Phinius Sebatsane, Hidden Tragedies: Unmasking Exploitation and Trafficking within Homelessness

Today, we have a familiar and inspiring guest: Phinius Sebatsane, the founder of the Rea Thusana Foundation. With a heart that embraces the homeless in our community, Phinius has illuminated lives and brought attention to the exploitation and trafficking that affect the most vulnerable. Stay tuned as we delve into his remarkable journey and the impact of his authentic dedication.

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Welcome everyone to our Free to Fly podcast. For our new listeners Free to Fly is an anti-trafficking organisation – we work on rescuing children from vulnerable situations. Today on our podcast we have a familiar voice – if you are a regular listener you will know our special guest for today: he has touched very many lives and he has shown genuine love for homeless people in our community and his name is Phinius Sebatsane and he is the founder of the Rea Thusana Foundation. He is a remarkable advocate who has dedicated years to understanding the challenges faced by individuals faced by people living on the street. His commitment to authenticity, and his fostering of long lasting changes has not only made a difference in the lives of his street friends but has also shone light on the exploitation and trafficking that often occurs in vulnerable communities.


AM: Phineas, its good to have you today. Give us a picture of who you are and what it is that you do.


PS: Thank you – I am just a simple person who comes from a village in Limpopo – a small town called Vaalwater. I grew up on a farm fishing, hunting and farming. I was raised without a father, my mother died when I was 13 and I was adopted by a British lady in an orphanage. She helped me finish school then I came to Cape Town. I studied journalism. Out of my curiosity of trying to understand people when I came to Cape Town, I met homeless people for the first time. That’s when my interest started – why are people homeless. I was curious to understand the reasons. Human trafficking seems to be one of the reasons.


AM: Today’s topic is how human trafficking intersects with homelessness. So can you describe for us how in your experience working with individuals who are homeless how that has shaped your understanding of their unique challenges and the vulnerability.


PS: Well, as I tell people all the time – nobody is born wanting to be homeless. We have a very painful history in this country of apartheid that has separated and broken down families. As a consequence, you move from District 6 to the Cape Flats, from Cape Flats to Pollsmoor and from there to the streets. That’s the focus of our movement, because we realise that the enemy is very strategic, so we also have to be strategic. There’s a lot of pain, and people who exploit thrive out of people’s pain. So if they see that you grew up without a family or you’re addicted to drugs, then they use your pain against you. People call it gangsterism I don’t call it that, I call it human trafficking – it’s the same mindset: sex, drugs, money. Those are the three things that run the streets, and homelessness and human trafficking

and gangsterism. So getting to know the guys over the past 7 years has made me understand that nobody wants to be homeless – somebody has them on a leash. And keeps them on the street – like forced begging: some of the people you see on the side of the road are not there because they want to, they are being forced to be there, in exchange for protection on the street; in exchange for drugs; made to look into peoples’ homes and cars for a break-in. When you’re addicted, you’re very vulnerable. You can more easily be used and exploited. Because of the addiction, they have something they can use against you. So that’s what I’ve experienced on the street with the people I work with.


AM: Have you ever come across individuals who are homeless and are also victims of human trafficking.


PS: Yes, – there is a case I am dealing with right now:  there’s a young man I’ve been dealing with for the past 6 months who has been in and out of prison who is literally on the street and the gangsters have told him that he’s not allowed to go anywhere – if he does, they will kill him and they will kill his family. To protect his family he chose to be on the street as a guard. Basically he communicates with them regarding the movement of the police. If the police go into the area where the gang leaders are, he lets them know – he is the lookout. This person is coming so please move. That is why sometimes when the police go into a community they don’t find what has been reported. Because the lookouts report the police movement back to the leaders. So he is actually there against his will to communicate with the people inside: there’s an exchange of drugs and of protection on the streets. Because who protects homeless people on the streets. Its not the police, its not the law enforcement, its not the security companies. The security for the homeless is the gang leaders, or the gangsters. And they use the homeless people’s addiction against them. They use sex, drugs, money, to keep them where they are. I call them pharaohs. Sometimes God sends people like us to be Moses – to say hey! you have to let these people go, Sometimes, to be honest, that’s what I have to do. Some of the homeless people I have taken off the street, I had to go to the gangs and say – you need to let these people go. Without doing that, I can’t get some of these homeless people out – because it’s a business. Homeless people have become customers for drug dealers. So if you get involved, you disrupt someone’s business. That’s why I call it a form of human trafficking because its not easy for people to choose to get out: they say, there is only 3 ways to leave the streets – death, mental institution or prison. But I always say, there’s a 4th man in the fire – God.


