LEGALISATION, decriminalisation, or criminalisation? Prostitution, the large but underground economic network, was last week raised to prominence again by ANC MP George Lekgethos proposal to Parliament that it be legalised for the 2010 Soccer World Cup. Last year National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi suggested that the sex industry be legalised, or at least tolerated, for the duration of the 2010 Soccer World Cup. He did not, though, state as Lekgetho did last week that doing so could decrease the incidence of rape during the Soccer World Cup.
People's Post spoke to various people about the proposal. "Yes, we can talk, but you must pay," said Sam (pseudonym), a 27-year-old prostitute, when asked for an interview. "You know, you are using my time for making money."
After she was assured of R50 compensation, the mother of six started talking about her "job", which she has been doing since she was 13.
"I have worked all over Cape Town - Sea Point, Green Point, Mowbray, Claremont, Muizenberg - since I dropped out of school," she said.
According to Sam, women on the streets can be divided into four categories: those working for local gangsters, those helping Nigerians, those assisting the police and those working for themselves - such as her.
"Unlike the girls who work for gangsters or drug dealers, I don't need to give anyone money. Every cent I earn, I put in my own pocket."
With an average income of over R10 000 per month, Sam supports two of her children, while the other four are with their fathers.
"Although the money is all right, it is a very dangerous job," said Sam. "I was attacked by a client two days ago. After having sex with me at Wynberg Park, he didn't want to pay me and sprayed tear gas into my eyes. When I asked some security guards who saw the incident to arrest the man, they said they could do nothing about it."
Vivienne Lalu from the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat), a Cape Town-based NGO promoting health and safety among prostitutes, as well as conducting public awareness and advocacy work, says that many women become prostitutes because of financial difficulties.
"As they are not well educated and lack skills, it is not easy for them to find jobs in a country with such a high unemployment rate," she says.
Two hundred sex workers who participated in a Sweat survey in 2005 supported a total of 405 dependants. Of these, 279 were children and 126 adults.
Henry Trotter, an American scholar who has been studying South African port culture for five years and is currently writing a book, "Sugar Girls & Seamen: A Journey Into the World of Dockside Prostitution in South Africa", explains that offering sex for reward was criminalised under the Sexual Offences Act of 1957. He contends that the criminalisation of prostitution made sex workers vulnerable to violence.
Jennifer Williams, director of the Women's Legal Centre in Cape Town, says that of the three approaches - legalisation, decriminalisation and criminalisation - criminalisation was shown by the South African Law Commission to result in higher levels of violence against and exploitation of prostitutes.
Lalu says: "After lobbying for the decriminalisation of prostitution for 12 years, despite the fact that we do not support the point George Lekgetho made, we sincerely welcome the opportunity he opened up to debate the issue on a national level."