Zohra Mohamed Teke investigates the world of the country’s illicit sex trade as part of a series. In this first piece, she goes undercover in a plush Durban North brothel with permission from the madame operating the business.
Durban - It’s just before 9pm on a Friday and a group of scantily clad young women are relaxing in the lounge of a spacious home in an upmarket, quiet northen Durban suburb. It’s clean, homely and has several rooms encircling the central lounge leading on to the patio and the swimming pool.
The soft glow of the Moroccan-inspired lamps around the house is warm and welcoming, adding to the enticing ambience.
South Africa's prostitution industry is edging closer to being regulated amid a bold new plan by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to reduce HIV among prostitutes. But with prostitution being illegal in South Africa, this home-run business operates under the guise of a “massage parlour”. It looks like any other home from the outside, but it's been operating successfully like this for more than 10 years, with a steady stream of regular clients.
Still, it’s not been enough to escape the tough economic times
“It’s been quiet lately. People don’t spend the same money any more,” says Julia, the “madam” or owner.
Now in her sixties, Julia is not clad in leather or the killer red stilettos one often imagines female brothel keepers to wear. There is no feathered whip at her side. Instead, she is a friendly, ordinary looking woman. Someone I would imagine baking cupcakes for a school event. She chuckles at this comparison and tells me she’s been in the sex trade for more than 40 years, having started as a prostitute herself.
She pauses, adding that she was trafficked into it at a young age before working her way up as madam. But she is not ready to talk about that just yet.
“I don’t want to remind myself. I don’t want to go back there. Not yet,” she says almost apologetically.
The young women working in her home as prostitutes clearly adore and respect her.
“We are like family,” she says. “I have around 20 women working here. I take them in, and they pay me for the use of the room, by the hour. I don’t interfere with their business, I don’t dictate the rates they charge, usually around R450 for 30 minutes. But I am here for them. If they want to get out of the business, I support and even encourage them to do so if that’s what they want. I’ve been in their shoes so I know what it's like.
“Many of these girls have stories to tell. Some are single mothers, somestudents, some have husbands who drop them off at what they think is an office job. Some even work at an office by day and come here on weekends or at night without any family knowing.
“Every one of them is trying to survive. They are intelligent young women at the mercy of their financial circumstances, so who is society to judge their choices without knowing anything about their lives,?” Julia asks, as she shouts intermittent instructions to the women - from answering the phone to opening the gates for waiting clients.
It’s around 10pm before the first group of clients walk in. They are regulars, I’m told. Local Chinese residents - well dressed, quite muscular, in their mid-thirties. The type you would imagine closing business deals over Peking duck in a good restaurant.
They are warmly greeted and within seconds make their selection from the women sprawling across the sofas as Julia and I watch from a distance on the patio. Fluffy towels are drawn from a closet and the men are escorted to the rooms for the business of the night.
Thirty minutes later, they emerge, satisfied smiles etched across their faces as they make their payment, wave their goodbyes and disappear into the night. The women engage in ordinary banter, occasionally interrupted by the shrill ringing of the phone.
A caller requests a girl to spend a few hours with him at his beachfront flat. He is a regular, a city businessman. Sophie, a sophisticated single mother in her twenties, takes the call. She negotiates a rate and agrees to go over to his place. He offers to pay for a taxi and the deal is done.
“It’s someone I know, so its safe,” Julia tells me when I enquire about the safety of going to a client’s home. And, as it is a call made to the business, Julia still gets a cut from the R3 500 quoted to the client for a few hours.
I get a quiet moment with Sophie before she leaves. She is friendly but guarded. And, like many other prostitutes I’ve interviewed, has eyes which reflect a cold emptiness that not even her warm smile can disguise. I try prompting her into talking about why she chose this profession, and like Julia, she’s initially reluctant. But she opens up when she realises we share something in common -motherhood - and cautiously tells her story.
It feels as if I am stripping away the wall around her emotions as she hesitates before expanding on each sentence. She later admits talking about it is like lifting a weight of her shoulders - again, a common sentiment expressed by prostitutes, who say they develop a “two-lives attitude” to cope with what they do.
Sophie is a single Indian mother who grew up in Durban’s Chatsworth suburb. Recently divorced with a 4-year-old son, she says it's financial desperation which pushed her into the sex trade.
“I married at a young age and was never allowed to work. After my divorce I tried to find work and eventually gave up when I couldn’t find anything that would sustain me and my son. I haven’t told anyone in my family about what I do. I want to get out of it some day, but it is hard.
“This business swallows you once you’re in it. It’s very difficult to cope in a normal world after you’ve entered this one, and the money is an easy motivator. You don’t think about it. You just do it. You go into survival mode. That’s why it becomes hard to talk about - it reminds you of what you are doing.
“I live for my son. I wake up every morning, like all mothers. I make his lunch for school, prepare him for nursery, kiss him goodbye and drop him off before I come to work.
“Working as a sex worker is not what I chose to do - nobody chooses this. But it’s what I had to do to support my son. I just don’t want people to judge me or treat me inhumanely,” Sophie explains candidly as she touches up her make-up. It’s time for her to go. I wish her luck and tell her to be safe as she heads out the door to her client.
It’s close to 11pm and the night is in full swing as I rejoin Julia on the patio. The late night has mellowed her as she too begins to share her thoughts.
