A global conspiracy theory that has been growing in the United States in recent months has found its way into South Africa, with social media users getting behind a coordinated online attack against migrants. The growing QAnon conspiracy theory, which alleges that children are being trafficked by Satan worshippers, has found its way into the xenophobic rhetoric spewed by the Twitter accounts behind the #PutSouthAfricansFirst hashtag.
If one were following the Lerato Pillay account, and many of the other bots and fake accounts with which it engages, it would seem South Africa is facing a serious human and child-trafficking problem. There have been almost daily tweets screaming about the abduction of children and adults, sometimes allegedly in front of large crowds at shopping malls and other public places.
A dramatic video recently captured a man jumping over a fence at a restaurant in Roodepoort, west of Johannesburg, allegedly to snatch a young child from her mother and another woman. The restaurant owner grabbed the man in a chokehold before he got to the child. It was later reported that the wrongdoer had serious psychiatric and substance abuse issues.
This video was shared widely online accompanied by the hashtags #StopHumanTrafficking, #SaveTheChildren and #SaveOurChildren. This was used as proof of a crisis for those tweeting about trafficking in South Africa. On 14 September, South African television presenter and DJ Lerato Kganyago tweeted: “South Africa is considered to be on the ‘Tier 2 Watchlist’ for human trafficking. At least A MILLION kids are trafficked each year. Our government is not doing enough.”
Independent fact-checking website Africa Check found that Kganyago’s tweet was incorrect in the tier classification it used and cautioned against the exaggerated claim of the number of trafficked children a year. “There is no data or research supporting Kganyago’s claim that at least one million children are trafficked annually in South Africa. The closest figure is a 2000 estimate of 1.2 million children globally,” Africa Check researcher Naledi Mashishi wrote.
Police spokesperson Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo said: “We have noticed that since the incident in which a man was seen grabbing a child at the restaurant in Florida in Gauteng, we have found that many people [are] taking to social media and posting videos, voice notes and text messages of alleged incidents of kidnappings.
“These messages are without substance. The posting of fake or unsubstantiated messages in whatever form is irresponsible and does nothing more than cause uncertainty and perhaps even paranoia among people. We are urging people to stop posting such messages as this is tantamount to committing a crime of defeating the ends of justice.”
But this doesn’t seem to matter to the online purveyors of fake news and exaggerated claims. Twitter account Lerato Pillay, which has been behind some of the most xenophobic statements on social media in recent months, has, along with the tiny South African First political party and other online users, bought into the idea that there is a human and child-trafficking problem in South Africa.
These users are united under the #PutSouthAfricansFirst hashtag, a campaign that strives to present itself as patriotic and caring about the wellbeing of South Africans. Instead, it has been actively inflaming hatred against migrants, especially from Zimbabwe and Nigeria. Recently, a small group of protesters – no more than 50 people – marched to the Nigerian High Commission in Pretoria demanding that the consul address Nigerian citizens’ alleged involvement in human trafficking.
Despite a lack of empirical evidence on the extent of child and human trafficking in South Africa, the #PutSouthAfricansFirst crowd seems to have bought into the global QAnon conspiracy theory, which started in 2017. QAnon gathered momentum during global Covid-19 lockdowns, garnering support worldwide. QAnon posters saying “Save our children” were seen recently at the Move One Million march in Cape Town.
But the concerns about child and human trafficking aren’t simply about fringe online conspiracy theories. Governments, non-governmental organisations and other institutions also fall for exaggerated claims about human trafficking. Accepting these claims as credible forces attention away from areas where we should be vigilant.
Little evidence for trafficking
A recent report by the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria, titled Child Trafficking in South Africa: Exploring the Myths and Realities, emphasises that despite claims of widespread child trafficking, there is very little reliable data to determine the nature and scope of the problem in the country.
“What is known about trafficking is largely based on ad hoc studies, questionable and outdated statistics, anecdotal information and common myths. Furthermore, confusion around the actual definition of human trafficking means that it is regularly conflated with human smuggling and other forms of irregular migration,” the report says. “These confusions and conflations not only obscure a realistic picture of human trafficking, including that of children, but also tend to be used by the state to justify repressive laws and policies to restrict migration and curtail migrants’ rights while claiming to protect vulnerable migrants, including women and children.”
