The soft-spoken 24-year-old Nadia, who is originally from Burundi, stunned the room into silence when she told the audience how she was trafficked and turned into a sex slave when she was barely in her teens in Durban a few years ago. The mother of two was speaking during a session on modern slavery, human trafficking and climate change on the second day of the Africities Summit, hosted by the City of Johannesburg.
Chaired by Bishop Thomas Seoka, the session was an emotional roller-coaster ride even for seasoned social workers. Nadia was nine years old when her world came crumbling down following the death of her father. It was at this point that she found out that the woman she had always known as her mother was in fact not. She was sent packing. With nowhere to go, she started looking for her biological mother. Fortunately she found her but unfortunately the two could not bond and she rebelled.
“I had a lovely, happy childhood until my dad died,” she said.
She said the last straw was the rejection by his widow.
“No one understood me … I acted up. I couldn’t understand why the woman I had always known as my mother would reject me like that,” she said.
Her relationship with her biological mother was complicated. She threw herself into sport – football, netball and basketball. As captain of the basketball team, she would stay behind to lock up. One day after clearing up, she and three other girls, aged between 11 and 14, were offered “energy drinks” by their coach. They woke up later, feeling drowsy and disoriented, in a moving car.
“We were drugged again and woke up in a strange place, among strangers who spoke a foreign language.”
They had been trafficked. In Durban in a dark room they were offered to any number of “clients”. They were gang-raped daily.
“No one could hear us even if we cried out for help. We lost track of time. There was so much pain. Sometimes we begged to be drugged so we could not feel the pain. The room was dark … We stood on each other’s shoulders to see what was going on outside.”
After what seemed like eternity, a sympathetic security guard helped them escape, ending up on the streets of Durban, where they fought off other homeless youths for survival. Shoplifting became a way of life. Then one day, she overheard a man talking on the phone in her home language. She followed him and lied to him that she was lost. He took her in but after a few days, he demanded sex.
“I thought to myself, it’s just one man, not like all those men who raped me.”
He kept her captive, locked up away from nosey neighbours. They ended up in Cape Town to escape scrutiny and at 15 she became a mother. Her second child was born two years later. She reconnected with her mother back in Burundi after a chance meeting with her former colleague at a clinic.
“I called home…. my mother said: ‘Come home, it’s over.’ She never gave up on me.”
In another cruel twist of fate, Nadia’s mother died shortly afterwards. Her relationship with her partner had deteriorated into physical abuse.
“My mother was my last hope and now she was gone. I remember being very angry with God for not letting me see my mother for the last time. I was numb with pain, I didn’t care even when my partner threatened me. I just wanted to die,” Nadia said. “I just wanted to sleep and never wake up.”
When she realised the domestic violence was affecting her children, she left and moved into a shelter. That was three years ago. Today she is at the crossroads again after leaving the shelter and losing her job. Her children have been placed in foster care. With no skills, her chances of getting a job are slim. And if she doesn’t find one by December 13, the court will take the children away.
Fighting back tears, Nadia said: “I want to stay and be strong for my children. I can’t lose them, I can’t lose hope now. If you’re not strong mentally you’ll not survive. We need more shelters and rehab centres for addicted women. We need empowerment programmes for women. The situation is even worse for foreigners.”
Then she made a heart-wrenching plea. “Governments and churches should do more. Most women go back to abusive partners because they have no choice. Some even contemplate suicide. Pay attention to the poor and victims of abuse. We need to make overcrowded cities safe public spaces.”
Bishop Seoka said Nadia’s story was one of many. He said local governments needed to act now to end human trafficking and slavery. Panellists Archbishop William Slatter of the Catholic Archbishops Conference and Major Lenah of the Salvation Army said there was a need to lobby and advocate for inclusive and safe cities for the poor.