Behind the net curtains of suburban Cape Town there’s a dark world that would likely shock you to the core. We’re talking the trafficking of women (along with men and even children) who’ve been tricked and debased beyond what most of us could ever imagine. But meet three individuals who are doing something about it. KATY MACDONALD sat down with three remarkable disrupters who are restoring a life worth living to trafficked women in the Mother City

WARNING: this story is more shocking than our usual content. Please don’t proceed if you’re of a sensitive nature or suspect you may be emotionally triggered
Miryam Cherpillod, founder of the Western Cape’s only safe house for trafficked women: ‘I would think I’d heard everything, and then I’d hear another dreadful story,’ she says. Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world, and the number of people trafficked in South Africa doubled in the 2021-22 financial year. Trafficking gangs target women and children of all ages and races, and even men. ‘Every life is precious, every story has a name and face,’ says Miryam | Photo: David Belmonte

Swiss-born Miryam (44) was working as a missionary in Cape Town when she discovered that many women had been tricked and trafficked into sex work or labour slavery in suburban homes. It led her to found a safe house where their lives could be restored


Every woman’s story is different but trafficking basically always works the same: you’re tricked with false promises and taken to an unfamiliar place where you’re exploited. It might be for forced labour, but usually it’s for sex work. Women are trafficked here from other parts of South Africa, Africa and even further afield from countries such as Thailand.

A guy might start calling you his girlfriend, telling you he wants to provide for you, then say ‘Here’s a job in a hotel or a modelling agency, come to Cape Town, the bus is paid, there’s a place to stay.’ Often you will be unskilled and desperate to earn money. Then: boom! When you arrive, gang members settle you in, then tell you to take drugs. You might be too embarrassed to say no or you might already be addicted, often as a result of an abusive home background. They make you dress sexily and put you in a strip club or on a street corner to work, guarding you all the time.

If you don’t bring back money, they punish you. They might rape you or make the other women beat you up with metal bars. If you try to run away, oh my gosh, they find you and you will have a hard time. If you have children or family, they usually threaten to harm them.

fear and control

It’s all about fear and control. The gangs break down your spirit and hopes: we’ve even heard of women having their arms locked around a toilet bowl. They might dress up as police and terrify you, or lock you up and force you to service clients. When you go to the shops for food, you’re guarded and controlled. They sell you over and over again until you’re not fresh any more. Then they get rid of you and take someone else. You’ll be so broken that it’s very hard to resume a normal life unless you have an amazing support system. Many women are already sick at this stage with HIV or TB.

We had a girl who was so sick she couldn’t feed herself. We contacted her mother who hadn’t known where her daughter was for two years. When she arrived, it was too late: she had to drive her daughter’s dead body back to Johannesburg. Another girl was trafficked by foreign church leaders who’d promised to help her study but abused her instead, making her work as a domestic worker and threatening to sell her as a sex worker if she didn’t do what they wanted. They got so violent that she lost an eye.

I heard about a young woman in Pretoria who ran away from her work. Her trafficker found out where she was staying, brought in new women and threw her off the roof in front of them to show that this would happen to them too if they tried to escape.

A survivor recovers at the safe house. Women are tricked and trafficked to South Africa with promises of jobs in hospitality or modelling, from other parts of the country, the African continent and even further afield from countries such as Thailand. ‘It’s all about fear and control. The gangs break down your spirit and hopes,’ says Miryam

Guys get trafficked too. One guy got trafficked from Nigeria with the promise of playing for a professional football team, but instead was forced to sell girls. There’s also organ trafficking, forced child marriage, children lured from outside schools. The youngest trafficked child I personally know of is a two-year-old. It makes me sick to my stomach and breaks my heart.

When the women try to escape, close to 80% of them land up back in the hands of the traffickers. Often the police are involved. One of our survivors fled to a police station and the policeman tipped off her trafficker, who arrived and beat her up inside the station.

Successful escapes usually happen via a tip-off that leads to a raid by the Hawks. The women are assessed by social workers. When it’s clear they’ve been trafficked, they are brought to our safe house.


Working on the streets, I was keen to create a safe space for people dealing with street-related issues such as abuse, drugs and prostitution. But I believe God then prompted me to set up a refuge specifically for trafficked women.

With the support of an organisation called Youth With A Mission as well as the local church I was part of, we registered S-Cape as a non-profit organisation in 2010, and I signed the lease of our first property on the way to the hospital to have my first baby!

We began with two girls from the streets of Muizenberg. We were all volunteers and we learnt as we went along! We didn’t know how to manage the girls initially. Sometimes we had to call the police because they brought drugs into the house and I’d be rung in the middle of the night because everyone needed calming down.

Above and below: Miryam (in long red top) and volunteers furnish and decorate S-Cape’s safe house, which opened its doors to its first two residents in 2011

But we put rules and structure in place and good cops started dropping women at the safe house. Social workers begged us to take them, they didn’t know what else to do with them.

