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The South African Sex Workers Fighting Abusive Police

In South Africa, assaults are rarely reported to the authorities because sex workers know if they ask for help they will be ignored or even punished, especially if the perpetrators are police officers.

by Max Daly
21 July 2016, 12:00am

A woman during a rally commemorating International Sex Worker Rights Day in Cape Town. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)

There's a police officer in Cape Town notorious among the city's sex workers. Reason being, he devotes most of his time to making their lives a living hell. Two weeks ago in the upcoming suburb of Woodstock, he and his police pals rounded up a group of eight sex workers and put them in the back of a van. They drove to the city's main river and let them out onto its bank. The officer allegedly gave them three options: either we throw you in the river, you suck our dicks or we'll arrest you and bang you up.

This unconventional style of policing is the city's dirty little secret. It belies a tide of systematic abuse – including blackmail, beatings and rapes – metered out against sex workers, a section of society seen by some as sub-humans deserving of anything that comes to them. It's all about power. Incidents are rarely reported to the authorities because sex workers know if they ask for help they will be ignored or even punished, especially if the perpetrators are themselves police officers.

Yet, on this occasion, one of the women pushed into the river made a phone call. She got through to the only people she trusted to get her justice: a team of five former sex workers trained as paralegals. Their remit: to be on the frontline to protect their former colleagues from this tide of anger and brutality.

"In Cape Town, police and clients think they can do what they want, without fear of the law," paralegal Eunice Griffith April explained outside the Cape Town office of SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force), an umbrella organisation for sex worker projects in South Africa. "Our job is to engage, reach out and spread the word that sex workers can get help, that they can talk to us. We offer a shoulder to cry on, in the street, in their homes and in court. As former sex workers we have experienced it. We understand."

The paralegal team, part of the Women's Legal Centre, is lodging a formal complaint about the river incident with the deputy minister of police and the independent police investigation unit. They are pushing for the dismissal of the officer in question, who has a toxic track record of bullying and violence against sex workers going back to 2012, including allegations of rape and attempted murder.

Another paralegal is Lisa Gladile, who was a sex worker for 15 years before getting the job. "I decided to become a paralegal because I've seen how sex workers suffer. It happened to me too," says Lisa. "So I thought, 'If I get the job, I will be able to do my duty and assist them.'"

Like Eunice she works a mix of day and night shifts doing outreach and helping with bail applications, fines and court appearances. She is currently assisting a case involving the alleged rape of a sex worker by a police officer in 2012, which only came to court as a result of relentless pressure on public prosecutors by the Women's Legal Centre. The team is also pursuing the alleged police killing of a sex worker called Lerato in 2012 after she died of breathing difficulties when she was pepper sprayed and driven around in the back of a police van for 10 hours.

The police don't make it easy for the paralegals. "We get harassed by police because some don't like what we are doing. They threaten us and tell us to go away, saying, 'You are not proper lawyers,'" says Eunice.

READ ON BROADLY: The Insidious Myth of the 'Unrapeable' Sex Worker

While most violence against sex workers is carried out by clients, the police are not far behind. Police violence and harassment, including unlawful arrest, blackmail and gang rape, is "a pervasive theme" in the lives of sex workers, says the research. Another study carried out by the Women's Legal Centre among 300 sex workers in Cape Town found that 70 percent of the women had been subjected to police abuse, such as beatings, pepper spraying and sexual assault. Arbitrary arrests of sex workers are common, despite a High Court order in 2009 specifically banning it.

Stacey-Leigh Manoek, an attorney at the Women's Legal Centre told me: "Police officers act with impunity because they can." The centre has taken witness statements about police smashing up known properties of sex workers; stealing and burning their belongings; forcing them to eat condoms; rape and death.

SWEAT, the Women's Legal Centre and the charity Asijika are all calling for the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa. They say a change in the law is the only way sex workers can be protected against clients, police and ingrained discrimination. It says it all when swimming coach Tim Osrin appeared in court for beating up a domestic worker in a Cape Town street in 2014. His justification was reportedly that he thought she was a sex worker.

Paralegals operate in a deadly landscape. In August of 2014, one of the paralegal team, Anita Mambumba, 38, was found dead from a head injury, thought to have been caused by a rock. No one has been charged with her murder.

There are no official statistics collected on the number of sex workers killed in the country. According to SWEAT, 10 sex workers have been murdered in Cape Town already this year, almost double the rate for the UK, which has a population 65 times that of the city. Two were shot and one was strangled and stabbed in February alone.

Yet, this is nothing unusual. In the summer of 2014, for example, five sex workers were murdered in separate incidents in the space of five weeks; shot, stabbed or beaten, their bodies discarded in the street in hedges or under bridges. From the killings that do hit the headlines, it would seem the criminal justice system is not that bothered about punishing those suspected of being the culprits.

READ ON MOTHERBOARD: Meet the 'Drone Vigilante' Who Spies on Sex Workers

In April of 2013 a 23-year-old sex worker, Nokuphila Kumalo, was found beaten to death in Woodstock. What made this case stand out was that the prime suspect was the internationally renowned South African photographic artist Zwelethu Mthethwa. The artist denies the charge of murder and has pleaded not guilty in the case against him.

Once, when asked why he photographed marginalised people, he replied that it was so he could "portray these people in a different light ... as decent human beings. People like any other people." Mthethwa, whose work has been exhibited around the world and still appears in a collection at New York's Guggenheim Museum, was accused of "repeatedly kicking her and stomping her body with booted feet".

Yet three years later, despite CCTV footage allegedly showing the attack and indications that his Porsche was at the scene of the crime, Mthethwa is yet to stand trial due to a series of bureaucratic delays.

This kind of delay in bringing suspects to trial for murdering sex workers is not new. In 2008, a man called Johannes de Jager was arrested shortly after killing sex worker Hiltina Alexander. Nothing happened for five years, until he killed a 16-year-old girl in 2013, was put on trial and convicted of both murders.

Duduziem, a sex worker I meet at the SWEAT offices, says she personally knows 20 sex workers who have been killed in Cape Town during her 10 years on the job. She says very few have been reported in the media. When I ask her if she's been raped, she says, "Yes, it's like bread and butter of the job."

Sex workers disrupting the International Aids Conference

A report into the benefits of decriminalising sex work has been gathering dust in the government's in-tray since 2009. On Monday, hundreds of sex workers held a demonstration, interrupting the Minister of Justice's speech, at the 21st International Aids Conference in Durban to protest against stigma and violence, and to call for decriminalisation.

At the conference, Chris Beyrer, president of the International AIDS Society, says: "Research has shown that interventions to reduce violence against sex workers turned out to have a big impact on reducing the risk of getting HIV. This is one of the reasons why decriminalising sex work is one of the most potent methods of reducing HIV. In order to be eligible to receive the HIV prevention pill [pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP] you need to disclose that you are a sex worker, which is tougher to do if you are admitting an illegal act."

In the meantime, as the South African government drags its feet, Duduziem and her fellow sex workers are doing what they can to combat the violence. They gather in safer places and carry whistles. Those with mobile phones can access a special WhatsApp group, whose members include sex workers and peer workers, where violent clients and cops, "bad" number plates, dangerous patches and details of attacks are messaged live.

I ask her what she is most scared of. Her answer goes beyond the grave. "I'm most scared of my body not being found after being killed. That I will be buried and they will not get punished."

To find out more about the work SWEAT are doing, visit their website.

@Narcomania

More on VICE:

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At Last! MPs Are Calling for Sex Workers to Be Decriminalised

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Max Daly