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. Further afield, in the slums and ghettos that circle the big cities, the financial structure is dramatically different. There R20 is a prime price and the sunrisers will put out for R2.50. "Prices can start from R2.50 because that can buy you a packet of meaty bones," says Gladys Rhodes of SWEAT, the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Task Force in Cape Town.
Negotiations with a strawberry blonde
Our tour of South Africa's sex districts had started at around 11 pm. My companion publishes a business magazine. Posing as tourists, we'd booked a room in an upmarket hotel near the fringes of sex city. We check out the hundreds of ads listed in The Star daily newspaper's classifieds under 'Entertainment - adults only'. "Tall, leggy Brandi and busty Sylvia for erotic fun," reads one. "Contact Misty Cleanshaven," says another. "Dominance chamber - beginners welcome" and "Lesbian and gay duo - Kim and Skye", proclaim others.
We settle for Candice whose ad tells us "If you have to ask the price, you can't afford me." I make the call. "Money's no problem," I say. Thirty minutes later there's a knock at the door. Candice has arrived. She's white and she's truly sensational. Great body, long strawberry bionde hair. She doesn't waste time on small talk. "RI,000 for two hours," she says."R1,500 if you both want me. We tell her who we are and what we want information and a tour. It takes a little persuading, but she finally agrees to talk to us and guide us through the city's underworld of sex and sin. There's no price reduction, however. "A working girl's time is money," she informs us. But Candice is worried. "You're a mark," she says, looking at us grey-haired gents on the wrong side of 50. "You'll get taken out. Come with another R1,000 and I'll arrange some company." This is getting expensive, but we agree.
Churchill and The Dentist
At a sex and strip show club on Pretoria Street we are joined by Churchill and The Dentist. Both are very big men in blue jeans and white T-shirts. Candice tells them they'll be minding us for the next two hours and we pay upfront: R500 each. I ask Churchill where he got his name. He's not the communicative type but his hulking presence is comforting. The Dentist, Candice tells us later, is a debt collector for the loansharks and bookies. If you don't pay on time, The Dentist will track you down, produce a pair of pliers and forcibly remove one of your teeth. This will continue daily until you either pay up or you ultimately have to have a plate fitted. He takes a cut of the money he recovers and charges R500 per tooth extracted.
We're in interesting company. It costs R100 each to get into the club and we have to spring for Candice and her boys. The beers are R30 each (normal pub price R5.00); Candice, Churchill and The Dentist order Perrier at R40 a bottle.
Where is the old South Africa?
It's just before midnight and we're in time for the first floor show. Wow! What has happened to the Calvinistic old South Africa I used to know where prenuptial handholding was frowned upon? The show is raw sex. We have another couple of beers and move on. We walk down Hillbrow's Kotze Street. This is the engine room of Johannesburg's premier sex district, South Africa's Sodom. The pavements are choked with traffic and he hawkers stalls overflow onto the verges of the road. It's a chaos of colour, both in skin-tones and the clothes that adorn them. "In here," says Candice, and we duck into a doorway and file down a narrow dimly-lit staircase into a smallish room dominated by a bar. We're the only men in the crowded Pussy Galore tavern. The lesbians look at us suspiciously. "It's OK," Candice reassures them. "They're talent promoter they're helping me with my singing career."It seems Candice has nightingale aspirations.
Getting the street smarts
Candice tells us later over a meal that she started out as an exotic dancer when she first arrived in Johannesburg from Welkom in the Free State some 300km to the west. She developed a speciality act that required manacles, a policeman's truncheon and a London bobby's helmet. "It got to be quite popular," she recalls, and took it to three different clubs at Rl50 an act. R400 a night or around R9,000 for 20 days work a month was wealth way beyond the wildest dreams of a Free State miner's daughter. But Candice soon acquired the street smarts and realised that was chicken feed for a girl of her looks and wits. At the urging of a new-found friend, she started turning tricks and before long, "I was making R4,000 a night, easy." "I'm also bi," she adds frankly. "I have a few regular Janes (that's the feminine gender for Johns, male tricks) and they pay me well."
Candice, the shapely high school dropout high-class hooker, is earning more, tax free, than her university educated classmates will ever dream of. "When I was dancing, I used to sing as well," she tells us, "but the customers weren't wild about that. But I'd still like to be a singer."
It's nearing 2am and Candice is drinking coffee with us after a surprisingly passable meal at an all-nighter. She hasn't charged us any extra for the additional time with us. "I like you boys," she says, "I really do. You've been fun. Sometimes it's just nice to talk to interesting people, you know?" She says goodbye and disappears into Hillbrow's night, to what rendezvous we can only guess at. Our bodyguards had left an hour earlier.
Ups and downs of the industry.
Candice is one of the lucky ones. Her looks and skin colour will keep her busy at the high end of the flesh trade. At other, lower, levels the dynamics of supply and demand, coupled with South Africa's shaky economy and soaring unemployment, are pulling prices down. It's not just the commerce in live flesh that's feeling the pinch. The porn business - flicks, mags and sex toys - is reflecting jaded sexual appetites and demand beyond saturation point. Sex shops that sprang up like mushrooms and jostled for street frontage are going bust; magazine titles such as South African Playboy and Penthouse have disappeared from the newsstands - hardercore, sexually explicit mags such as Hustler, are still around. Somehow, smut was a lot more fun when it wasn't allowed. There was always, in the severe old South Africa, the added thrill of bucking the law and the satisfaction of getting away with smuggling in a raunchy mag or blue movie from overseas. Ironically, South Africa's liberalised censorship has taken much of the spice from life.
New packaging, same product
And so, in order to keep the sex trade novel and innovative, syndicates have taken to importing 'sex workers' from distant lands. It's not unusual these days to find your 'escort' has olive skin and almond eyes, or her name is Svetlana and her preferred drink is vodka. Johannesburg's Hillbrow and Durban and Cape Town's docklands have growing numbers of Thai, Philippino and east European women plying their trade there. Even ballpark figures are hard to guess at, but South Africa's prostitute population is reckoned to be around 25,000.
A trade union movement is trying to get going in Cape Town in the hopes of organising the city's estimated 4,000 prostitutes. The same could apply to the 9,000 hookers thought to work Johannesburg, the 5,000 in Durban and who knows how many others in the towns, villages and hamlets throughout a sexually freed South Africa.
The silent time bomb
South Africa's sex industry has found for itself a kind of legal and growing niche in the informal economic sector. Increasingly Social organisations are pressing for its recognition and regulation. As SWEAT's director, Ilse Paauw, notes, "The sex industry is a significant part of South African society. And it's growing in all sectors." Without regulation, authorities warn, the incidence of socially transmitted diseases, especially AIDS, will continue to career out of control, trafficking of women and children for sex will become a real problem, if it isn't already, and the despair bred of a prostitute's lifestyle will lead to increased drug abuse and suicides. Behind the glitzty neon and sexy posters, a time bomb is ticking.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: South Africa's Booming Sex Industry. Contributors: Nevin, Tom - Author. Magazine title: African Business. Issue: 238 Publication date: December 1998. Page number: 15+. © 2009 IC Publications Ltd. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.