Child Labour in South Africa & Sex Trafficking

December 21, 2012
Child labour in South Africa is a problem that can very quickly get out-of-hand. With nearly 1/3 of its population under 15 years old - nearly 15 million kids - if child labour is left unchecked and unchallenged, there is a risk that it spreads further across South Africa’s immense under-age population.

A challenge looming large, very large

In fact, numbers tend to show an increase in sex trafficking but the problem remains that there is a dire need for more research and data on this situation. As black Africans make about 80% of the South African population and represent most of the poor in the country, child labour mostly affects this segment of the population.

Poverty is fuelled by rampant unemployment among Africans – above 30% of the adult population – which in turn drives the need to use any means to make money, be it prostitution or forced labour. And despite signing tons of international and national conventions and laws to protect the rights of children, South Africa’s been learning the hard way that merely writing a law doesn’t automatically put it into action.

Why & where do they work?

A great deal of the rurals work in agriculture for ridiculous wages imposed by bigger companies or landowners (which are sometimes the same person), while more and more also start working on the black market in factories and other growing sectors for an even smaller pay.

But the core issue with unemployment in South Africa is that it affects equally those who have completed school and those who haven’t. Therefore, kids will rightfully question the point of going to school at all when they can start making money right away.

And in cities, it’s no secret that sexual exploitation is becoming one of African children’s major plagues nowadays with kids used to sell their bodies for anything – from food or clothing to tuition fees. Now, let’s find out more about the origins and consequences of child labour in South Africa and what can be done about it.

Causes of child labour in South Africa

Child trafficking & sexual slavery in South Africa
Child trafficking & sexual slavery in South Africa

One in four children…

Of the 14 million kids aged over 5 in South Africa, about 3,5 million of them (one in four) are engaged in some sort of labour. Most of them are in fact working in construction and mining which means that they’re often separated from their rural families (one in three children).

Then, another 30% of them live only one parent, for two reasons:

  1. The other one has died from the consequences of HIV/AIDS;
  2. The other parent has had to relocate to find work elsewhere.

The outcome of this situation is that single-parent families are much poorer as only one adult’s salary isn’t enough to feed everyone at home. Hence the desperate need to send your children to work. Banning child labour in this case will do more harm than good to the family. What is needed is a much more complex solution: reducing poverty, improving job opportunities and increasing salaries altogether.

The impact of inequalities

South Africa is one of the most unequal societies you can find, featuring some of the largest income gaps between the rich and the poor worldwide. This gap has one common implication: it creates a demand for house workers for the super-rich who need all kinds of services to maintain their possessions (house, pool, garden, and whatnot). Domestic workers are close to representing 10% of the working population in the country and are generally underpaid.

So what’s the role of kids in this? Well girls are very much in demand for this type of job, which means it’s a good way for parents to earn money if it’s easier for girls to find a job. Which means their education will often be sacrificed. Ironically, recent statistics have shown that girls tend to stick to school longer and perform better… when given the opportunity. A growing threat to the well-being of South African girls is also the increase in sexual violence and sex trafficking.

Free education… in theory

Finally, the country’s educational policy is another problem to add to the causes of child labour in South Africa. In theory, education should be free and compulsory for all children up to 15 years old. However, what happens in reality is widely different. The system works like this: poor families don’t get to pay for anything and those who can pay will pay. 

Sounds fair in theory, but in practice schools rarely allow poor families not to pay the fees. One other issue is the “tradition” of poor education and schooling that the black population was offered during the apartheid. As second rate citizens, the government didn’t really care about them for over 40 years and provided very limited schooling opportunities in overcrowded classrooms, poor quality of classes and no incentive whatsoever to finish their basic education.

Needless to say, these impoverished schools aimed at the rural population were boasting the highest dropout rates in South Africa. Nothing was made to try and adapt to the poor’s needs and particular lifestyle: as farmers, they had to make sure they were in the fields at key periods of the year. But the schools would nonetheless keep on working on a nationwide system – providing classes and exams at times that didn’t suit the local population at all.

A tradition of exclusion

This ended in the early 1990s but you can see how an entire tradition of white dominance (politically and economically) can have a huge impact even today on how schools and the system usually function. Nowadays the black still suffer from living in overcrowded areas after having been relocated as “surplus people” into slums for decades and decades.

Just the way we often say old habits die hard, the same is true of the way the country got used to providing its black population substandard services. Things are changing it’s true, but still very slowly. But unemployment remains a serious threat to education and child labour in South Africa. Offering black South Africans real economic opportunities to break with the poverty cycle is the most effective way to fight child labour and social exclusion.

Child trafficking

education weapon against poverty and child labor
Education: the most powerful weapon against poverty and child labor (in the long run)

The precarious lives of the youth

Sexual exploitation and the sex trafficking of the youth are just new consequences of the same causes of child labour in South Africa: high unemployment and poverty. Add to that widespread alcohol and drug abuse - the perfect tools of indoctrination and control – and you’ve got your recipe for sexual exploitation of children.

