The slippery slope of Prostitution Hill and being highbrow in Hillbrow
By Marlise Richter
The highest court of the land, ensconced on Constitution Hill, looms over the sprawling city of Johannesburg. Its lavish architecture sits awkwardly amid the symmetrical blocks of flats and peeling offices on the edge of Joburg’s city centre. The Constitutional Court, its symbolism and the hope it holds for a truly democratic South Africa, barely get a second glance from its bustling neighbours-across-the-street. It is no small irony that the court’s closest neighbours make up one of Hillbrow’s most vivacious economic sectors – the ladies of the night (and day) who sell their bodies for cold hard cash.
Hillbrow was called Joburg’s “flatlands” in the 1950s. It was originally intended for low-density housing for an expanding white population. After World War II, large investment buildings shot up to maximise profits, leaving Hillbrow with a forest of high-rise concrete constructions where little sun penetrated and open spaces were a rarity. The 90-storey high Hillbrow Tower – now a symbol of Joburg – was built in the late 1960s and keeps watch over its teeming inhabitants. In the 1970s, Hillbrow’s flats were thronged with a high proportion of young, white single people – and the night life buzzed. Hillbrow was the beating disco heart of Joburg. By the early 1980s landlords increasingly let their premises to aspirant middle-class Indian and coloured families, in clear contravention of the apartheid Groups Areas Act which deemed Hillbrow for whites only. Black families followed in the late 1980s and “white flight” increased. The northern suburbs of Joburg became plum with middle-class bellies and bling, while indigent migrants to Joburg – from South Africa’s rural provinces as well as new arrivals from other countries –filled up the empty buildings left behind. The term “hijacked buildings” became part of the jargon that described the one square kilometre of tight structures nestled between Berea, Parktown, Braamfontein and Houghton Estate. Researchers are apt to point out that the population density in Hillbrow is five times that of New York.
Hillbrow bursts with life, colours and languages. Its streets teem with fast-walking pedestrians, even faster minibus taxis, and stationary hawkers who sell anything from individual sweeties for a couple of cents to indignant chickens squawking in cramped wiry cages. One might wonder how the chickens arrived on a particular street corner, where they will go tonight, or how in this tight utterly urban space, they are likely to meet their end.
The same holds true for Hillbrow’s sex workers. Informal trade is the mainstay of Hillbrow’s cash flow, and many a (female) newcomer who cannot find a job soon realises that there are only two choices left, both grim: selling your body, or returning empty-handed and hungry from whence you came. That is, if you can return at all.
I am sitting on the step of the Hugh Solomon building in Hillbrow. People are spilling out of its front door, chatting, their tummies rumbling for an overdue lunch, mostly mamas with pleated skirts and shwe-shwe outfits. They are probably nurses who have come for additional anti-retroviral therapy training at the Hillbrow Health Precinct and the Reproductive Health & HIV Research Unit (RHRU), I reckon.
I am waiting for Pauline to come and fetch me. She is to be my guide me through the maze that is Hillbrow, towards her boyfriend’s flat, where I will be treated to a manicure and pedicure. Pauline is a vigorous Jill-of-all-trades: she is an HIV/AIDS counsellor, peer educator, sex worker and mobile beautician.
Pauline is late and I shift the weight of my bum on the uncomfortable cement step. This is unlike her – we spoke half an hour earlier and agreed to meet at the front door. I don’t have my cellphone with me, and I feel quite lost. In Joburg, not having your cell phone on you is like being naked. No defences against the urban forces and the Unknown. I have locked my Blackberry in my car with my purse, my ID book and anything else of earthly value. This is Hillbrow. The wisdom is: one doesn’t take any chances.
The group of nurses is dispersing into the street, on their way to find taxis back to their homes and lunch. I decide it is time to find my lifeline phone. I nod at the security guard looking after my car and spot Pauline at the entrance of the Esselen Street Clinic. We laugh about the misunderstanding – she has been waiting on the clinic steps probably thinking similar thoughts to me.
