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Durban Red Lights

by Matt Wilson / Images by Samora Chapman / 20.03.2014

“Would you like a prostitute with that cappuccino?” was just one of the snarky remarks made on facebook this week as a rumour surfaced that Glenwood was set to become Durban’s own official red light district. The rumour sent conservatives into hysterics. The FB comment was made by a local Glenwood Café owner, in response to the announcement of a meeting addressing the issue of sex workers operating in the Umbilo/ Glenwood/ Glenmore areas. The flyer announced a meeting to discuss the area’s descent into official red light district status, and the need to “fight for our children and homes!”


The meeting was in fact arranged as a joint intervention by the commission for Gender Equality, Sisonke Sex Workers’ Movement and the Umbilo Community Policing Forum.

“The poster regarding sex work that was circulated this week is not what the meeting is about,” stated Nicole Graham, ward councilor for the DA, in an attempt to set the facts straight. “It wasn’t circulated by organisers. It’s a general discussion on the issue. No-one is trying to make Glenwood a safe zone for sex workers, or a red light district.”


Miss Hilda Grobler, the mediator for the meeting in the packed hall at Glenwood Boys High, also confirmed that the information in the flyer was in fact false and there were no plans for Glenwood to become a red-light district. The meeting was staged to acknowledge a problem and address the issues from both sides of the spectrum and possibly let people get a broader understanding of an incredibly complex social issue. It seemed that the majority of the people in the hall couldn’t come to terms with the fact that sex workers of Glenwood/ Umbilo, or any part of the country for that matter, are in fact people, people who deserve some kind of basic human rights. People who face intimidation and abuse from their clients and the police. People who get beaten, raped or even murdered, perceived as they are by some sectors of society to be criminals.

In an article released in 2012 which revolved around a study conducted by The Sex Worker Education & Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), Sisonke (a movement spearheaded by sex workers for sex workers and one of the orgainsers of the meeting), and the Women’s Legal Center, stated that in interviews conducted with 308 sex workers, 70 percent reported that they had been wrongfully treated by the police. “The main types of abuse include assault, harassment, arbitrary arrest, violation of procedures and standing orders, inhumane conditions of detention, unlawful profiling, exploitation, bribery and denial of access to justice” – Melissa Turley 2012.

With rampant unemployment in South Africa, many of these sex workers are working the streets in order to feed their families.

Miss Thuli Khoza, a sex worker who is a part of the Sisonke Sex Workers Movement, stood up bravely in front of the white sea of angry faces and urged the community to work with the sex workers to create a safer environment. “If we come together we can find a solution, we are human beings, we are mothers, we are also residents of the Glenwood area, we are victims of being raped and we get victimized by the police,’ said Khoza.

Janine Hicks, from the Commission on Gender Equality believes that sex work should be decriminalized and a possible solution would be looking at countries such as Sweden, who have progressive laws on gender-based issues and the treatment of sex workers. She went on to explain how the buyers should be brought to task and that the criminalisation of sex work promotes the spread of HIV/Aids.

Nicole Graham, ward councilor for the area, said she does not believe in the criminalization of sex workers within a personal capacity and she believes that the issue of sex work is one of the biggest problems she faces in the community. “The community rejects sex workers, I do believe it’s a gender issue at play.” Graham believes that when other areas are clamped down such as Albert Park the neighbouring areas feel the backlash and a possible intervention plan driven by the city could be implemented.

Ben Madokwe, Chairperson for the Umbilo Community Policing Forum, commented on how pimps and drug lords were starting to fight over space and that these workers themselves were drug users. “The prostitutes are feeding their drug addiction, not their families,” he said. He also complained that they were ‘conducting their business’ in public, which was an eyesore, and was not conducive to a child friendly environment. Madokwe also made note of how certain B&Bs in the area were operating as illegal brothels and running their trade without the correct licenses, as well as offering hourly rates to facilitate the industry.

The meeting was then open to the public to air their points of view and a certain paradox started to emerge. One half went left and the other half right, and the people who were vehemently against the inclusion of sex workers in the area were met with staggering applause. “You are not welcome in our community!” shouted one man, followed by loud applause, whistles and cheering which echoed through the big hall. “I’d rather be a fool for God then a fool for Satan!” piped up an elderly gent as a group of conservative white folk behind me answered with a gentile “Here, here!” in the fashion of old British colonial parliament.

Yet for every one of these comments, there were counter-arguments by concerned citizens that empathized with the plight of the sex workers and urged police and government to find credible solutions.

“Why not use the sex workers to help combat crime, since they are always on the streets?” was one progressive sentiment shunned by the conservatives in the room, causing an angry bald man to start shouting vehemently about devaluation of his property.


