For those of you who don’t know what it’s like to pick up a sex worker from the streets, let me explain the thought process. I tapped the breaks as I drove up Oxford Road towards Sandton, Joburg’s centre of materialism that looks like a giant version of the architect’s miniature model. Debating whether the girls were sex workers or just enjoyed meditating on a street corner at 23:30 dressed a like a music video babe, I decided to risk the mistake. I careered into the next corner and screeched to a stop. The two girls sitting on the curb with their underwear peeking out of their skirts ignored me while the tallest of the bunch came running, high heels beating on the pavement. I stepped out of the car and put out my palms in defence. “I’m just here to chill,” I said, as though I’d pulled up at the beach to check the surf.
“Chill?” said the leggy runner.
“Yeah. I’m, like, a journalist.”
“Oh, I thought you were a client. Can you give me a lift home?”
Moving off the corner seemed like a good idea and the drive might be an entry into to the world of sex workers, I thought. There are a few things that go through your head in such a situation. Firstly, you wonder what you’ll say if the cops pull up. I doubted my camera would convince them I’m a journalist rather than a John trying to get some bang for his buck by recording the transaction. Secondly, you wonder what the people in the passing cars are thinking. “Will I now be seen as that guy? Could my sister’s boss’s stylist spot me?” Finally, it’s overwhelmingly awkward and difficult to make conversation when you have a woman, stereotyped as a Jezebel, wearing a tea towel, sitting against the gearstick and my hand when it was in gears one and two.
That was the first time I met Mary. Her house was twice as far as she mentioned. Without a cent to my name, the petrol gauge was so low I thought it was broken. “You can stay with me,” she offered kindly, referring to the room where she takes clients. The other option was to risk running out of petrol in Hillbrow, without airtime on my Blackberry, after midnight. I made it home.
It took two weeks to write her story. I met her neighbours. We went to the park. I picked her up from work and drove her home or to the bar below where the girls were obligated to look for clients. She ate ice cream with satisfied moans I guessed were replicated for unattractive clients. I accepted there were angles of her life I would never see nor understand, but by knowing those memories and moments existed, I couldn’t see her as a prostitute.
Still, I couldn’t adjust. At the bar, more like a tavern with a few girls chatting to men than the baroque establishment with ladies lost in lace which I always imagined, she questioned my sexuality and whether I was a virgin after I didn’t want to sleep with any of the girls. She was candid about her life and having frequent sex with multiple partners. That, and the woman sitting next to us with her shirt unbuttoned, was conversational cyanide to a middle-class boy from a Catholic family where the topic of sex is avoided at all costs.
While moonlighting with Mary, I spent my days in Pretoria at the public hearing into whether Bheki Cele deserves to keep his job as national police commissioner. The first time I met him was much less exciting. He spoke to me in isiZulu while I was snapping his photo. I stuttered a response; he continued and had his legal team in stitches. “I’ll learn and then you’ll see,” I thought, planning to cram my 1967 copy of Learn Zulu and its phrases on ploughs and livestock overnight. He turned out, however, to be rather likeable. What’s not to like about a man who stands alone during recess with a wicker picnic basket eating sandwiches while his reputation is on trial?
But his responses to questions over his role in R1.6-billion worth of SAPS lease contracts weren’t as palatable. The buildings didn’t fit the stated requirements. They wouldn’t be ready when needed. They were overpriced and the SAPS didn’t have the money for them. There was no tender to promote competition, a direct result of SAPS influencing the department of public works. And supposedly Cele signs contracts like giving autographs to adoring fans. In summary, his response seemed to be, “I know nothing,” (in a Sergeant Schultz voice). But someone’s to blame, and at this stage it looks like Cele or his former deputy, Hamilton Hlela – maybe both, probably others too.
Exhausted as I drove from the Tshwane council chambers to meet Mary in Joburg, I sat mesmerised in traffic. “Prostitutes and corrupt politicians – is this all my life is?” I asked in my best Bold and the Beautiful voice. I wasn’t sleeping and was stressed that I wouldn’t get a story on Mary until the DA takes a majority in Parliament. But as the traffic started to flow, I realised there’s a distinction between her and those involved in the SAPS lease scandals.
The time spent with Mary, the sex talk and the deadline were hardly frustrating. I was sinking under the weight of her trauma, impossible not to carry if you’ve heard it, and was depressed by the idea I wouldn’t be able to describe the pain to readers and also depict the way she smiles and scrunches her face when she laughs. In comparison, those who pinch pennies from the public purse, especially when they’re well paid, seemed as disgusting as the thought of a warm tuna milkshake when you’re hungover. Mary’s life was shocking but she had the courage to tell the truth. The only prostitutes here, I thought as I arrived to meet Mary, are those who tried to benefit from what should have been a simple lease and a small step to improving safety in our communities. DM