We take off into the busy streets, exchanging stories about our respective trips back from Cape Town. We were both at a consultation last week in which NGOs and government brainstormed strategies on sex work, HIV and the 2010 Soccer World Cup. There, Pauline spoke eloquently about the fears that foreign migrant sex workers have about 2010 – everyone uses the year as shorthand for an event of a mere four weeks. Sex workers are understandably anxious about the changes that will come with international scrutiny and hype. They whisper to me often about their fear of being rounded up by the police and being locked up in jail for the duration of the games. These are not unfounded fears: sex workers in Hillbrow are regularly arrested and beaten by police. Some are raped and killed – the perpetrators never found (or never sought). Sex work is illegal in South Africa and sex workers cannot rely on the law to protect them – much less take the enforcers of the law to task. If you are an “illegal” in the country – a Makwere-kwere – your problems are even greater. Indeed, at the Cape Town Consultation we decided to call on government to place a moratorium on all sex work-related arrests during the World Cup period in order to alleviate some of these problems.
City clean-ups during international events often include not only picking up litter and repainting of rusty street signs, but making sex workers, hawkers, migrants and the homeless “disappear”. Even the mobile clinic staff of the RHRU has felt the dangerous disquiet that comes with this clean-sweeping of Johannesburg. Only last week they were providing health care services in a nearby brothel, when Metro Police descended in a raid, forcing the nurses and community health workers to the floor at gun point. They were, they said, looking for drugs. On this pretext they manhandled the slightly built male community health worker, who counsels sex work clients during clinic consultations. The nurses tried explaining that they were conducting a clinic. At this, the officers left the room, only to kick and punch people further down the passage. Why the Metro Police were violently harassing people for drugs when they should rather have been issuing speeding fines wasn’t clear to anyone present.
The debate on law reform on sex work has been raging in South Africa for years. The South African Law Reform Commission – the statutory body responsible for making recommendations on law reform – has been mulling over this question since the early 2000s, and no end is in sight. The commission released an Issue Paper in 2002 containing their research, and a Discussion Paper in 2009 which was understood to contain their recommendations and draft legislation. The latter document cunningly avoided the latter components, stating that too much time had passed since the 2002 document and that more input from the public was required. Human rights and sex work activists chewed their nails in despair.
Unlike Germany, that reformed its laws on sex work in 2002 in ample time for the 2006 World Cup, South Africa is still relying on outdated ideas and laws. Indeed, South Africa has almost the exact same legal framework in place with regards to sex work as it did under apartheid. The Sexual Offences Act (Immorality Act) No 23 of 1957 made it an offence for a white person to have sex with a black person or to commit any “immoral or indecent act”. Most of the provisions in this Act have been struck down as being against South Africa’s new democratic values and ideals, yet sex workers and their clients could still be prosecuted under this act.
While Pauline and I walk, I carefully skirt puddles of stinky water and mounds of earth. Roadworks have been going on forever in Hillbrow and many of the traffic lights are still not working. Deep in thought, listening to Pauline, I step onto the pedestrian crossing where green lights beckon us across. In a flash, Pauline pulls me back out of the way of a speeding car. “Let’s wait here, Marlise,” she says. I notice the opposing traffic lights show no sign of life, which seems to be an invitation for cars to treat the intersection as a highway. There is plenty of work here for the metro cops, I think. We cross carefully when there is no car in sight. Pedestrians do not count for much to the ever-rushing motors of this city.
We stroll past hawkers selling anything from plastic toys and fresh spinach to cellphone chargers. People call out in a variety of languages, and indeed it seems as if every so-called “developing” nation is represented in Hillbrow. Ethiopians selling clothes. Nigerians displaying a rainbow of cellphones. A Pakistani-run cafe spills goods onto the sidewalk. Congolese car guards. Zambian vegetable hawkers. Zimbabwean security guards. An energy pulses through these streets that draws people to Hillbrow, into Hillbrow. It is lively and upbeat and people are driven to eke out their survival here, if they can. This energy fills the streets and splashes colour on the otherwise dour, often dilapidated buildings. Affable calls and loud conversations create a Babel of magic that embellishes the poverty, squalor and threat of crime for a second.