“I think it’s pretty sad that we value bricks more then we value human dignity,” countered a concerned resident. This was met by a huge outcry from the predominantly angry white audience and at one stage it seemed they were getting ready to sharpen their pitch forks and light their torches to ‘protect’ their homes, at all costs.

This kind of back and forth rhetoric went on for some time, and it seemed women were on the side of the sex workers and men against them, a patriarchal paradigm as old as the hills, and sex work for that matter.

By the end of the night, there were two solutions put forward – the conservatives believed that the sex workers of the area should be driven out  and relocated where they can become ‘some other community’s problem’ and the lefties believed that it’s a problem that won’t go away anytime soon, and it needs to be dealt with in a holistic way where human rights should be an empirical part of the process, that sex workers should ultimately be allowed to trade in a safe and clean environment free from harm and discrimination.

All images © Samora Chapman

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  1. Ozzie says:

    I was at the same meeting and it wasn’t as black and white as the last paragraph in my opinion.

    My feelings following the meeting put me in neither a “conservative” or “leftie” box. I was most impressed by Thuli speaking in front of a community well-known for it’s opposition to her trade. I was also very embarrassed by the booing and heckling by old whites whenever a resident with an opposing view took the mic.

    I’m vehemently against human rights violations and the abuse of women. I also don’t have a problem with what people spend their money on, including sex – that’s the human right of the buyer and seller. I don’t mind if all vices are legalised, I don’t think it would make anything change for the worse. But I would like the Umhlanga men in their nice cars to respect how hard I’ve worked to buy my house, that it is what I choose to invest the bulk of my money in, and why I don’t want them picking up prostitutes right outside of it.

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  2. Anonymous says:

    Some drastic errors in quotes by Nicole on this one guys. Her personal views were that of decriminalisation and regulation were the right direction to go ( She was for it ). However unregulated street level was the issue she put forward.

    Having been out on these streets through long nights, Sizonke and SWEAT are never any where to be found. I personally have been at incidents where these women have been attacked on the street by other street level elements, and no help is ever to be found.

    The statement that these individuals should be given rights as “sex workers” was shunned by the crowd but again mis quoted here, as there was a resounding response to the sex workers being given rights as human beings. None of the organisations that work primarily in that area have been had up on any assault or violations of human rights, in fact the mandate and guidelines of these organisations state clearly that no violence of any type will be tolerated.

    The comments by the CPF spokesperson were correct and founded on direct interactions with these individuals who are on the streets working the night. The majority of them are feeding addictions some of these sadly imposed by the pimps within the area.

    The comment by Sisonke spokes person that it is individuals in the area that are supporting the sex workers, shows a complete misunderstanding of the issues at hand, and again highlights the fact that they are not at a street level. The vast majority ( not all but most ) of the vehicles doing pickups off street corners are from out of area. NUR / NU / PTN — the statement people don’t $h1t where they eat comes to mind. Again this isn’t hear say this is straight from first hand experience in this area. As with the issue that the majority of the girls that we have spoken to do not originate from the area either, with the majority of them travelling in because they know the clientelle frequent the area.

    As to men vs women on opinion, the BCSF organisation that patrols from a safety point of view is primarily women driven, who are strongly against street level prostitution and its ripple effects.

    Thanks for covering the meeting I just wanted to clarify some of those points. I dont think that any one in the area would disagree that every human entitled to their constitutional rights, those extend to familys and home owners as well.

    However Sizonke and SWEAT are purely jumping on a band wagon for the mouth piece this was not a forum to discuss legislation and constitutional changes those need to happen at a gov level. I wait to see them actually assisting at a street level, however I doubt it will happen.

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  3. Ewok says:

    I was there for the first half, the presentations, and had to leave for work so I missed the community dialogue. I was impressed by the organizers, the bravery of the spokesperson from SWEAT, the composure of the councillor and the reserve of the CPF chairperson. I was most gratified by the way the mediator handled her role. Apparently none of this was sustained when it was opened to the floor, but I think many expected that. It was obvious that people had come to fly their flags. I was most stoked to recognize that this conservative community harbors some ‘dissident’ young voices that are willing to break the laager mentality of the old guard and recognize that any solution to this issue needs to comprehensively include all effected parties, and not just bunker down into some of the very old school trenches of ‘property values’. I’m a Glenwood home owner, the sex workers operate my whole block. I still recognize that they are more often then not the victims here.

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  4. Juddy poo says:

    Firstly I’m the guy who wrote the “prostitute with your cappuccino ” comment. Silly? Yes !

    I’ve never had the need for a prostitute(yet), but I realize they serve a purpose and that they are ladies/lady boys with rights. But I believe I also have rights, and I’d rather not have sex workers around my daughters school, call me old fashioned.

