Come, Mr President, you’re keeping the sex workers waiting
A group of prostitutes speak about their challenges on the sidelines of the case of slain escort Siam Lee
“I get up, freshen up, have a bath, brush my teeth – maybe have a coffee if it’s in the morning, and then I go out ... go out to hustle.”
That’s the daily routine for Durban prostitute Pinky, whose weathered face belies her 29 years and frequent turns to the bottle to ease the pain of her difficult life.
Originally from the low-income suburb of Wentworth, south of Durban, Pinky struggled to find the words to express herself and was hardly able to contain her emotions when she began detailing the circumstances surrounding her life in prostitution.
She told Times Select she began life as a prostitute at the age of 18 and could not recall the number of men she had slept with, only that it was well into the hundreds.
She revealed that on an average day she would sleep with at least three to five clients.
“It was hard at home, we were like a poor family, so I tried to go out there and make the money, it’s the struggle.”
Pinky said her two brothers and parents, who are pensioners, were unaware of her double life, and that an incident in her upbringing pushed her in the direction of prostitution.
“I was drugged and raped by a group of guys when I was 15. No one in my family knows, and they don’t know what I do for a living. I keep it a secret.”
When she tested HIV positive in March 2017 it was a setback, but she continued working.
“It was heartbreaking, but what can you do? I just take my treatment. Some of my clients request not to use a condom but I tell them that it’s for their own safety and they have to use it.”
She was speaking following the appearance of a 30-year-old businessman who is accused of the brutal murder of Durban escort Siam Lee in January 2018.
Showing support for slain Lee, Pinky gathered outside the Durban High Court with about 50 members of the survivor-led movement, Kwanele, who have called on President Cyril Ramaphosa to provide clarity around the possible decriminalisation of sex work in the country.
In their letter, they said: “Dear Mr President, as women with first-hand experience of being prostituted in South Africa, we, the movement of the survivors of the system of prostitution – predominantly poor black women from disadvantaged backgrounds – wish to express our shock, concern and disappointment at your recent support of the full decriminalisation of the sex trade at the opening of the newly built court in Johannesburg.”
“You state in your address that all relevant stakeholders will be – or have already been – consulted in this process. However, we do not feel that our viewpoint has been clearly heard,” they continue.
“Our leader and Founder wrote an open letter to you last year stating our concern regarding the adoption of a resolution by the African National Congress to work towards decriminalising the exploitation of vulnerable women and girls – referred to by you as ‘sex work’.
“Then, on the 23rd August 2018, two-hundred of us, representing hundreds of other women from seven provinces, delivered a memorandum requesting that you look into this matter and that you meet with us so that we can further elaborate on our arguments. However, we have yet to receive a response,” they stated.
In closing, the letter draws attention to the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) Report issued in 2017, which recommends that SA does not enact a law that fully decriminalises the sex trade. One of its two key policy recommendations was that SA follows the Nordic or Equality Model, which has been successful in ending the exploitative systems of prostitution.
Kwanele founder Mickey Meji said she could empathise with Pinky because she had once been a prostitute herself.
“The Nordic or Equality Model has been successful in ending the exploitative system of prostitution. It has gained momentum since it was first pioneered in Sweden in 1999, followed by Norway, Iceland, Canada, Northern Ireland, France, the Republic of Ireland and Israel. Founded on the principle of gender equality, it recognises and reflects the inherent inequalities within prostitution and aims to protect the rights of prostituted individuals,” said Meji.
Kwanele would continue to fight until prostitution was decriminalised and the “users or buyers” were penalised.
“We find that prostitutes are the only ones who get arrested. I myself have spent countless nights in police cells for walking the streets as a prostitute yet I have never seen any man who solicited sex from a woman arrested.
“We want the users, pimps and brothel owners to be penalised. The only way to resolve the problem is to kill the demand. Once the demand is gone, the supply would also follow,” she said.
Presidential spokesperson Khusela Sangoni didn’t respond to queries.