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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!”

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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.”

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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.

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“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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