South Africa

GroundUp: Immigrant sex workers under fire

By GroundUp 13 February 2018

Women in Gauteng are being arrested in what authorities say are blitzes on illegal migrants. By Kimberly Mutandiro for GROUNDUP.

First published by GroundUp

Its not because they are sex workers, but rather that they are in the country illegally. That’s what police are saying about the raids and arrests they have been carrying out in Gauteng.

In early February police conducted a late-night raid on the Springs Hotel and arrested about 20 women, mostly from Zimbabwe. Some men were also arrested. Witnesses say police fired two warning shots before entering the hotel to make the arrests.

The arrests “are part of an ongoing joint operation between SAPS and Home Affairs against illegal immigrants”, says Captain Johannes Ramphora of Springs Police Station. “We did not arrest them because of sex work… We are only following orders from Home Affairs.”

Other arrests were reported in January at the corner of Bree and Mooi streets in Johannesburg, where immigrant sex workers are known to operate.

GroundUp spoke to Danai, an immigrant sex worker who had been arrested on Zigzag Road in Nigel. Police stopped her with three other women and asked to see their passports. Two of the women had Zimbabwean passports, one had a Swazi passport and Danai had no passport. The “leave to enter” stamp had expired in all three passports. The four women were arrested.

Danai (all names have been changed in this article), who is being held by police, is expected to be taken to the Lindela Repatriation Centre for deportation. This will not be the first time she has been deported – she was previously taken to Beitbridge but came back to South Africa on the same day, crossing the river and paying smugglers for safe passage.

Danai, 37, first smuggled herself into South Africa in January 2005 after sex workers were being routinely arrested in her hometown of Harare. She had heard sex workers had more freedom in Johannesburg.

She shared a flat with two women in Nigel and on weekdays, when town was quiet, she’d ply her trade on Zigzag Road, where clients often picked her up in their cars. On weekends she would work in one of the brothels in town. Sometimes she would work in Joburg or Pretoria, particularly around month-end, when she and other women would book a hotel room for a few days.

Danai has a 15-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son, who live with her parents in Harare. Although she has not travelled home for a while, she sends them money every month.

Danai’s flatmates, Gloria and Linda, have left R1,000 for her at the Springs Police Station in case she is repatriated and needs money when she arrives. Gloria, who is from the small Zimbabwean town of Kwekwe, has been in Johannesburg for five years. She is building a house in Zimbabwe and travels home when she can, and regularly sends money to her mother, who is looking after her two-year-old son.

Linda came from Swaziland to Johannesburg at the age of 24 to study beauty therapy. She paid for her tuition through sex work and recently visited her parents back home – her passport stamp is still valid.

Another sex worker GroundUp spoke to, Zeria, is originally from Lesotho and has been living in South Africa since 2007. Her parents chased her out of their home when they discovered she was doing sex work. Her passport expired three years ago.

Police normally ask for passports when they see people loitering in town. For me, private residential areas are better,” she says. “This is how we earn a living, but society will never accept us.”

Zeria keeps a low profile by hosting her clients in a room she rents in a Thembisa house. The landlord does not live on the premises and she deposits rent money into his bank account. She has business cards which she hands to clients, who then contact her via cellphone. Some of them come from as far afield as Kempton Park, where she used to work.

Zeria has a 14-year-old son who lives with her sister in Orange Farm and attends a special school. “My son means everything to me. I’m only trying to provide for him,” she says.

Recently neighbours have started to call her names and threaten her. They want her to take her business to a brothel. But undocumented immigrant sex workers avoid brothels because such places expose them to the police. DM

Photo: A late-night raid by police on the Springs Hotel, Gauteng was reported on February 3. Photo: Kimberly Mutandiro

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