South Africa's Booming Sex Industry

By Nevin, Tom | African Business, December 1998 | Go to article overview
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South Africa's Booming Sex Industry

Nevin, Tom, African Business

In the old South Africa, prostitution and pornography were so heavily policed that even taking a peep at a girlie magazine could land you in jail. But everything has changed under the new, more liberal government and the sex industry is booming as never before. We asked Contributing Editor, Tom Nevin, to shed some inhibitions and take a 'cruise' downtown Jo'burg. This is what he discovered.

Is this any place for a middle-aged financial reporter, I ask myself as I cruise slowly along night-shadowed Rockey Street in Johannesburg's Yeoville. This was once a trendy boulevard with tables al fresco under shady plane trees. Old men sat here, played chess and drank brandy and coffee. Young lovers held hands and drank wine.

But not now. The clock's closing in on 5am and a pinkness is flushing the low clouds that hang over the eastern mining suburbs of South Africa's city of gold.

The pulse of Rockey Street still beats at this hour. Not with early morning risers eager to be at their desks, but with workers of another kind who have not yet gone to bed in the generally accepted sense of the word. These are South Africa's now euphemistically called 'sex workers'.

The more kindly and tolerant government has pinned new labels to them and the pimps and prostitutes have found a sudden, if dubious, respectability. However, bureaucratic convolution still prevails in this twilight zone. While prostitution hasn't exactly been legalised, it is now tolerated by the law and ignored by the police. Not that this change in government attitude has made much difference.

It was a burgeoning, pulsating and immensely wealthy industry long before South Africa's new political order gave the sex industry its approval. It's just a lot more visible these days.

Cutting the deal

I am startled when a figure appears from the gloom and a heavily lipsticked and mascarad face is suddenly framed in the car window. "Twenty rand short time," she says huskily. And there it is. The contract is on the table. Any takers? This is a business deal like any other, and that's what I'm doing here. I'm chasing a financial story of which the just offered R20 tender is but one tiny drop in the lifeblood of South Africa's sex industry, estimated to be in the region of Rlbn a year. From the R20 alley way short-timers to a R2,000 all-nighter in pink satin sheets at The Ranch or Club 69 in Johanneburg's mink and manure northern suburbia, it's all grist to South Africa's mills of hedonism.

As a finance writer, I'm more at home in the boardrooms of Sandton or Diagonal Street where screwing of another kind normally takes place as South Africa's powerful randlords do deals at a higher level, and one or another of the parties ends up being shafted. But here in the early morning half-dark as we head along Orange Grove drive towards Hillbrow, the notion occurs that none of the millions of rands that changed hands tonight will go to the taxman. The nightpeople are not fastidious bookkeepers.

Everything has a price

In Hillbrow, even at this hour, you can still watch a strip show, a no-holds barred live sex cabaret, get a beer or something stronger, hit a twist of dagga (marijuana), snort a line of coke, indulge in any kind of sexual activity you can think of (and many others that you can't) or just cruise and watch, as we're doing. Only the last bit, the people watching, is free.

Everything else has its price. And its not cheap. The R20 short-time price is known on the streets as a 'sunriser'. It's a markdown by the girls and boys who've had a lean night and at sunrise will sell their bodies at virtually any price for something to eat, drink, smoke, swallow or inject.

Quartz Street in Hillbrow is littered with sunrisers, of all sexes and colours, sitting on the sidewalk and standing to walk hopefully towards you as you roll slowly by. The despair is showing in their eyes and faces as they beg for a little sustenance to feed hunger or habit.

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