Covid-19 curfew and alcohol ban leave sex workers battling

“In our line of work business thrives during the night”

By Kimberly Mutandiro

26 January 2021

Sex workers in Jeppestown in Johannesburg say they are battling to survive the curfew and alcohol ban. Photo: Kimberly Mutandiro

Sex workers in Jeppestown, Johannesburg say they are battling to survive the Covid-19 curfew, the ban on alcohol and frequent police raids.

Competition has increased along End and Anderson Street, with some sex workers coming from as far away as Pretoria, where they say their places of work have been closed and open spaces to operate are scarce.

“All the beer joints where we use to get clients are once again closed due to the lockdown,” says Shereen*, a sex worker operating in the area.

She says before the curfew was imposed she used to work until the early hours of the morning.

“Gone are the days when weekends were the busiest for us. We have to be off the streets before 9pm. If we try to resist and hang around after the curfew, police are chasing and arresting us,” she says.

“In our line of work business thrives during the night. That is when clients come in numbers. Sadly we are forced to go home early.”

Shereen, who has survived on sex work for over five years, says raising money to meet her daily needs is getting harder. She is now competing for clients with more than 20 other women along Anderson street.

So far she says, she has been able to run from police when she sees them, which is daily.

Also pacing along Anderson street, Ntombi* has a notice to appear in court carefully tucked in her handbag. She and over a dozen other women were arrested last week on Thursday morning. They were loaded into a police truck and taken to John Vorster central police station where they were detained for hours before being released, she says.

According to the notice she will be required to pay a fine of R300. The charge of “Prostitution intention to commit a crime” is scribbled on the notice.

“I’m being accused of committing a crime. Is it a crime for me to look for money to raise my children?”

“On top of that, the police want us to pay a fine. Where do they think we will get the money from if they are stopping us from working?”

Ntombi looks after her two children, one a university student and the other in primary school. She pays for their tuition through sex work and has been doing so for the past three years.

“My child needs data to conduct university online classes. My younger child needs new uniforms when schools open in February. All that costs money,” she says.

She also used to get her clients from beer joints around town.

“With the closure of nightclubs, life has become difficult as we are no longer able to search for clients there. Police are not even respecting curfew times as they start chasing us from the streets from as early as 7pm. How are we supposed to survive? ” she asks.

Also wondering how she will pay her fine is Grace*, who was arrested on Thursday too. She has been a sex worker since 2011.

“I have never struggled this much in all my years as a sex worker. My mother has breast cancer and I have not been able to send her money for treatment,” she says. She has also been struggling to look after her two boys and pay rent on her flat.

Grace used to alternate between getting clients at a club and working in the streets. But now she can only work on the streets.

“I used to wake up early and come to the streets before the club opened. But now this is the only option I have, and with police arresting us I don’t know what I will do,” she says.

She says police often pepper spray her and the other women on the street. She used to work throughout the night but now has no choice but to go home before the curfew.

GroundUp met several other women who had been issued with fines.

Sosi Gumede, who rents out more than 20 rooms to sex workers and their clients for R10 a time, says, “Sometimes police go inside the booking rooms and arrest the women whilst they are busy with clients. Things are hard on the ladies because police are coming daily. This is affecting business for me too. I am unemployed and have been operating this place for a long time.”

Gumede used to sell beer but since the ban on alcohol he has stopped.

Meanwhile the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) has urged police to stop taking money from sex workers.

“Sex workers are currently struggling to work because the clubs in which they source clients are closed. The night curfew is also working against them. Police should stop taking money from them or subjecting them to sexual abuse. Police know that the ladies always have money on them and extort them taking advantage of the fact the work is considered illegal. They think sex workers are ATM machines,” says SWEAT spokesperson Katlego Rasebitse.

Rasebitse says SWEAT had received reports of a number of sex workers being arrested during the past month.

Police spokesperson Kay Makhubele confirmed that a group of women had been arrested along End and Anderson streets for doing sex work. He said raids would continue and if the women had complaints against the police “it is within their rights to open a case”.

*Not their real names