AM: I think its so important that you touch on the police not protecting the homeless people. People – regular people – not protecting them. Being homeless is not just about not having a house, it also about not having a place in society, not having a voice, not being seen as a human so it is valuable what your work does. Leading up to our other question – what are the common factors that you see in people who are homeless that make them more susceptible to human trafficking.


PS: Its fear. It’s the threat for human life. I often tell me I have to do this otherwise they are going to kill my family. So human trafficking is built around fear – and control. The same thing as gangsterism. That is why, if I’m going to get involved, I have to make sure there is safety around that person and also their loved ones because I don’t want to put them in danger. This is when they say helping hurts. Sometimes you can get involved and try to protect a woman from somebody on the street, but if you don’t offer them protection, you put them in a very vulnerable place. So fear and control – and also trauma. A lot of people that I work with have been traumatised and they use drugs to medicate themselves to deal with their pain and some of the gangsters see that and use that against them. They use that to control them. They exploit their vulnerability. So if they see you limping, if they see you are addicted to drugs, the know that is an easy target. Those are the people that we can exploit. The more addicted you are, the easier it is for them to exploit that. Because they have a ‘thing’ they can use as a leash to control. That is why a lot of the guys say the only way they can get out of it is to overcome my addiction. Once they overcome their addiction then they can get out of the system of gangsterism or exploitation. That why our organisation focuses so much on rehabilitation, because we need to cut the ‘leash’ that is being used to control them.


AM: Are there any indicators or warning signs that you have observed that would suggest that someone who is homeless is also a victim of human trafficking.


PS: Our organisation works specifically with women and children. We see women more oppressed than men on the street. Every time I have an encounter with a woman there will always be someone watching her. After I have a conversation with a woman, she will get beaten up at night. They want to know why she was talking to me – what was she talking about and so on. So you realise there is some form of control there, that she is not free, she is being controlled. And there is fear around that. So then those women hide away from me when they see me because they know I’m trying to get them out. That’s when I move away from the woman to the leader. If you can get to the leader, you can get to the followers.


AM: And then there will be less repercussions for the women for talking to you.


PS: Exactly. There are NGOs who have been threatened for working with victims of human trafficking. Social workers have been threatened.


AM: What is your experience with that.


PS: I think, for me, I have the grace of knowing how to engage with people. I don’t treat pimps, or gangsters like enemies, I treat them like friends. I don’t think you can influence anybody you don’t befriend. So my approach has always been human and relational. I don’t put them in a box – like hey, are you a gang leader. I don’t feed into their fear. I realise that the perpetrators, the oppressors, are also oppressed themselves. They are also victims, they are also in pain themselves. So I don’t treat them as the enemy. I treat them as people who are hurting. You know the expression goes ‘hurt people hurt people’. – people who exploit others is because they have also been exploited. I try to look for the root of the problem: why are you doing what you’re doing. My approach is not what’s wrong with you, my approach is what happened to you. A lot of the gangsters I have worked with have told me – a lot of them grew up without fathers, a lot of them were molested, a lot of them have seen their loved one being killed in front of them, and they haven’t dealt with that pain.


AM: What have you found to be the common characteristics among gang leaders – and people who exploit other people. You are saying that they have also been exploited – they also experience pain.  In what ways have they been exploited – what is the common theme of their pain.


PS: If you look at the Cape Flats: there is a lack of fathers in families – a lot of fathers are in prison so a lot of young men are growing up without discipline and without their fathers around. They grow up with a lot of rejection and abandonment. They grow up in environments that are very toxic. I often tell people that you can’t blame a seed for not growing in a toxic environment: if the soil is bad, the seed is going to be bad. A lot of times people look at the seed and not the environment.  What I’ve seen a lot is that fatherlessness is a big thing; rejection and abandonment is a very big thing. There anger issues that are rooted in sadness, or abuse – emotional abuse, psychological abuse, mental abuse. And also, with men, is the whole thing of ‘men should not express their emotions’ – men should be ‘thugs’- should be tough– men do not cry; I am over this. We do trauma counselling – my goal would be to assist or break them – what I mean by that is we assist them to cry, because many of them have not cried for many years and so they have become thugs. A thug, for me, means a traumatised individual unable to grieve. When people don’t learn to express their emotions, their emotions get weaponised in a negative way. So, a lot of men have not dealt with their emotions to the point where now they are bleeding on people who didn’t hurt them.