We had it all! Girls threatening each other with knives, psychotic episodes, women cutting themselves or wanting to hang themselves. But we also had lots of joy, lots of love and lots of beauty. And we saw lives transformed.

beautiful story

We experienced miracles of family restoration and girls leaving sex work. One girl who came to us reunited with her dad from whom she’d been estranged for nine years. When he became ill, she looked after him for a year and was with him at his deathbed. It’s a beautiful story of redemption. We always try to reunite survivors with their families if there’s no abuse at home.

Our safe house location stays secret because, once survivors have been rescued, their journey isn’t over yet: the traffickers may try to get them back, threaten or even kill them to avoid prosecution. What they crave and need after all the horrible things that have been done to them is a safe bubble so that they don’t feel exposed, and healing can take place.

Trafficking survivors receive life-giving care in the safe house garden. ‘After all the horrible things that have been done to them, they need a safe bubble so that healing can take place,’ says Miryam

It required big fat reports, but we became the first accredited safe house in South Africa to specialise in this work, and today we’re still the only safe house in the Western Cape. The Department of Social Development tells us we’re the gold standard in anti-trafficking care.

We’re now in a new house and have helped over 100 women. We can take eight at a time. Currently we only have permission to shelter adult women, but we’d like to be able to shelter children too as child trafficking numbers are growing. Some survivors do super well, others aren’t ready for change. But in these ladies we build a foundation of love that can bounce them back to us. It’s a privilege to see how they come in and how they come out. When you see restored lives, it’s worth all the drama, sweat and tears.

After 10 years with S-Cape, I moved with my family back to Switzerland, leaving in place a team that I trusted. I’m still on the board and visit whenever possible. Our state and private funding shrank during Covid so it’s a very tough time right now, but we’re doing what we can to raise funds and trusting God like crazy!’

‘Once I knew about trafficking, I could’t look away,’ says S-Cape’s strategist Juanita Van Heerden, who was galvanised into action after meeting a five-year-old who had been sex-trafficked | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

Juanita Van Heerden (38) grew up in Rustenburg in South Africa’s North West Province. She’s worked for S-Cape for nine years and lives in Lakeside


Some hectic stuff happened in my childhood. As a teenager, I drank a lot of alcohol and was a drug addict. I’d always rebelled against the God my mom used to speak to me about, but she died young and at her funeral, as she was lowered into the ground, I said ‘Ok God, you’ve got my attention’. I wanted to understand Mom’s faith. So I looked into things and realised her faith was about having a relationship with a loving God, not about rules and regulations from a man in the sky with a big stick. I started to get to know, and follow, Jesus.

Not long after, aged 26, I went to Kenya on a five-month missionary internship. There I met a little five-year-old boy who’d been trafficked. He’d been bought for $US50 and held for two weeks by a man on a ‘business trip’. He was forced to shoot pornography, was abused very horribly and was eventually thrown out onto the streets when the man went home. He was found on the street, bleeding and unconscious from the pain of what had been done to him.

wrestled with God

What wrecked me was that he was the cutest kid, so loving and sweet, and because he was torn from the abuse, he couldn’t go to school. The safe house that looked after him had no money for corrective surgery. Even on his birthday, the only present he wanted was to go to school. I wrestled with God a lot about that. Why does this evil happen in the world? Why don’t you just zap the traffickers, then trafficking would cease? The weight of it was so heavy. Then I felt God saying, ‘The way that it breaks your heart is only a tiny part of how my heart is breaking over what’s happening to my children. I’m showing you this so that you can do something.’

Back in South Africa, I lost contact with the little boy and don’t know if he ever got the surgery he needed. But now that I knew about trafficking, I couldn’t look away. I started researching trafficking and discovered what a huge cancer in society it is. S-Cape was the only organisation in the country I could find doing this kind of work so I contacted its founder, Miryam. She said; ‘You can come, but I can’t pay you anything.’

Friends said I was crazy but I just knew I had to go. It was difficult to start with. I had no job, no money, no car, lived on my friend’s couch and volunteered as an S-Cape house mother. But eventually I became Miryam’s PA, and then the director.

Juanita (second left at top) with fellow S-Cape team members
Juanita sorts through hair ties made by trafficking survivors at S-Cape. The safe house upskills its residents in many areas to remove their financial vulnerability | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers


A woman came to us at the beginning of lockdown. She gave birth that night and the baby was a result of the work she was made to do for years while locked up in a room. Even though it was conceived in difficult circumstances, she looked after it so well and took such ownership of her circumstances that a year later she became the ops manager in our business venture, Not I But We. It was so beautiful to see that, when tempted back into a toxic relationship by her boyfriend, she used the skills she’d learnt to stand up for herself and say no.

