Poverty-stricken Basotho usually fall prey to scams and deceptions which see them lured into trafficking traps which result in forced sex work and labour, dashing any hopes of greener pastures in the comparatively rich South Africa.
MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism has uncovered these misdeeds are not only performed by outsiders, but fellow Basotho are used as recruiting agents who entice their own into leaving their homes to South Africa where they find themselves stranded in brothels and farms.
With Lesotho (according to 2018 Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook) producing less than 20 percent of its needs for food and importing more than 85 percent of goods it consumes from South Africa, the latter has turned into a ‘small heaven’ for destitute Basotho.
This situation made it easy for Nthabeleng Thakholi’s aunt to manipulate her and two boys of Ha Matala promising them lucrative jobs at places that included guest houses, shops, restaurants, farms, bars, supermarkets and car washes in Welkom, South Africa.
The trio were promised to be transported to Welkom at the employers’ expense and would be given M500 for subsistence while waiting for their first salaries. Little did they know they were caught in a trafficking ring orchestrated by South Africans.
Narrating her ordeal, the 23-year-old Thakholi said upon their arrival in Welkom, they were led to rooms in a building that looked like a guest house.
“We encountered naked women and men. One of my companions, Teboho, asked me whether we are indeed going to do prostitution, judging from the naked people we saw,” she said.
She continued they sat in their allocated room until 11pm when she made enquiries about the time for sleeping “as we were exhausted from our trip”. However, Thakholi was told the place was for working not sleeping, and was ordered to clean around.
“As we were cleaning, we saw men going to the rooms in the company of women. When I asked my aunt about it, she simply said, ‘don’t look at them for long, these people are makhomosha (hustlers)’. She said we would meet the manager in good time.
“I asked one of the ladies we found there about what we could have been brought to do and she said for prostitution. She told me they charged R70 for thirty minutes, which was paid to the manager.
“Around 3 to 4am, we were told to go and rest and be up by 5am as we were supposed to report to duty at 6am. We duly complied. We were starving as no one cared about feeding us. I sent fruitless call-back messages home until one woman lent me her phone; I told them about our situation,” Thakholi said.
The Centre learned her aunt told her the manager was only testing their conduct and would still take them to the promised jobs. But surprisingly, Thakholi said her aunt would occasionally disappear and return with some money to buy food for herself while she only survived on water.
Thakholi decided to fake sickness as a trick to find a way to escape. She had her time alone in the room and “that is when I noticed blood on the walls and pillows”.
“I asked one of the ladies who once brought me chicken feet laced with drugs about this blood and she told me once a lady stopped getting clients, she got killed,” she said, adding that most of those prostitutes were Basotho who had mothered babies of the ‘manager’.
“I got scared when my aunt told me to sleep alone. I declined and instead shared a bed with her.
“I also asked her about the blood and she said I should not worry, claiming one of the ladies who used to work there had suffered a bleeding nose.
“One man who worked in the bar told me if I didn’t escape, I was going to be taken on the same night. I then asked where I was to be taken and he responded that was the only thing he would not disclose to me, further warning not to divulge what he told me.”
The following day, Thakholi said she sent a call-back message to her sister’s husband who was working in South Africa and she asked him to come pick her.
“When my brother made a second call, I was around people and it was difficult to talk to him. “I tried walking out but exit doors were locked and I was confused. At the time, I was praying after futile attempts to open several exits. Then one of the doors opened.
“My brother asked me to come out as he would not enter because those pimps were dangerous.” She added she saw one man outside and she asked him to open a door on the other side for her as they were automatically locked.
The man bought the story and that was when Thakholi sneaked out with her bag. “I found myself running around places that didn’t know. After running for a while, I decided to disguise by changing clothes so they would not recognise me.”
She kept running until she got to a gas station where she called her brother. That is how she escaped after spending three days without food in Welkom.
The matter was reported to the police in Lesotho and one of the boys who was trafficked with Thakholi had also called home reporting he was held hostage and forced into tending ducks and chickens without payment.
After establishing that human trafficking had occurred, Senior Inspector Beleme Moerane, officer commanding the police Child and Gender Protection Unit said they liaised with the South African Police Service and a comprehensive operation was launched.
The Hawks spokesperson in the Free State, Captain S’fiso Nyakane told the Centre that the January 10, 2018 operation was on three premises that belonged to the main accused Ronnie General Rune.
He said 12 victims were rescued, nine from Lesotho and three from South Africa while 14 suspects were arrested, six from South Africa and eight from Lesotho.
Senior Inspector Moerane said the Basotho suspects included Thakholi’s aunt; the victims had been recruited from as far as Katse in Thaba Tseka district, Mapoteng in Berea and Hlotse in Leribe.
Captain Nyakane said all accused are out on bail granted by a South African High Court after being initially denied by the Welkom Regional Court.
Thakholi said her aunt called her mother asking “whether she knew I had got her arrested but dropped the phone when asked about the reasons”; the aunt has never been seen since then.
“The next court date is October 15, 2018. There are many charges of which Trafficking in Persons is the main charge. More charges are going to be added as the investigation continues,” Nyakane said.
On January 12, it was reported that some of the victims were held on a farm in Odendaalsrus where a security guard and a manager were nabbed while other arrests were made at a lodge in Welkom “which had apparently been operating as a brothel”. Two female recruiters, a receptionist and a security guard, were also arrested.