The sex trade in inner-city Johannesburg is the one of the few where people of different ethnicities, nationalities and races mix freely. Looking back at the xenophobic violence of 2008 — in the near-absence of reflection by the nation at large — sex work has been able to supersede some of the bitter taste the attacks left behind, with ladies from different parts of the continent working side by side. But when looked through a moral prism, the argument is that most of these women remain vulnerable to harm and are objectified.
Can sex be a way of forging genuine solidarity with people from other parts of the world? Is it safer to stop its legalisation? I think the answer narrows down to the principles that this country dared champion in its progressive leap to democracy: freedom of expression and tolerance.
It’s a breezy Saturday we scour Hillbrow, a part of the world that is the stuff of legend, infamous mainly for its stubbornness to fit nicely within the parameters of progressive urban development. It reeks, screams and screeches its way into material written about urban decay. Our tour of its mainstay — brothels — gets underway, becoming an exercise to see whether sex can be used to portray a certain kind of revolution or freedom for women from as far as Zambia and Thailand, or a mode of survival in a city that presents little prospects of opportunity in the face of fierce competition.
We are accompanied by a detective who deals with sex crimes in the Hillbrow area. “Forget all the CSI nonsense you see on TV, real time Hillbrow is a different beast altogether,” he says. Our first stop is Kilimanjaro, a nondescript face-brick building. “Kilimanjaro is mostly populated by Zambian men and working girls. Folks here are easygoing,” he explains. Having been operational for a couple of years, the brothel is one of the lesser frequented. Its women twirl around men, willing to amuse their whims. As a buffer to the idea of being in a brothel, the detective sings praises about the food on offer. “The Mozambican fish served here rivals the best Mediterranean cuisine.”
Next is The Ambassador on Pretoria Street, infamous for its New Years Eve celebrations where people would drop fridges and other electrical appliances from their apartment windows. The women are mostly from Lesotho and Zimbabwe. A guy we meet tells us that “sex is R50 for a single romp”.
“Women stay at the hotel sporadically, with a couple of months at work and the rest of the time in their home countries to support their families,” says the detective. It is easy to get lost in the expansive plume of smoke on this Saturday night as patrons look onto the nearby stage for a strip act with one eye, the other tensely on guard, possibly darting to the next unfortunate bloke to leave the premise. Muggings and stabbing incidents have become familiar occurrences on the pavement strip of the brothel.
The poles, cyberglow and rap video theatrics
Reeling from our experience at The Ambassador, our innards still intact, we head for the more lucrative end of Joburg’s sex trade. It is an ecosystem of grandeur, aspiration and cosmetic sleaze. Where else if not at inner city Joburg’s premium strip club — Royal. It boasts crimson lit signage and a belt of German sedans parked at the entrance. The entry fee sets you back R80. Abundant with vixens from northern countries, the parlours of Bangkok and local girls, Royal is as upmarket as they come.
“Some girls have enough money to support their kat and coke habits,” a Zambian lady sitting at the bar whispers in my ear. “If you are rich you can be a very happy man here.” The club is a labyrinth with each pocket evoking a unique ambience; here strip stages are the stuff of tacky rap videos with ample females skillfully upping and downing the poles.
The upper echelons are filled with rooms where men splurge R200 for a good time. Royal’s services are of a certain make where ladies peculiarly hoard in cliques and whisper sweet sales pitches to takers against the background of rap music.
Kin to the Royal is the Summit Club. It has a bigger advertising budget, with taxi mini buses spotting its logo and latest promotions. Summit attracts a younger crowd whose disposable income can be seen tucked in the knickers of working girls. One in a tight fitting cat suit sits on my lap and tells how she “downed four bottles of red wine yesterday because it was a stressful day,” that “this is what happens when all these men are paid at the end of the month and we have to work overtime”. However, the club’s upmarket reputation has been blighted in recent times. According to law enforcement, a girl was found strangled to death in one of its rooms. The suspect was a man in his 20s. “The case is still ongoing,” the detective says.
Save for the challenges that come with Joburg’s sex trade, it can’t be denied that it thrives and is a chance to economically uplift women. It is a first step towards their empowerment across all ethnic backgrounds. Could regulation be key rather than the naysaying sentiments of patriarchy? It is worth a thought.
All photographs by Tseliso Monaheng.