Assault, kidnapping, rape and now Covid-19. These are just some of the life-threatening risks that Pietermaritzburg’s sex workers face daily when they try to go about their jobs.
Prostitution in South Africa is illegal as well as related activities such as running a brothel and pimping. However, it remains widespread.
The sex workers who spoke to Weekend Witness said sometimes the police arrest them, but they always let them go free the following morning on a warning.
Some of them recently shared their harrowing tales with Weekend Witness and related how Covid-19 had crippled their industry as they now sometimes go for a whole day without getting a single client.
“It’s not easy doing what we do … Every day when you leave home you don’t know if you will make it back alive,” said *Olwethu (21).
They charge R50 for a single round and if the client does not want to have sex in the bushes or the car then he has to foot the bill for a room at one of the B&Bs in the area or pay R30 extra to go to the sex worker’s room at Jika Joe informal settlement.
*Nothando (22) who arrived from Hammarsdale in February said she cannot charge more than R50 because that is the going rate where they operate - on a stretch of Echo Road, next to Jika Joe. “Sometimes you get generous clients and they give you R200 or R300 for the round, but others don’t care.”
*Samke (21) said while R50 might appear cheap to many, there are clients who have the audacity to still try and negotiate for a lower price.
They rent shacks from the slumlords at Jika Joe where they pay rent ranging between R250 and R350 depending on the number of people sharing the room. Nothando shares her room with her sister who is also a sex worker.
While they continue working, the group said they are, however scared of contracting the virus from their clients and so they wear masks, but the risk is still there.
“We are scared but what else can we do? We still have bills to pay and we have to buy food and clothes,” said Nothando.
She claimed she used to make about R2 000 a day before the lockdown but now she was happy if she managed even to get R500.
“When I used to make more money, I would sometimes take a day off to rest but now I have to be out on the street everyday hustling.”
Samke and Olwethu said sometimes they go to bed with only R50 in their pockets. They believe the decline in the demand for their services is due to fewer cars from other cities passing through Pietermaritzburg as well as people not having money because they have not been able to work during lockdown.
RAPE, KIDNAPPING, BEATINGS BY MUNICIPAL GUARDS
Olwethu, Nothando and Zama showed Weekend Witness the scars from injuries allegedly sustained either at hands of their clients or Msunduzi’s security guards.
Olwethu alleged she has been a victim of kidnapping several times. In a recent incident, she said she was first tied to a chair for hours but was eventually let go when the client got tired of keeping her.
“About three weeks ago another client took me in a car and dumped me in Richmond. I had to walk all the way back home because I was too scared to hitchhike.”
In February a truck driver picked her up from Pietermaritzburg and dropped her off near Howick without even paying her for the services she rendered.
“That’s kidnapping and rape but reporting it to the police is not going to get me anywhere. I’m just glad he did not kill me because he could have ... dumped my body in some bush.”
Nothando said she once had to jump out of a moving car when three men who posed as clients started strangling her as they drove to their destination where they were supposed to have sex.
She said she fought them off by using her elbows and hit them on their genitals then jumped out as the car sped away. “I was limping for weeks after that.”
The sex workers told Weekend Witness that they have resorted to paying a group of men from Jika Joe, who sit a distance away from them, to keep an eye out for them and to help them when they are attacked. Sex workes who need protection pay these men R50 a day each.
The sex workers also spoke about the hostile relationship they have with Msunduzi security guards who they alleged often chase them around and assault them for no reason. As a result, they said, they seek cover whenever they see a car with the City’s branding. “They come here and whip us with sjamboks until we are bleeding all over. They are also very fast,” said Olwethu.
In her recent run-in with the municipal guards, Samke said they loaded them up with vagrants and drove them towards Richmond where they dumped them on the side of the road. She said it would have been better if they had taken them to the homeless shelter because most of them needed medical help after the whipping they sustained.
However, Msunduzi Municipality spokesperson, Thobeka Mafumbatha, said the City was not aware of such allegations. “Any abuse of anyone is condemned by the municipality and it must be reported as such.
“The municipality deals with and removes anyone who is on the streets illegally without a permit. If a sex worker has a legal permit to operate that will be another case,” she said.
The competition is tough, especially with new sex-workers arriving almost every month to join the industry. To try and level the playing fields some of the sex workers have apparently resorted to using muthi to entice clients.
“They apply it to their eyebrows and put something under their tongues. It works for them but it’s not something I would do,” said Olwethu.
She said there was also competition amongst the older sex workers and the youths. This, she said, was due to clients preferring the young.
The sex workers, most of whom did not finish high school, said they all had dreams of leaving the sex trade industry and utilising their other talents to make a living. “There was a sex worker who used to use her earnings to pay for nursing school. She is now a qualified nurse and has stopped selling sex.
“I wish I could also do this because I have my matric but it just seems too difficult because I am not making as much money as I used to when I started working as a sex worker,” said Slu.
Olwethu, who stopped going to school when she was in Grade 11, said she loves making clothes, making beaded jewellery and also braiding people’s hair, while Zama said she was hoping to be taken off the streets to the homeless shelter. “I want to stop using drugs and I know they will help me at the shelter. They are chasing us away now when we go there, apparently it’s too full.”
* Names have been changed to protect their identities.