On Klopper Street, near the Rustenburg Magistrate's Court, sex workers ply a brisk trade by night. The women, seemingly oblivious to the prying eyes of strangers, huddle together on the pavement and are casually approached by men.
After a brief negotiation, they sidle into the disused buildings flanking parking lots at both ends of the block. Sometimes, parked trucks obscure their proceedings, otherwise the abandoned buildings provide the requisite privacy.
The women working this nondescript stretch of urban decay are far from a carefree bunch. On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, in particular, the sex workers and their clients are more circumspect about their liaisons because the police, working with the Greater Rustenburg Citizens' Forum for Change and the municipality's public safety department, are known to swoop on areas where they ply their trade.
The swoops, witnessed by the Mail & Guardian, are meant to humiliate both client and sex worker: they are caught literally with their pants down as they are confronted by a convoy of marked police vehicles, pepper-sprayed, assaulted and searched before being shoved into a vehicle.
In at least one case, the woman concerned never returned. At least three sex workers interviewed independently stated that one of their colleagues had died in police custody on the morning of September 22 after they were rounded up in Rustenburg's central business district the night before.
The women say they were put in the back of a police vehicle, pepper-sprayed and left in the vehicle for the night after it was parked at the police station.
When they were later "discovered" by the police, they were escorted off the premises before the ambulance they had called for a colleague arrived. Kim, who claimed she was detained in the police "gumba gumba" on the night with Lerato, the missing woman, said: "I know a dead person when I see one. She was foaming at the mouth."
Another, Maria, said she closed Lerato's eyes after her corpse went cold.
Nadine, another witness, said Lerato made heaving sounds after they were pepper-sprayed while inside the van and her breathing never returned to normal. Then she became quiet.
"This thing is affecting us. We can't come to the street and get beaten up," Kim said. "The way they beat us when they arrest us, we get wounds, not swellings."
When six of the women took the case to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate a few days later, they were told that only one woman could make a statement, but nothing has come of the report.
Sisonke, a peer educator group, and the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) have laid a complaint with the police ministry over the directorate's failure to investigate the matter.
But the directorate said none of the woman's colleagues could provide details of her identity.
"The Independent Police Investigative Directorate has been unresponsive since the stakeholder meeting [on November 2], returning neither emails nor calls," said Jenna Praschma, Sweat's advocacy consultant. "In their last communication with me, they stated that they were unable to even open a docket due to lack of evidence, despite having denied key witnesses the opportunity to give statements [by saying it could only take one statement].
"They have been reluctant to conduct even preliminary investigations into the allegations."
The Greater Rustenburg Citizens' Forum for Change prides itself on "combating crime". The organisation, which works with the police, organises community policing forums (CPFs) to further its aims.
A self-congratulatory advertorial in the Platinum Weekly, a local newspaper, reads: "Great successes have been achieved in sector one, crime is down, drug lords are moving out … much less prostitutes on the street. The current trend we are seeing is that the criminals are moving out of sector one and are starting to target the other sectors because there are no CPF structures in place. This is going to get worse if these CPFs does [sic] not start as soon as possible."
Sector one comprises part of the CBD and East End, two areas in which prostitution thrives. Rustenburg North, which falls under the Thlabane policing sector, is another thriving hot spot.
Although the forum may spin its project as an anti-crime initiative, Kim said other agendas came into play because "some of these police want money and free things. If they catch you, they beat you and drop you in places that you don't know.
"If they take you to the police station, they make you shower with your clothes on, or clean the police station or the police cars. They're fucked up."
Another woman claimed she was coming out of a tavern when police stopped her and beat her with a stick. "If they find money on you, they take it. We can't do business now because of the cops."
Kim, a Zimbabwean, said the constant harassment had restricted business and forced sex-work prices down. "A night could be very busy. We'd charge about R100 a round but now we're down to R60. Before we could charge a white guy R250 for a fuck and a blow, but these days they are also scared."
Frustrated sex workers
Anecdotes such as these are interpreted as success by Johan de Klerk, chairperson of the citizens' forum. He said, gleefully, that frustrated sex workers were fleeing to neighbouring towns such as Vryburg, Mafikeng, Potchefstroom and Krugersdorp. "There's no business for them here any more and the only way to sort it out is for people to move."
During a conversation in a suburban coffee shop close to where prostitutes ply their trade at night, the grey-haired IT entrepreneur argued his case against the legalisation of prostitution ("where are they going to build the brothel, next to someone's house?"), stated that the women were all helpless victims at the mercy of drug-dealing pimps and recounted how, with the help of the taxi association, the forum had shut down buildings in which illegal immigrants were dealing in drugs.
That women could be driven to the streets by poverty seemed an alien concept to him.
"Why would you want to sell your body?" he asked, his arms flailing. "The Nigerians get them on drugs and then they owe too much and can't get out of it any more."
De Klerk's statement is only partially true; the pimps operate predominantly in the eastern and northern parts of town.
During the conversation, De Klerk acknowledged that the result of the forum's and the sector one police's work could be to shift the problem to another location, becoming a tiring game of cat and mouse.
"I've got kids and grandkids that must live in this town. We can't let criminals take it over."
Rustenburg police Captain Jackie Nkoana, a supporter of the forum, refused to answer questions about the issues.
The police did not attend a meeting of those involved in the matter at the Rustenburg hospice in November, which suggests that the hostile relationship will continue.
The Independent Police Investigative Directorate had not responded to requests for comment at the time of going to press.