekenya to know that of the 495 deaths recorded that week, one was that of his colleague.  

From this point onwards, Matekenya said, his association with the virus was set to its “worst possible outcome being death. 

Without direct access to his wife for support, a petrified Matekenya described himself as “the most vulnerable member of the family this side, as he entered self-isolation.  

Due to the level of responsibility on his shoulders to care and provide for his family, he had to put on a brave face for his children, while attempting to suppress thoughts of what would happen without his presence, or inability to stand in good health.  

To him, his three children in South Africa, all under the age of 12bore the risk of vulnerability, if left alone in an environment where separation for health and safety were the government’s first priority. 

Throughout the global lockdown, countries have offered repatriation flights to people who wish to return to their country. To some people, this gesture served as an outlet to reunite families. However, such flights to South Africa were exclusive to citizens and those with residency, thus limiting the ability of those with working or tourist visas to return to the country.  

The implementation of the travel ban on March 18, as one of the first lockdown policies in South Africa restricted non-citizen and residential travel into and out of the country as a means to control the spread of covid-19. Photo: Zinhle Belle.


During the scramble of countries closing their borders to manage the spread of the novel virus, many expatriates had to make the decision of remaining in the area they were in or returning home.

In South Africa, decisions for migrants to remain were factored on “considering South Africa as their home, others felt the covid-19 pandemic was global and could be contracted anywhere, while some indicated that they feared they’d be unable to re-enter South Africa,” according to the Social impact of COVID-19” research conducted by Stats SA on July 27.   

Speaking to the Cape Argus newspaper, the dean of social science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Vivian Besem Ojong said, “The primary response [by the government] is to usually focus on its citizens, and when the borders closed governments mainly put focus on their own residents.”   

The ramifications of lockdown policies, aimed at guarding the wellbeing of citizens, create a window of vulnerability for foreign nationals as they are not identified as beneficiaries of that protection. Consequently, they must submit to policies that do not safeguard their welfare.  

Yet in instances where one returned home, like MaMatekenya, the only option was to sit steadily in Zimbabwe for months, without clarity on when she would be reunited with her family. What was initially estimated as a 21-day lockdown in South Africa has extended past seven months, with no clear end point.  

“Like any other person, she felt cut off from the physical family union for a very long time. Naturally, her freedom of movement to see family was prohibited,” said Matekenya.  

With the financial instability caused by the pandemic, Matekenya said the earliest arrangement for his wife to visit, with the reopening of borders, has been made for November 2020 – a year after their separation.   

Not only did lockdown policy affect movement, but it also had an impact on the renewal of visas and residency applications, which foreign nationals rely on to maintain legitimacy in South Africa.  

The limited services offered by home affairs caused uncertainty for foreign nationals

Connor Sim (24), a Scottish citizen working as a private wealth banker in Cape Town, returned to Scotland in February 2020, due to a change of employment in South Africa that required a visa renewal.  

In his statement on “Measures to combat the covid-19 epidemic” on March 15, President Ramaphosa announced a travel ban on foreign nationals from high-risk countries, effective from March 18. On that list was the United Kingdom.  

As a result, Sim was prevented from returning to South Africa. Such measures by the government did not make exceptions for foreign nationals who had affairs in the country.  

When the lockdown came into operation on March 23, the Department of Home Affairs announced it would be offering limited essential services, restricted to the issuing of “temporary IDs, birth and death certificates.  

This caused distress for foreign nationals who remained in the country past the expiry date of their permits or visas, as they risk being labelled as “undesirable people.   

Section 30(1)(h) of the Immigration Act 13 of 2002, as amended by Act 13 of 2011, states the consequences of overstaying in South Africa as deportation and ban for a period of five years or more.  

Permit holders whose documents expired no earlier than February 2020 were granted validity until an amended date, which has been extended to January 31, 2021. 


Foreign Nationals with visas that expired during the South African lockdown are permitted to remain in the country until January 31, 2021, under the ‘extension of visa’ measures issued by the Department of Home Affairs. Photo: Zinhle Belle.

This grace afforded them bears the emotional stigma carried by undocumented foreign nationals as they often face discrimination from citizens and intimidation by the police. 

“The Bill of Rights was not suspended by the initiation of the Disaster Management Act, however, there was a lack of consideration on the means of survival for foreign nationals”
“South Africa’s Immigration and Refugee Act is inclusive and progressive but there is no political will to ensure that there is the equal implementation of the law,” said Sharon EkambaramHead of Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, Johannesburg. 

“The Bill of Rights was not suspended by the initiation of the Disaster Management Act, however, there was a lack of consideration on the means of survival for foreign nationals,” said Ekambaram.  

With the closure of embassies, foreign nationals had limited avenues to enquire about the terms of their stay or requests for aid from South Africa. 

Sim described the preliminary period of lockdown as “walking through the unknown. As he fought to withhold adjusting to the possibility of relocating back to Scotland. This deliberation was caused by the growing uncertainty of when he would return to South Africa.  

Speaking on the lack of resources for foreign nationals to remain informed, Ekambaram said, “there was no effort for the government to share these messages on a community level.   

A clueless Sim, desperate for information on when travel would open, grew tired of typing variations of the same question, on his laptop, one of the few possessions, which he had not left in South Africa.  

His rigorous efforts were not met with the same urgency as President Ramaphosa would only give South Africa updates every three to four weeks. 

“Around June, July [three months into lockdown], the thoughts started creeping in, I struggled to visualise my future in South Africa and felt like I had little possibility of returning to South Africa,” said Sim. 

The upliftment of the international travel ban, in October, under lockdown level one permitted Sim to return to South Africa to resume his employment.  

However, the future of many other migrants in the country remains ambiguous as they camp outside an open Home Affairs department waiting for their visas to be processed. 

Although the initiation of lockdown level one has facilitated a form of normality with the relaxation of policies, for many foreign nationals a constant negotiation of their agency was the fight they endured for remaining in a foreign country during the lockdown.   

FEATURED IMAGE: The Alexandra Home Affairs office remains crowded since its resumption of full services at the beginning of level one lockdown on October 1, as people have been inquiring about the status of their documents. Photo: Zinhle Belle.