Deputy Minister John Jeffery was part of a panel discussing the countrys sex worker HIV plan, which was launched in March. Photo: Independent media

Durban - Sex workers heckled South Africa’s deputy minister of justice during a session at the International AIDS conference on Monday where he addressed criminalisation of the industry.

Deputy Minister John Jeffery was part of a panel discussing the country’s sex worker HIV plan, which was launched in March.

The session started out loudly even before Jeffery took to the podium, when about 50 male and female sex workers, some from other countries, marched into the auditorium with red umbrellas chanting, “sex work is work”; “my body my business” and demanding that prostitution be decriminalised in South Africa.

Jeffery stopped his address three times and waited while other panellists, including head of the South African National Aids Council (Sanca) Dr Fareed Abdullah appealed to the activists for calm.

“If you don’t let him talk, he will leave the stage and we won’t get to hear what he has to say, which won’t do any good for those who have come to listen to this session,” said Abdullah.

A foreign male sex worker sat through Jeffery’s short speech with his red umbrella open and raised, prompting the deputy minister to chide the man.

“I hope you learn some respect when you come to our country again,” a flushed Jeffery said.

When he continued, Jeffery told the audience that he realised decriminalisation was a “hot topic”, but it was also a complex issue.

“We have looked at different models, ones used in Norway, Scandinavia and France. Some have decriminalised sex work but made it illegal to operate a brothel, others have legalised sex work but criminalised soliciting on the streets.”

He said that in South Africa, the sexual offences act made it illegal to buy and sell sex.

Citing a Constitutional Court case, he said the findings indicated that the country’s laws restricting sex work did not infringe on rights.

“The Constitutional Court left it up to government to decide on a position.”

Although criminalised, there was “not much taking place in the form of prosecutions”, Jeffery added.

“In the last three years, there have only been 241 cases of people being arrested with regards to buying or selling sex,” he said.

In about half of these cases, those charged were male and in the other half female. They all resulted in an admission of guilt.

A report compiled by the South African Law Reform Commission, which is yet to be published, investigated the possibly of decriminalisation and, according to Jeffery, “the report is not positive”.

He said it recommended the continued criminalisation of sex work and that “diversion programmes” be introduced for sex workers.

“Cabinet would not let the report be released yet as government had to take a particular position on the issue before releasing it,” he said.

Jeffery said the world was divided on legalising sex work. He said if a referendum was to be held in South Africa, it “wouldn’t go the way [activists and sex workers] wanted it to go”.

If sex work was legalised, he asked, how would government stop the growth of the sex work industry, trafficking in people and sex tourism?

“It is a complex matter that needs thorough engagement and debate.”

According to the South African health monitoring study, the HIV prevalence in female sex workers was 71.8 percent. It also found that the prevalence of syphilis in female sex workers in Johannesburg and Cape Town was among the highest measured in the southern African region.

“[There is an] extraordinarily high burden of HIV amongst female sex workers, and results suggest that HIV is still spreading rapidly amongst those female sex workers who are not HIV-infected,” according to the study.

It also found that that in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg, nearly one in five female sex workers had been sexually assaulted in the prior year, and half of female sex workers in Johannesburg and Cape Town had experienced at least one incident of physical assault in the past year.