“I’ve always wanted to become a journalist,” she says. “I love Christiane Amanpour from CNN and dreamt of being just like her one day. I never got to pursue that dream. I still love reading, though. I read about everything, from politics to history. When I was younger and working as a sex worker, one of my clients was surprised when he saw my books. He asked me if I could actually read them! I was so angry. I mean, sex workers are human beings! We can think, we can read, we are not stupid people. I just wish society would stop judging us.”
Julia encourages regulation of the sex industry and welcomes Ramaphosa’s new plan.
“Regulation would allow sex workers to operate without being abused,” she says. “It would also allow for more transparent access to health care without fear of being judged, and regular checks so that there is greater control of disease and health risks.”
Her attention is diverted towards the entrance of the house where a young man wants to be let in.
“No smoking allowed here - sorry, you can’t come in,” Julia shouts across the passage to the man at the gate. She repeats her instruction to Pinky, a young woman who is about to let him in.
The private security guard usually stationed across the street to watch over the house is now at the entrance, his attention drawn by Julia’s shouts to the young man still waiting to be let in.
But it all goes up in a puff of smoke within seconds. The young man puts out his cigarette, apologises, and is waved in with his friends. They are warmly welcomed and all is forgiven.
The smoker is a young Indian man, no more than 23, accompanied by three others of a similar age and by an elderly Indian man who looks to be in his sixties.
It’s the same ritual - women are selected before accompanying the men to the rooms leading out of the lounge, and business is concluded 30 minutes later.
It’s a fascinating insight into the oldest profession in the world - controlled and carried out by women. And in a setting a far cry from the seedy, hazy, smoke-filled brothel often associated with prostitution.
The women and Julia are affable, presentable and ordinary looking. No puffy eyes, no scarred arms from injection needles. Instead, it’s a slick, covert operation offering illegal pleasure.
“I run a very strict business. The girls who work here must be drug-free, clean and non-smokers,” Julia says. “We have regular visits from the Sex Workers Education & Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) which I welcome as they do a lot of good work raising awareness around the rights and responsibilities of sex workers.
“The girls are voluntarily tested on a regular basis for HIV and other sexual diseases, and provided with condoms and resources to assist them. The business is self-regulated and that’s what makes us successful. All the cops know us and most of them are our customers anyway, and they know we run a business that’s safe and drug-free.”
She bemoans the lack of “white girls” in her business. It’s something that’s hard not to miss.
My investigations into the profiles of prostitutes around Durban reveal that most “massage parlours” offering sexual services have mainly Indian and a few black women working there.
White prostitutes tend to operate out of plush escort agencies in affluent northern Durban suburbs like Umhlanga or from their own flats or hotel rooms in those suburbs.
Julia confirms this, adding that more than 80% of prostitutes on the street are mainly African women.
“Many of them are illegal immigrants from other African countries and some don’t like the strict control we have in a closed environment. Many sex workers use drugs or alcohol to numb their feelings so that they can work in this environment. It’s their way of coping. But we don’t allow drugs or alcohol to be used, so the girls who work here are kept clean. Not every sex worker can maintain that in this business,” she says. “It’s difficult.”
Prostitution is a step closer to being regulated with Ramaphosa's plan to reduce HIV among prostitutes.
They are women at the mercy of their financial circumstances, so who is society to judge?
Ramaphosa’s plan aims to:
* Expand HIV testing to 90% of SA’s 153 000 prostitutes in the industry.
* Recruit a team of 1 094 in an educational campaign which includes human rights of prostitutes.
* Encourage no stigmatisation of or discrimination against them.
* Increase the use of condoms by protitutes to 95%.
* Reach at least 70 000 prostitutes within the first three years.
What anti-prostitution advocates say:
Cheryllyn Dudley, African Christian Democratic Party:
The ACDP won’t support the decriminalising of sex workers. All social and health services available in South Africa are already available to sex workers and it does not need a change of law to make these services available to them.
Those who are concerned that sex workers do not have access to these services or should access them more regularly should make every effort to assist them.
The ACDP aims to charge the users, the pimps and all others who make a living off the exploitation of sex workers. Scandinavian countries and others acknowledge sex work as an abuse of the sex worker.
The ACDP would want to protect the person who feels there is no other option but to enter this industry in order to put food on the table, and we would apply the full force of the law to the users and exploiters.
The ACDP tentatively supports the deputy president’s plan to reduce HIV among sex workers, but it does not require decriminalising for HIV interventions among sex workers to be rolled out.
Ashwin Trikamjee, president, SA Hindu Maha Sabha:
The Industrial Revolution which began in the 18th century has systematically usurped people, especially women, from their family homes into the marketplace.
Today, we have nucleated families with a plethora of social problems and to consider the decriminalisation of sex workers will further exacerbate and intensify the situation.
Hindus are people generally governed by rituals and sacred texts, including our epics.
Through these sacred teachings, their lives incarnate character for human well-being.
Thus, all activities in the Hindu home revolve around the woman, who is the epitome of nurture and morality.
Women are the carriers of one’s tradition and bring dignity to home and family.
It is in this brief context that to decriminalise prostitution is going against the very grain of vision initiated by President Zuma on a Moral Regeneration programme many years ago.
One must be aware that South Africa is a very young democracy and should not be just an imitator but rather be a model to other nations by being creative, and inventive.
Furthermore, South Africans should not be under an illusion that freedom once won has come to stay.ÂA little bit of carelessness can imperil our achievements, as has happened many times in the world.
To decriminalise sex workers is to destroy family life and bring the emergence of a new class of citizens that will eventually perpetuate further social and constitutional problems for our beloved country.
The state should rather expend its focus on rehabilitation.