And a lot of them end up exploiting people because they have not been taught positive ways to deal with their anger and their emotions. So that’s what we try to do: how do we raise a generation of men who are present with themselves and their emotions and can express this in a positive way – not in a negative way.


AM: So what support systems do you provide to assist individuals who are experiencing human trafficking and exploitation.


PS: The main thing, I think, is that we need more social workers – not more police. We need more counsellors, we need more psychologists because they will deal with the root of the problem. Police deal with the fruit of the problem – you can’t police trauma in prison and think when that person comes out they will be an angel. No angel can come out of hell. What I’m advocating for right now is more mental support, psycho-social support, rehabilitation. People need to be rehabilitated, they need psycho-social support. We can’t throw money at the problem and expect it to be fixed. We give people jobs and expect that they will keep the job, Nobody that is traumatised and addicted to drugs will be able to keep the job that you give them. The priority needs to be rehabilitation and then skill application so that when that person gets a job, they can keep it; when they have their family, they can keep their family. We need to be holistic in our approach when it comes to helping people heal. So that’s what we advocate for in our organisation and in partnership with other organisations: how can we help people get off the street holistically, helping them be rehabilitated and then helping them get jobs and affordable homes. Give them dignity – not hand outs but give them a hand up.


AM: It is interesting that you say it is a societal issue because homelessness is not an individual’s failure but a societal failure – its our failure as a society.

Have you ever had challenges on providing help to the homeless population – to the people on the street.


PS: This is a difficult one because there is a perception that people choose to be poor, that people choose to be gangsters, that people choose to be homeless. Nobody chooses this. Things happen. Its easy for people of privilege to say that, but when you come from the pit, you realise that people are a by-product of their environments that they’ve been put in. You can be born poor, but you don’t have to die poor, but there is the question in between: do we give a person a fish, or do we teach them how to fish. But how do you teach them to fish if there’s no dam or river to go to and fish. So, give me access to a dam or the ocean so I can fish after you’ve taught me to fish. Also, you cannot teach someone how to fish on an empty stomach, so you do need to feed people in order to teach them. So we have to be gracious in our approach and have understanding of what human beings really need. You mentioned something really powerful – homelessness is also an issue of belonging. Its not just an issue of having a house – there are people who have houses but they are homeless. Its not about a building. It about human connection, its about relationship, about friendship. That is why, for me, my job on the street is to be the friend of homeless people. Then, out of friendship, other things come. I don’t focus on their need – as in clothes, food, a house. For me, it is what does their soul crave for. And I realise that everyone craves for human connection just like a seed needs the soil, we human beings long for community.


AM: As human beings, we long for love and we must never forget the humanity of others. As Free to Fly is a anti-human trafficking organisation that specifically focuses on children, I want to ask you if you’ve ever encountered any children on the street that were exploited.


PS: Since I came to Muizenberg, we have taken more than 7 children off the street from their parents because their parents were using them on the street as bait to get drugs – they were begging with them. So, even though they are the parents, there is still an element of trafficking in there: they are forcing their children to become something they don’t want to become in order to get themselves something. That does not go to the children, it is for themselves. So there is exploitation there. Unfortunately, the saddest thing we have to do in those circumstances is to separate – to take the child from the mother, and hope that the mother will follow, but in most cases, that does not happen. A lot of times, we see the mother choosing drugs, or choosing the boyfriend over the child, because the child is no longer useful to supply you with drugs – the boyfriend can. So they allow the child to go into the system, and then allow themselves to be on the street, which means you’re on a leash. This guy knows that. But the trouble with the foster system in South Africa,  – most of the people who are homeless come from the foster system. Because, when you are 18, 19 then they kick you out. But, where do those people go. This system is not working – like our prison system.


AM: What role can communities and organisations play in addressing the link between human trafficking and homelessness.


