Prostitution has kept the City of Gold on its knees since the 1800s

2014-09-16 18:45

"If you’re going to talk about prostitution, you have to go back to day one. Because, not surprisingly, prostitution is part of the fabric of a city like Johannesburg," says Noor Nieftagodien, head of the History Workshop at Wits University.

A history of the sex trade in the City of Gold offers us a way to understand the population waves and cycles that shape it.

Africa’s second largest city after Cairo, Joburg remains the world’s largest city that is not built near a water source or harbour. Founded in 1886 after the discovery of gold, Joburg grew rapidly over the next few decades as word of the discovery spread. By 1875, almost 100?000 people lived here and the mines employed more than 75?000 of them.

Gold rush and a shortage of women

The discovery of gold led to a change in the demographics of Joburg’s population, which had been largely San, Sotho and Tswana.

As Nieftagodien explains, “in the first few decades, it was a very male-dominated city. Male and immigrant?...?Joburg saw an influx of skilled mine workers from Britain, the US, Australia and parts of Europe. And then you saw unskilled African migrants who came from various parts of southern Africa.”

The result was that single men (including men who may have had families back at home) were dominant. Only a small percentage of men were married in early Joburg. This meant that the few single women in town were in great demand. “It created a huge demand for sex – in particular, transactional sex.”

The situation bred two major anxieties for the state: sex outside of marriage and the consumption of alcohol.

Paul Kruger’s government was concerned about these happening on the mines, but not concerned enough to intervene. Of course, the sex wasn’t just heterosexual, although that is the focus here. Given the predomination of men, homosexual relations (some transactional and some part of the compound culture of the mines) happened whether the state liked it or not.

Frenchfontein and cross-racial sex

Towards the end of the 1890s, Jozi began to mimic what was happening in New York. The rise of organised crime and gangs became commonplace. Gangsters from the US and eastern Europe settled in town – what is now the city centre – and created Frenchfontein.

It was an area dominated by pimps and illegal business owners, who brought in white women from the UK, France and Lithuania. They were to become the first prostitutes in Joburg, along with a small number of coloured women from the Western Cape.

By the end of the 1800s, says Nieftagodien, about 10% of the women in Joburg were prostitutes.

The brothels and boarding houses of Frenchfontein, of which about 100 were recognised aside from the underground network, catered to white migrant workers – and despite the government preferring that this not be the case – a black clientele as well.

The cross-racial sex caused some anxiety. It was one thing to have prostitution, another for it to cross racial lines.

During this time, and this changes in the middle of the 1900s, domestic work was the domain of black men because there were few black women in town.

The proximity of black men to white women in the household, often the space for cross-racial sex, was a further source of concern. The original swart gevaar (black threat) was around the virile black male, often described as a “black jaguar”.

From 1900 to 1910, the government attempted to crack down on gangsters, prostitution and illegal alcohol. To get South African men to marry and settle down, they shipped in white women from various parts of the British Empire to marry Joburg’s white settlers.

There were also other kinds of transactional sex taking place in the black mine compounds. Miners had sex among themselves, older men distributed younger men and the like.

Lord Alfred Milner, the new administrator of the Transvaal, came under moral pressure and, in 1903, introduced a new Immorality Act, which went further than the previous legislation that had banned sexual intercourse between “black males and white prostitutes”.

It now outlawed all sexual intercourse between “African males and European women”.

Yet Milner was not concerned with the operation of brothels, allowing those that had up to 10 prostitutes “to operate openly, provided their business was conducted in a suitably restrained and discreet fashion”.

Once again, prostitution boomed in Frenchfontein, which, along with the buoyant liquor industry, added to Joburg’s reputation as “the swinging city”. It was 1905 and Joburg was just 19 years old.

The roaring 20s

Joburg now saw a new wave of migratory women. Afrikaans women, largely young, uneducated and poor, had been pushed off their land and into the western part of the city. For many of them, transactional sex came from desperation.

In the 1920s, the state intervened with the Poor Policy that essentially rescued these women from living among poor blacks and reduced their reliance on prostitution.

But it was in the mid-1930s that the real urban revolution took place.

The 30s and 40s: Kwandonga ziyaduma

Manufacturing overtook mining as the biggest contributor to Joburg’s economy. Black people outnumbered whites, and the black female population changed.

Middle class black women were able to find work as nurses, teachers and social workers. But during this time, rural areas were under enormous pressure and black women came to Joburg to find employment and/or their husbands who had left home.

Many found that their husbands had either started new families on the Rand or were not earning enough to make ends meet. It is in this context that the first wave of black prostitutes occurs in Jozi.

Illegal beer brewing and sex work become both attractive and lucrative options (especially in the context of black people not being allowed to drink “white liquor”).

Additionally, Nieftagodien explains, these two economic activities gave women a degree of autonomy from men, as well as the state, in a male-centric city.

Illegal beer brewing led to the rise of the shebeen, which, along with back yard accommodation, was almost exclusively the domain of women. Shebeens drew men from the compounds and also provided the option of prostitution.

Throughout its history, Joburg’s sex trade was always “highly complicated”, Nieftagodien says. It offered a degree of independence for women, but also a degree of exploitation given the system of patriarchy and violence.

Stifling the revolution

Women were at constant loggerheads with the state and were at the forefront of making the apartheid system unworkable.

The state responded by requiring women as well as men to carry a pass, and denied them access to public housing unless they were married. This had a profound impact on prostitution by further curtailing the movement of sex workers.

The growth of new townships, which were heavily patrolled and controlled by the state, also had an adverse influence on the economic activities of women.

Pan-African sex trading

In the 80s, places like Hillbrow and Yeoville begin to become even more racially mixed, particularly more Pan-African, with women from across the continent forming part of the sex workforce in the inner city.

Brothels and clubs such as Kilimanjaro, The Summit and The Ambassador are staffed by a mix of young women from various parts of Africa who continue to service a diverse clientele. In a sense, the city’s sex trade story has come full circle.

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