Clear the city, damn the poor

ONE thing they don't teach one in journalism school is that whenever newspapers and the media in general experience dry news days they can always look to prostitutes to provide easy material, or should that be titillation?

ONE thing they don't teach one in journalism school is that whenever newspapers and the media in general experience dry news days they can always look to prostitutes to provide easy material, or should that be titillation?

That knowledge can be a useful newspaper navigating tool, saving you valuable reading time and helping you avoid useless information overload. Stories about prostitutes are almost always hatchet jobs and not worth the paper they're printed on.

Societal attitudes, mostly fuelled by the puritanical pretexts of religious demagogues, are such that prostitution stories are seldom the stuff of probing, illuminating journalism.

The police have known that for a long time. To them prostitutes are fair game to be harassed and exploited at a whim. As if our supposed protectors have nothing better to do.

Sex workers were all over newspapers this week. They, like the other usual suspects such as street kids, vagrants and hawkers, were, as one newspaper put it, being "flushed" off the streets as part of the so-called major clean-up operation ahead of the World Cup next month.

As if being forced to eke out a living on the streets were not hard enough, the country's hapless army of the poor has to endure even more hardship in the name of the beautiful game. Even the blind are not being spared. The omnipresent blind beggars on street corners are being swooped on because they are considered a sore sight for soccer tourists' eyes.

Why is the government so determined to criminalise poverty and demonise the poor?

"Their presence violates the city bylaws and we arrest them," Johannesburg metro police spokesperson Edna Mamonyane says nonchalantly, explaining away fellow human beings as if they were vermin to be exterminated.

She calls the harassment "normal police exercise", adding that the effort has been intensified because of the World Cup. She singles out prostitutes as posing a "really tough job" for the police.

To what lengths is the government prepared to go to present to the world a false picture of our country as so prim and proper that it has no beggars, hawkers, homeless people, newspaper vendors, sex workers or people forced to survive on the sidelines of the formal economy?

It confounds the senses what motivates a country with such high poverty and unemployment - where a quarter of the population lives on welfare - to be hellbent on making criminals of people who, instead of being a burden on the welfare system, lift themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps and create jobs for themselves.

What, indeed, is so wrong with the men who cut hair and the women who sell vegetables at the road side to support themselves and their families and put their children through college?

For how much longer must these people endure doing business with one eye on the lookout for police like common criminals, contending with having their stock and equipment confiscated and budgeting for bribes?

This makes rubbish of the government's professed commitment to the development of small and micro businesses. There are more creative ways of dealing with problems associated with hawking than attempting to police the practice off the streets. Decriminalising their work would be more useful than providing them with formal facilities in many instances.

We can also learn a thing or two about tackling prostitution and its attendant problems from some of the more lenient countries we're trying to impress. Kragdadigheid (force) has failed. There's no reason to suggest it will succeed because of the World Cup.

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