PS: The community must be educated about homelessness: don’t just assume things; ask questions; don’t just give stuff to people on the side of the road unless they know their stories. I think that will be the first step – get to know the person you’re helping, because the more you get to know them, the more you will know their real need. So, get educated about what homelessness is; get educated about what human trafficking is; what are the symptoms of human trafficking. Be informed about which organisations are in those communities which work with those specific people. Sometimes, as individuals, we think giving something on the side of the road is helping, but its not. If you identify the organisations that work with those people you can donate to that organisation that has a holistic approach when it comes to dealing with people like that. Yes, get the police involved, but wisely, because sometimes the police do not know what to do, the Law Enforcement doesn’t know what to do. I would say, get involved with social workers, with social development, find NGOs that are specifically working with children, or women or men who are living on the street. Be informed – have contact details of those people. Don’t try to do everything by yourself – try to partner with other people and be an active citizen who is speaking out for those who cannot speak for themselves. There’s been a lot of times where I’ll write a story on social media of somebody I encountered on the street – to educate the community about this person’s name and their story so when the community sees them, they say – hey, John, how are you, or, John, have a great day.


AM: And they can relate to them on a human level.


PS: That’s right – now there’s relationship and they can relate. When people can relate, they can connect and actually help each other.


AM: Can you share any successful initiatives or programs that have specifically targeted homelessness and its connection to human trafficking.


PS: We work closely with U-Turn, with New Hope, with social development, with Hope Prison Ministry and Hillsong Prison Ministry, with New Beginnings – all these different NGOs who offer different things for the people that we work with. We work with the shelters as well. So once we build relationship with the person, we prepare them: because sometimes, we can’t take a homeless person straight from the street into a shelter. You need to prepare them for change because if you don’t, there’s a ‘çulture shock’ they experience in the shelter and then they leave because you didn’t prepare them.


AM: And they go back to what is familiar.


PS: Then you think that the problem is the person – it is not the person – you didn’t prepare them properly. It’s the soil – prime the soil, then plant the seed. I remember that during the lock down, we lived with 10 women in a church, and out of the 10 women, 7 went back home. Some of them had not seen their families for the past 15 or 20 years. Because of the relationship, we were able to find their families, but it was a partnership between different organisations.


AM: What changes or reforms do you believe is necessary to tackle the root causes of both human trafficking and homelessness.


PS: Prevention is better than cure: I think we need more social workers on the ground, in communities, not more police. The prison system to turn into a rehab – prisoners need to be rehabilitated. Our prisons have become breeding grounds for criminals. Security companies, the police and Law Enforcement need to be educated about their social approach of dealing with vulnerable people. You can’t carelessly pick up a broken glass. So, social interventions, psycho-social support, mental health. We need to advocate more about that and educate people about depression and anxiety – there’s still a stigma on that: people who have mental health issues are being demonised. We need to do away with that, we need to educate the community about how to have more compassion for people who are struggling mentally and emotionally and not think that they are weak – they are not weak, they are having a human experience and they’re battling and they need our help.


AM: How do you think public awareness and education campaigns can contribute to preventing human trafficking and homelessness. What steps can individuals take to support this efforts.


PS: Be aware of your community; be aware of who’s who in your community and is doing what in your community.  Get involved. Volunteer. I see on Nelson Mandela Day people want to do great things, – let’s turn that into a lifestyle, – where Mandela Day is everyday – not just one day where we are aware of the people that are on the street. There are families that are hurting. Have more compassion; be more curious; don’t be so judgemental. Church needs to play its role; businesses need to play their role; the government needs to play its role – this is not a government problem, it’s a community problem. We all need to come together and do our part – it takes a village to get somebody off the street. It takes a village to get a victim out of human trafficking. It also takes a lot of courage – I was on a hit list at one point for the work I’m doing – its dangerous. But, by the grace of God, I’ve been called, and I’ve been protected and I’m able to do the work that I’m doing, not with fear, but with love – knowing that it is worth it at the end of the day. So, I would say, be curious, get involved – with the internet, no-one has an excuse not to be involved. Spend your time on internet wisely and be educated about social issues in your community.


AM: Thank you Phinius Sebatsane for joining our podcast. We wish you well. We pray God blesses your organisation and the works of your hands.

Remember – something doesn’t need to affect you personally in order for you to get involved. Let’s be a community of people who show humanity to others.


PS: Thank you so much for having me.