While many are still coming down from the excitement of the World Cup, Zodwa Sangweni* is one South African who was disappointed by how the much-hyped event turned out.
A sex worker in Johannesburg, Sangweni said despite predictions that sex business would be booming, the World Cup season was actually a bust.
“We didn’t work well, there was no money,” she said. “Maybe for those who work in hotels but for us on the streets, we didn’t get any business.”
Ahead of the global sporting spectacle – which has a reputation for off-the-pitch debauchery – many were speculating that the real winners of the event would be sex workers. An influx of as many as 40,000 sex workers was anticipated, mostly from Zimbabwe, but also from as far away as Russia.
However, just as there were fewer spectators than planned, so too for sex workers.
According to Sangweni, there were no new faces in the streets of Johannesburg on which she works.
Cape Town wasn’t much better, noted Dianne Massawe, Advocacy Officer at the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), who said that most Cape Town sex workers she spoke with told her business was slower than usual.
Massawe is waiting for research being conducted by Stellenbosch University to find out the real numbers of foreign workers who showed up for the World Cup, but after speaking to sex workers and looking at the number of sex advertisements in South African publications, it looks like the influx was insignificant and overhyped.
“As far as the ‘Great trek’ of sex workers, most foreign sex workers were already here prior to the World Cup,” she said. “The many Zimbabwean sex workers…are here because of unsteady economic climate in their country.”
Henry Trotter, an expert on the sex trade and author of the book Sugar Girls and Seamen, which explores issues of dockside prostitution in South Africa, agreed, noting that most World Cup fans weren’t interested in paid sex.
“Most of the tourists were soccer fans and were here just for the soccer,” he said. “We may be mistaken in our stereotyping of soccer fans by assuming that they always have sex on their minds.”
Trotter said he’s found that there isn’t much of a demand for paid sex in South Africa by foreign visitors to the country: most of the market is local men. He attributes this to the reputation South Africa has as the country with the highest HIV and AIDS prevalence in the world.
However, there have been conflicting reports about the inflow of foreign sex workers. An investigation highlighted on the Christian Science website found that eight popular hotels were filled with “newly arrived prostitutes, most of them from Zimbabwe” and a hotel manager is quoted as saying “there are some from as far as China, Pakistan, India, Hong Kong and Venezuela who are here for prostitution.”
One thing is for sure though, Sangweni and her colleagues enjoyed sovereignty of their turf without any external infringements. And the same can be said for the sex workers known to SWEAT in Cape Town.
And Trotter is probably right that any bad business is linked to fears of HIV and AIDS. The Dutch government had warned its citizens to carry their own condoms in case they ran out in South Africa and the British government donated one million pounds for 42 million male condoms to be made available during the tournament.
Foreign visitors were also warned by international media that fraternising with local sex workers could land them in already-crowded South African prisons.
In an article on the subject, women’s rights and reproductive health expert Marlise Richter and Massawe note that the 2006 World Cup in Germany also saw less sex work than expected, even though the German government legalised sex work ahead of the event. They said many fans attended with their families, so “prowling the red light district” was not an option.
They also noted that most tourists were not high rollers as is often assumed, but in fact budget travellers with just enough money for tickets, transport and accommodation.
But Trotter thinks in South Africa it was less about money and more about group euphoria. “The likelihood of a fan meeting another fan and pairing off for some free sex was higher than someone soliciting the services of sex workers,” he said.
Until the World Cup fever hit, the issue of sex work has historically been absent from mainstream media and politics. But although disgraced former police commissioner Jackie Selebi made news with a proposal to legalise sex work in time for the World Cup in order to “free his officers to deal with more pressing security issues”, lobbying for decriminalisation has actually been taking place behind the scenes for almost a decade.
However, a 2007 survey carried out by the research organisation African Response noted that 79% of South Africans were not in favour of the idea.
So what next for sex workers in South Africa who continue to ply their dangerous trade illegally and suffer harassment from authorities?
“The police are the ones who always harass us and give us problems,” said Sangweni. “They demand money from us and some demand sex.”
For sex workers like Sangweni, decriminalising the trade would surely improve her life – and it’s the first step to getting her off the dangerous streets of Johannesburg.
*Not her real name.
Doreen Gaura is the Communications Officer at Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service.
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