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Police treat sex workers like they are ‘nothing’

Sylvia Dube* has already been arrested twice this month. 

The Rustenburg-based sex worker says she had to give police the lion’s share of the little money she had made on those two nights to avoid being arrested and thrown in a cell, where she says she would be treated “like nothing”.

“They don’t even treat you like you exist while you’re in the cells. Because they know that your job is not yet decriminalised in South Africa.”

After one of her run-ins with the police, she says she took home just R20, down from R300, to her four children.

The relationship between sex workers and the South African Police Service has always been strained, with both male and female workers levelling allegations of discrimination and harassment against law enforcers. But sex workers say intensified policing during the nationwide lockdown has made matters  far worse.

Last week, as protests erupted in the United States over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, news broke of the death of a sex worker in police custody in Mowbray, Cape Town.

Elma Robyn Montsumi’s death sparked an outcry by advocacy groups — including the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce, Sisonke and the Triangle Project — which demanded an investigation.

In a joint statement, the organisations accused the authorities of discrimination during the lockdown: “It became clear in the lockdown that South Africans are being policed differently; in most of the reported cases it seems to be based on race and class divides,” the statement reads. 

“Our research and many years of working with sex workers on the ground have shown that sex workers in South Africa experience vulnerabilities to systemic human rights violations and outright violence, discrimination and harassment at the hands of the police.”

Dube says police target sex workers: “We can’t work, because the police are always harassing us … Even if we try to hide ourselves, they know us by our faces.”

With few alternatives to make a living, many sex workers have to brave the streets, flouting lockdown regulations. They say that they are singled out for harassment while police ignore other people who are illegally out of their houses. Dube says sex workers in her area hide under cars to avoid police detection.

“We also ask those guys that smoke nyaope on the streets to look out for us. If they see the police coming this side, they must give us a tip off, so we can run. Because if they arrest you, they say it is R5 000 fine [for breaching lockdown regulations]. And we can’t afford that kind of cash.”

Sisonke spokesperson Katlego Rasebitse told the Mail & Guardian that he has received reports of sex workers carrying loaves of bread to avoid being accused of breaking lockdown regulations. He said the lockdown has “exposed” the unfairness of the justice system in its dealings with sex workers and the effects of criminalising them. 

“It was hard for sex workers before. But during this lockdown it has been even harder.”

Panashe Mutsipa*, who lives in Johannesburg, agrees. “It has gotten even worse during the lockdown,” she says, adding that sex workers who have tried to eke out a living during the period risked intensified abuse: “If they see you doing that work, they will beat you.”

Mutsipa is from Zimbabwe, a fact that she says makes her even more vulnerable to being targeted.

Also based in Johannesburg, Martha Dlakavu* says that although she believes police harassment has worsened during the lockdown, “they have always been harassing us”.

“During this Covid-19, they hit us with sjamboks. They take us and drive us around, dropping us somewhere far away … Sometimes they will take us in a van, open a tap and wet us all. They like to do that during winter time.”

She adds: “Even if you are just walking on the streets, as long as they know you they will arrest you. You might be with your family, or your kids, walking to the shops. But if you see them, you have to run away, even though you’re not working.”

Police spokesperson Vish Naidoo declined to comment on the allegations. 

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid), which investigates complaints of police misconduct, is still investigating Montsumi’s death. Asked about other complaints by sex workers against the police this year, the Ipid spokesperson Ndileka Cola said it was “not aware of any other matters”.

A 2016 report by the Women’s Legal Centre on alleged police abuse of sex workers between 2011 and 2015 notes: “Police abuse as a result of their criminal status increases their vulnerability to violence … The current legal framework forces sex workers to the margins of South African society, where they are easy targets for abuse at the hands of police and clients.”

The decriminalisation of sex work has been on the legislative agenda for years, but progress has been slow. According to the report, avenues for sex workers to bring complaints against the police are inadequate. Most do not complain for fear of repercussions.

*Not their real names

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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