Sparks fly at talkshop on sex workers

KEY GROUP: Sexworkers are to play a part in countering new HIV infections. PHOTO: ALAN EASON
KEY GROUP: Sexworkers are to play a part in countering new HIV infections. PHOTO: ALAN EASON

Tempers flared yesterday between participants in the debate held to discuss the decriminalising of sex work.

Speaking at the #SexWork debate yesterday in Rosebank, Johannesburg, Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng charged that the panelists on the debate were not sex workers and that they were mostly white.

The panelists included Madri Bruwer, who runs an organisation that reaches out to sex workers in Cape Town. Bruwer had earlier said sex work was a "forced profession".

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"A raped sex worker needs to be able to walk into a police station and lodge a charge," Mofokeng said. "A transgender needs to be able to walk in at any abortion centre. There are five white people on that panel, where are the sex workers? We cannot continue to portray black women as victims. These women have agency, they are not powerless or voiceless."

Major Margaret Stafford, national coordinator for the Salvation Army, took exception to Mofokeng's comment and said she would not apologise for being white.

The legalisation of sex work has been a bone of contention argued by various organisations including religious, human and gender rights activists.

Sex workers have previously spoken out against exploitation by clients and police.

Human rights activist Nosipho Vadima said diversion programmes from sex work were not sustainable. "Research Sonke Gender Justice has done shows that we have about 153000 sex workers in SA, meanwhile SA has an unemployment rate of more than half its population. We had a programme where women were enrolling for school and getting excellent grades.

"When it was time for them to work, their criminal records as sex workers would come out. We have requestedfor [their] expungements, nothing has been done."

Zonke*, 41, a sex worker in Rosebank said she had been "raped, abducted and abused by the police". "The police take our condoms. Sometimes they drive and abduct the men [clients] to a derelict area, demanding cash payment of up to R5000 for their silence, especially if the men have a wedding ring on.

"I have been working for 15 years. I lost my parents when I was 18 and as the eldest daughter I had to look after my five siblings. I started working in Secunda with a friend and we later decided to move to Joburg.

"We even fight each other on the streets because we always drink before going to a client. So it is very rough. Decriminalisation would mean that I can open a case against abusive clients, cops and co-workers," Zonke said .

However human traffic survivor Grizelda Grootboom said decriminalisation would catapult human trafficking.

"This has been sugar-coated around a health reason. Activists say decriminalisation would mean sex workers can have better health treatment.

"I was in the industry [sex work] from [age] 18 to 26 . My pain comes from women I have lost from this work. I lost a baby in an abortion house. I have psychological effects, I freak out when sleeping at a hotel and there is no plastic [on the bed] worrying if I will wet my bed. I worry about my nose bleeding from all the substances I had to take to survive," Grootboom said.

Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development John Jeffery admitted that decriminalisation of sex work was a complex issue and that first world countries were moving away from it.

"Yes, the current status quo cannot continue. We are also dealing with high rates of unemployment, high levels of immigration. Our country does have porous borders," said Jeffery. "We have to look at what is best for South Africa. Germany, which is very liberal, has tightened their policy on sex work, France has moved to partial decriminalisation, one wonders."

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