But where do all these claims and exaggerated figures come from? One of the report’s authors, Rebecca Walker, a postdoctoral researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand, said human and child trafficking by its very nature is “a hidden crime”.
“If you look at one of the figures used by the government, that 30 000 children are trafficked annually, they used it to justify the introduction of restrictions on children crossing the borders when they insisted that unabridged birth certificates must be carried,” Walker said. “They just gave the figure out … without backing it up and then it just got picked up. And I think that’s very much what happens and people don’t question it because it is child trafficking … a highly sensitive and concerning issue … With children, [people] immediately picture innocence. So the combination means that child trafficking is immediately this emotive issue.”
A 2013 investigation by Africa Check into claims that 30 000 children are trafficked annually found that there was little evidence to back up these claims. “There has been very little research into the prevalence or patterns of human trafficking in South Africa. In part, this is because it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to obtain any accurate information about the real extent of criminal activities that go undetected. Most available quantitative research relies on the arrest and conviction of human traffickers,” it found.
Open to exploitation
Claims about child and human trafficking became increasingly exaggerated in the build-up to the 2010 Fifa World Cup, but research confirms that fears around trafficking increase ahead of major sporting events. As the start of the World Cup drew near, there were claims that between 40 000 and 100 000 migrant sex workers – women and children – would be trafficked into the country, and there would be a massive increase in sex work.
Africa Check debunked this. It found that there was no increase in supply or demand for sex work ahead of or during the World Cup, and that the then Department of Justice and Constitutional Development didn’t record a single case of trafficking during that time.
As far back as 2008, Institute for Security Studies researchers Chandre Gould and Nicole Fick found that there was little to no evidence of human trafficking in the Cape Town sex industry. “Most sex workers are aware of the nature of the work they will be doing when they enter the industry. They choose the work because it offers them the potential to earn more than in other jobs commensurate with their skills, and for many, it offers greater flexibility in working hours,” they wrote in Selling Sex in Cape Town: Sex Work and Human Trafficking in a South African City.
“The criminalisation of sex work means that the industry is unregulated, and this creates conditions that allow employers to engage in practices that would be considered unacceptable for other kinds of employment,” they found.
They said that because sex work is criminalised, and attaining documentation for migrant sex workers is difficult, those working in the industry are open to exploitation by state authorities such as the police and home affairs officials. Arrests and deportations happen under the guise of saving those who had been trafficked.
Walker said: “I think generally the lack of data, or the lack of real understanding of what’s going on allows for this kind of bigger and bigger bubble of guesses and estimations, which suits the government in many ways because for as long as we can talk about it being trafficking, we don’t have to talk about why unaccompanied children, for example, can’t access documents, or why they are so vulnerable, or when they are crossing [borders] because of the lack of safe ways to cross, and that sort of thing.
“My work in the past has been around the experiences of migrant sex workers, so it’s been trying to understand how or why they come to South Africa, how or why they are in the sex industry, and where these claims that migrant sex workers are trafficking victims comes from,” Walker said. “It is very clear that there’s very little evidence of sex trafficking, and there is very little evidence of children working in the formal sex industry. There’s plenty of evidence of children being sexually exploited, but that’s different from sex work. The problem is people don’t make that distinction, they just say these women and children coming over are being sold.
“It’s this crazy connection people make from missing children to trafficked children to foreign syndicates trafficking children. Unfortunately, despite the police coming out saying we don’t have high rates of trafficking, they haven’t come out saying that the numbers being circulated are wrong, and we don’t have evidence that it is foreigners involved. It is easier for them if people are freaking out about foreigners and being xenophobic than actually addressing what the real issues are.”
In the US, research has shown how wild and exaggerated claims about human trafficking have been used to clamp down on undocumented migrants who chose to migrate there. Driven by right-wing Christian groups and the state, these claims often present migrants who had chosen to move as having been “trafficked”. Fake news about trafficking is aimed at creating social panic – something that’s clearly happening in South Africa with the #PutSouthAfricansFirst campaign. This social panic can then be exploited and is often used to drive more repressive state responses to migration. Like the QAnon conspiracy theory, it seems to be an international phenomenon.