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Viral message makes unsupported claims about child trafficking and illegal miners in South Africa

IN SHORT: A warning about the kidnapping and trafficking of children in South Africa misrepresents the nature of these crimes. It makes unsubstantiated claims about the methods, motives and perpetrators behind them.

An Afrikaans message shared with Africa Check warns parents that the kidnapping of children has become common. It also says that illegal miners have become part of complex human trafficking operations that trade children as sex slaves or unwilling organ donors.

The message begins: “Asb mense, pas julle kinders ekstra op hierdie Desember!!” This translates to: “Please people, take extra care of your children this December!!”

 It was widely shared on Facebook and WhatsApp in December 2023.

The message also says “as jou kind mooi is, word hulle seks slawe, anders.. orgaan skenkers”, which translates as “if your child is pretty, they become sex slaves, others… organ donors”.

We looked into the accuracy of the message and here’s what we found.


Message does not match known patterns of trafficking

Human trafficking is certainly a widespread problem in South Africa. The message warns that children – “from newborns out of theatres, to youths up to 16 years old, sons and daughters” – are at constant risk of being kidnapped and trafficked.

But descriptions of “couriers” stealing children and smuggling them through underground tunnels are almost entirely unsubstantiated and contradict known patterns in trafficking data

Even the scale of the problem is difficult to determine. Experts have described the problem as an “elusive statistical nightmare” and said that “very little reliable data exists to determine the nature and scope of the problem”.

However, what we do know about trafficking is not consistent with the limited information in the message.

One specific claim in the message is that South Africa “is now number 4 in the world on the child trafficking list”. There is no such list, and the difficulty of accurately assessing these statistics would make any such list unreliable.

Where records exist, South Africa does not rank among the countries with the highest number of recorded cases of trafficking. This applies to victims of all ages. 

In a 2022 report, the Institute for Security Studies found that South Africa ranked third in the world for rates of kidnapping – a different crime. This obviously includes victims of all ages, not just children. However, human trafficking was an extremely rare motive for kidnapping, so this does not suggest similarly high rates of child trafficking.

Kidnapping continues to increase in South Africa, but this is largely motivated by kidnapping for ransom or extortion. Kidnapping for the purpose of trafficking is relatively rare.

In a 2020 report, the Centre for Child Law, based at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, said the ideas that child trafficking and trafficking for sex work are commonplace in South Africa are both myths. The report also notes that previous studies have found that perpetrators of trafficking are often “family members of the victim rather than organised crime syndicates”. 

In some parts, however, the message was close to the truth. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found in 2022 that the majority of trafficking both globally and in sub-Saharan Africa (a region that includes South Africa) is carried out by large criminal syndicates. People trafficked in southern sub-Saharan Africa are also often trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation, followed by forced labour. However, organ trafficking is extremely rare.

No evidence zama zamas are involvement in child trafficking 

Africa Check has debunked similar warnings in the past. But this one adds that zama zamas have become “part of the network”.

“Zama zama” is a term used for illegal miners in South Africa. In particular, the country's abandoned gold mines attract people who enter the mines illegally, usually without proper mining or safety equipment, to strip the mines of remaining ore. Zama zamas have become increasingly controversial in South Africa as the scale of illegal mining has grown. This is because both the miners and the criminal syndicates that supply them and fence the gold have become involved in other forms of crime.

The message also claims: “As soon as the courier has the child, the zama takes over and the children go underground, from there they are through old military tunnels.” It is unclear what these “military tunnels” might be. Illegal mining takes place in abandoned mines that were not built for military use and is limited to areas that have been mined in the past. 

A 2019 policy brief states that illegal mining operations are often linked to “sophisticated criminal syndicates” involved in “violence, corruption, human smuggling, tax evasion and money laundering”. However, this does not mean that illegal miners are involved in child kidnapping and trafficking.

In fact, it is often the illegal miners themselves who “are exposed to extortion, murder, forced migration, money laundering, corruption, racketeering, drugs and prostitution”. As with other allegations of human trafficking, claims that illegal miners are directly involved in the kidnapping and trafficking of children are not only unsubstantiated, but also inconsistent with what is known about illegal mining.

The Minerals Council of South Africa has found that illegal miners are themselves at the bottom of a "well-managed five-tier syndicate system”, and this vulnerability makes them likely not to be perpetrators but victims of trafficking.

A 2016 report by the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute found that rather than kidnapping South African children and trafficking them elsewhere, illegal miners themselves were often trafficked to South Africa with the promise of work.

The exploitation of children in the illegal mining sector mainly involves children working in mines. They are not forced to work in mines by abduction, but by poverty, which forces children to work to support their families or pay for their education.

Neither this report nor any other discussion of illegal mining warned that illegal miners were involved in sex or organ trafficking, or kidnapping.

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