    And for the record a prostitute and a cappuccino would be R120. Not served on Sundays.

    Juddy poo

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  5. Laura says:

    My own feeling is that this meeting might have turned out to be more constructive if more thought had been given to actually providing more detailed information on what the decriminalization of sex work actually means….Seemed to me that when most people in the audience heard “decriminalization” their thoughts jumped to hoards of sex workers doing crack on every corner whilst drug dealers and pimps run open gun battles down Davenport Rd. They were *not* thinking about better zoning, better regulation, taxation, and ultimately better protection for vulnerable women. It meant people were reacting from emotion, not from any informed position on the available options.

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  6. Anonymous says:

    The attendance was overwhelming if you were to compare it with the usual CPFmonthly meetings held in this area,where real crimes are talked about.does this mean that people take sex work more seriously than violent house robberies,car jacking & attacks that happen in the area?- we just have to wonder as its clear fear was used to motivate attendance.since I’ve lived in the area sex workers have been around for a long time & what has changed now is that there’s more black ladies who are operating in the area,would the residents have reacted in the same way if the ladies were white?, yes some of these ladies’ behavour is beyond reason,but can we say different to what some patrollers do to them- I don’t think so. I just hope all the stakeholders play their part that is based on human dignity. These ladies are doing what they do for different reasons & we can’t treat them like they’re sub human. SWEAT has to do a lot more than talk if they want residents to be more understanding.I fail to understand how sex work affects the property values because tenants are paying more & more each year,somehow the owners have a certain agenda.It is clear that solutions are there,those affected have to play their part & contribute instead of passing the buck.

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  7. Marion says:

    Anonymous rightly asks “would the residents have reacted in the same way if the ladies were white?” – probably yes, because this issue has a lot to do with gender relations, power, shame, guilty feelings about own needs, anger against the powerful but vulnerable prostitutes etc. etc. but also with race. What disturbs me when observing people from the CPF and their perhaps uncalled friends harassing the prostitutes with cars and quad-bikes on the pavements, playing police and denying fellow humans their human right to be in and use public spaces.

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  8. Mymsta says:

    While I do feel for the prostitutes (they are human after all, ladies and gents), I can understand why residents of Glenwood/Umbilo would be loathe to lend anything resembling support to the prostitutes’ cause, especially given the almost exponential rate at which the number of prostitutes in the area has grown.

    The problem with prostitution is that it brings with it a number of other evils…drugs, theft, violence, etc. It’s something akin to the broken window theory. Allow one to flourish, and the rest will soon follow.

    Another reason for the attitudes of the conservatives is probably the change (read: degradation) that has occurred in Umbilo over the last couple decades. There wasn’t much mention made of the general age groups of the two opposing factions, but I’d be willing to be the conservatives were the older ones, and the liberals the younger (with age comes cynicism, and an urge to ensure one’s own survival, our some shit like that). Graffiti always seems to have flourished in Lee class areas, and I’m sure a lot of the writers will agree that Umbilo has been good to writers. I’m sure the residents of Umbilo don’t like the fact that the insinuation of that is that Umbilo is lower class.

    I don’t know that legalizing prostitution would necessarily solve Glenwood and Umbilo’s problem either…while it may regulate the industry to some extent, you’ll find a lot of the pimps won’t like the idea of passing tax on their earnings and a lot of the hoes won’t like the fact that they can’t be legal sex workers because a doctor told them they have AIDS. Never mind the drug factor.

    TLDR: I feel sorry for the prostitutes, but if I lived or owned property in Glenwood/Umbilo, I wouldn’t want it legalized or in any way encouraged there either.

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  9. blast from the past says:

    It is “hear, hear” you … (insert suitable pejorative)

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  10. Matt says:

    Hi guys, I apologize for misquoting Nicole Graham, I went back and managed to find some video footage of the event from somebody filming it for research reasons, and now it’s more accurate. Thanks for reading and I’m glad to see most people are responding to the story in a positive constructive light.

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  11. tasamza says:

    my god! the essays in the comments

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  12. paul says:

    let us then look at the glass half full option, which was obviously amiss at this meeting
    i am a resident of glenwood and was on the verge of selling up when i discovered a whole wall of fresh and friendly faces along ester roberts and davenport road. i can now sit at the glenwood bakery and corner cafe and, if i am quick enough and get my glasses out in time,catch a glimpse of the young and delicious nether regions of some sprightly nubile personage.
    surely that is all worth the little extra we pay for rates and coffee and does not even take into account the added opportunity of getting to know the young things more intimately and just possibly float away in a cloud of bliss.

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