There’s a huge shortage of safe houses in South Africa. My aim is to go from being the one who fishes to teaching others to fish by helping people open up safe houses on a national and global level.

right things

This work is intense but I believe that God helps me through. Early on, I wasn’t trained for every situation, and would just drive to the safe house in my little car and say, ‘Jesus, please take over and help me say the right things’. And he did! No manual did it for me.

If I didn’t have the hope of eternity, and that somehow this is all going to make sense one day, it would have broken me completely. People say that the problem is so big, how can you make a difference? But I say that the problem’s so big, we have to start somewhere.’

Meeting a woman who’d been trafficked by her own family at 16 motivated psychiatric therapist Last to help survivors push a ‘restart button’ in their lives | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

LAST MACHINGURA grew up in Zimbabwe, the tenth of ten siblings, and practises as a psychiatric therapist at S-Cape, as well as in private clinics that specialise in eating disorders and addiction. He lives in Muizenberg 


What I love about this work is that it’s not like ticking a box. You form a relationship with a person and you journey with them to the point where they can do life themselves, and establish a functional way of living that’s not limited by their psychological challenges or traumatic experiences.

In my first weeks at S-Cape I worked with a woman who’d been traded to loan sharks by her stepmother at 16. The sexual exploitation began right away and she was sold from one highest bidder to the next, each controlling her by feeding her drugs. Her pain in not knowing where to go, or who to trust, led her to experience utter hopelessness, hate her body and self-mutilate significantly. She believed that suicide was the only way out.

Hearing her story made me livid. It also inspired me to help survivors press the ‘restart button’ in their lives.

‘You form a relationship with a person and you journey with them to the point where they can do life themselves,’ says S-Cape therapist Last. ‘When I heard what’s going on at ground level with human trafficking and how prevalent it is, I was livid, shocked and heartbroken. This could happen to one of my sisters or brothers.’ | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

My ultimate goal at S-Cape is to restore to each survivor a life worth living. As a man, I also have the chance to show them what a healthy relationship with a male colleague, partner or neighbour should look like: one of respect, care and understanding, not abuse and exploitation.

When you deal with a trafficked woman, it’s like dealing with 20 people. The survivor has usually lost connection with everyone she loved and is addicted to narcotics. You have to rebuild her whole life. Restoration starts with medical, psychiatric and therapeutic interventions ranging from nutrition to trauma therapy. Even dental care may be needed: one of our residents was beaten and exposed to tooth-eroding substances to the extent that all her teeth fell out. Her self-esteem was so low. When we organised new teeth for her, she came straight from the dentist to show us, and simply couldn’t stop smiling!

It’s very important to remove vulnerability factors such as lack of financial independence, so we offer all kinds of skills training. One survivor has just come top of her barista class and been offered a job in a coffee shop. Another became an auxiliary nurse, works in an old age home and is able to take care of her children. A third is providing cakes and catering back in her home town, and recently got married.

Our aim beyond restoring survivors is to have them go back into the community to live freely and independently, and raise awareness about human trafficking wherever they can. My dream is also to find additional resources for prevention, drawing all sectors of the community together to promote early detection and intolerance of the devastating acts that traffickers perpetrate.

Initial medical interventions include dental care, nutritional support and drug rehabilitation
A pure kind of love: equine therapy forms part of the psychiatric illness management and trauma therapy at S-Cape
Acquiring a beautician’s skills gives survivors the chance to become financially independent


At S-Cape we struggle with things that we can’t change, such as a survivor leaving halfway through the programme. But we pray, worship and support each other, which stops us, too, from becoming traumatised and falling apart!

We remind ourselves that the outcome’s not in our hands, that we must let go of our need to control everything, and acknowledge that God’s timing is not our timing. In fact, the only way that I can process the pain of what I see is by handing things over to God.

When the ladies are well enough to leave S-Cape, we keep up regular check-ins with them. We’ll always be their family and cheerleaders, celebrating milestones with them. To see human beings who’ve been stripped of their rights and their humanity have their zest for living restored to them is so beautiful and motivating.’

A therapeutic moment at the safe house. ‘When you see restored lives, it’s worth all the drama, sweat and tears,’ says its founder, Miryam
How people are trafficked: the breakdown. Over 100 000 people, primarily women and children, are trafficked in South Africa each year (stats from S-Cape)
How to recognise and report trafficking
  • VOLUNTEER A SKILL  From web design and blogging to knitting, basic mathematics and gardening, helping out as a house mother or volunteering as a social worker intern, your help would be very welcome at S-Cape! Find out more
  • SHOP FOR SOMETHING LOVELY  Check out Not I But We which provides dignifying work and income for survivors
  • DONATE  You can  help rectify the damage Covid did to S-Cape’s funding! Help a traumatised trafficking survivor transition to an independent life
‘I had lost my future, and myself. Today I don’t fear death anymore. I know there’s hope for everyone’ — Trafficking survivor Buttercup (not her real name), who was sold as a sex slave but then had her life restored at S-Cape
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