The ministry of justice says sex workers need more protection from the law and this could be provided by decriminalisation - if there is sufficient public consensus.
Justice department director-general Menzi Simelane said yesterday at a press conference in Parliament that "the biggest outcry by sex workers is that they are more harassed for their services from officials than anything else".
Referring to a recent Cape high court ruling that interdicts the police from harassing sex workers in Cape Town, Simelane said sex workers "need greater protection, like all South Africans who need protection under the law. How that protection can be provided could come by way of decriminalisation - if there is sufficient consensus".
"If sex work were decriminalised, sex workers could practise their craft freely, regulated by the same criminal and labour laws that govern the rest of the population," Simelane said.
Sex work became a crime under the Sexual Offences Act of 1957, which banned any form of "unlawful carnal intercourse", or any kind of sex other than that between husband and wife.
Simelane said the criminal nature of sex work was based largely on a morality argument.
"Should this continue to be the case 15 years into a constitutional democracy?" he asked.
He said once public hearings on adult sex work were finalised, the cabinet would take a decision.
But Deputy Justice Minister Andries Nel said the government had not yet decided to support the decriminalisation of sex work.
"The SA Law Commission was holding no less than a dozen meetings throughout the country where citizens can voice their opinion on the matter," Nel said.
Two years ago, then police commissioner, Jackie Selebi had suggested that prostitution be legalised - at least for the duration of the 2010 Fifa World Cup. He said that the government should come up with creative ways to allow foreign soccer fans access to sex workers.