But you need to take a closer look at the impact of poverty on the parents’ lives to understand how kids end up living in the streets too. Child poverty usually starts at home, when parents give in to alcohol and substance abuse due to the overwhelming financial and social stress but also social exclusion & discrimination that comes with living in dire poverty. Even without the drugs and alcohol problem, sooner or later kids start suffering from abuse or neglect at best. That’s the first step that brings them to look for another life outside their home.

Coping with poverty

But what happens on the streets is simply that they fall under the control of other adults, who promise them jobs and shelter. Except they find out too late it’s none of that really. However some research on the sexual exploitation & child labour in SA has also shown that kids learn quickly to rely on one another to seek emotional and financial support. In fact, they’re open to help from whoever they can trust, which sometimes doesn’t include their parents, but “teachers or other family members”.

But when help isn’t enough, the list of threats to the well-being of kids engaged in child labour in South Africa is quite overwhelming. For example, poor urbanization fuels the growth of slums – with their bunch of desperate situations and violence, while the HIV epidemic shortens their lifespan and deteriorates their general health. And the truth is that child trafficking and sexual exploitation is on the rise in South Africa, despite many government programs and laws.

A lack of government programs

What’s going on is simply that these policies are badly put into action on the ground. Many argue that these are among the country’s early public policies (as a democracy) aimed at reducing poverty and solving complex social issues since 1994. While it’s true, and public programs are a constant work in progress, it’s been nearly 20 years since South Africa has become a democracy and there is today a wonderful breadth of information about government policies worldwide that have been effective at tackling poverty or sex trafficking.

The lack of government programs against child labour in South Africa is another issue, as the country has been more focused on alleviating both extreme poverty in South Africa and child poverty (hunger) through social assistance of all kinds: education, cash transfers and access to healthcare. Here again it’s not perfect and far from properly implemented but it is a first step.

Another area where government action is lacking: HIV/AIDS. It’s become clear that every layer of the impoverished society – children, adults but also schools, communities - needs guidance on the epidemic: education on how to practice safe sex, understanding the infection, what can be done about it and what medications are available. Schools in particular could become a hub for support as street children tend to rely on them for help and advice.

But as mentioned before, fighting child labour in South Africa is particularly difficult because you have to work on all fronts: schools, parenting support, job opportunities, sexual and health education, social safety nets and so on. Not to mention psychological help for these kids who live in the most desperate conditions and need to feel that they can be valued for their contribution to society rather than constantly seen as a nuisance or a menace to stability.

Child fostering as a solution

Child fostering saving entire communities in South Africa
‍Child fostering: saving entire communities in South Africa

A very interesting research shows that child fostering can be used by certain communities to strengthen their ties, but also as an “investment” in the kids future by offering them the chance to go to school. Of course there is also the motive that foster children can help with the housework – but it’s usually not the main reason for adopting a child in South Africa.

Child fostering tends to build stronger ties within a village or community which leads families to help each other in hard times.

A chance to go to school

The results of the study show that by leaving their biological parents, foster kids – boys and girls alike – are 20% more likely to go to school. 

If anything, this is a fact that the government must take into account in its public policy because this is potentially a huge opportunity to work with local families to fight child labour in South Africa.

But more research is needed to better understand how these foster children are brought up:

  • Who takes care of the parenting?
  •  Is it shared with biological parents?
  • What about the cost of education, clothing and food?
  • Does the biological family help at all?

Extended research into the financial issues or unequal access to resources would also help understand what specific problems families face when it comes to providing an education or otherwise investing in their children so that governments can better target their anti-poverty programs aimed at tackling child labour in South Africa.


  • ‍Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Youth in South Africa, Cudore L. Snell, The Journal of Negro Education 2003
  • Cinderella Goes to School: The Effects of Child Fostering on School Enrollment in South Africa, Frederick J. Zimmerman, Journal of Human Resources 2003
  • Farm Schools in South Africa: The Face of Rural Apartheid, Pam Christie and Margaret Gaganakis, Comparative Education Review 1989
  • Why do Daughters Leave School in Southern Africa? Family Economy and Mothers' Commitments, Bruce Fuller, Judith D. Singer, Margaret Keiley, Social Forces 1995
  • Parental Investment in Schooling: Evidence from a Subsistence Farming Community in South Africa, Christine Lidell, Louise Barrett, Peter Henzi, International Journal of Psychology 2003
  • African Education Challenges and Policy Responses: Evaluation of the Effectiveness of the African Development Bank’s Assistance, Albert-Eneas Gakusi, African Development Review 2010

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Dario Berrebi

Digital strategist, researcher & filmmaker. 

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