Pauline marches determinedly through this all, seemingly oblivious. She only appears to register the busyness when a man passes us by and shouts at me “Hi Madam, I need a job”. My white skin advertises my class, my education and my money, and cannot go unnoticed in this street of black-only faces. I smile at him and we walk on.
Within a few minutes we reach Pauline’s building. It seems like a typical Hillbrow block of flats. The paint is peeling and the name has become so faint that it is barely readable. She asks if I have brought my ID book and I shake my head, puzzled. We enter the building to be confronted by three separate signs that shout “No ID, No Entry”. She exchanges a few words in Shona with the security guard. He shakes his head vigorously in dissent. I enter the conversation by saying I can leave my bag and jersey with him. He asks me matter-of-factly: “Are your bag and jersey an ID book? No? So, no entry”. I tell him it will take an additional 15 minutes to go and get my ID. He is not convinced. He still shakes his head. Pauline says: “Come” and walks towards the lift. I look at the guard questioningly and he glances away. I quickly scuttle into the lift and we are carried into the belly of the building. Pauline giggles and says he comes from the same place as her in Zim and is her friend. A cockroach bums a lift with us and scampers across the elevator buttons as if to double-check that we are on our way to the eleventh floor.
Pauline opens two front door locks and invites me into the small flat she shares with three others. The lounge is decorated by “Jesus is King” pictures, carefully needle-pointed into dark fabrics. She unlocks the room that she shares with her boyfriend and I make myself comfortable in a chair next to their bed. Looking through the murky window, it feels as if I am on top of the world and overlooking a great forest of flats. If I close my eyes I can see all the way to the sea from here. I have come, after all, for a pedicure and she scrubs my feet.
We chat about Sisonke Sex Worker Movement and other sex workers we know. Sisonke is a sex worker organisation recently established at the Hillbrow Health Precinct. It is run by sex workers, and its business is sex work issues. I am assisting them to set up an office and to build an organisational structure to root themselves in Johannesburg. Pauline is a volunteer on the Sisonke committee and we meet at the Sisonke offices every two weeks. Here in the informal atmosphere of her beauty spa bedroom, Pauline expands on a thorny issue – tensions between foreign and South African sex workers. As in any other industry, politics is rife. South Africans are scared that foreigners will take away their work or “steal their men”. Zimbabwean sex workers think South African sex workers are too impatient and do not treat men “in the right way”. We talk about the campaign to decriminalise sex work that we are both involved in. Will it make any material change to the lives of foreign sex workers, we wonder?
Pauline covers my toe nails in Champagne Gold She moves her chair forward to start work on my rough hands. She has switched on the TV and the white noise of a talk show on SABC1 fills the room. I glance at the talking heads, trying to make out what they are saying about the abolition of slavery in Africa. It seems to be an issue of major concern to the presenters and guests but I cannot hear what they are arguing about. In the room, too, the irony of skewed power relations is heavy: a white Afrikaans researcher having her nails filed by a kneeling, Zimbabwean migrant.
I ask about Pauline’s family back in Zim and she tells me about her teenage daughter and son. Her mom is looking after them back in Bulawayo. She sends them money every month – South African rands are eagerly accepted in a country where the country’s currency has become an international joke. Pauline says she came to South Africa only last year. I express my surprise as she exudes confidence and know-how of someone who has lived here for years. She tells me with pride how she jumped the border. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF was putting pressure on her sister and her to join their political meetings in the evenings. They refused and were targeted. They decided they needed to leave the country. From Bulawayo, she recounts with a sparkle in her eye, she went to Botswana and spent two nights there. At 03h00 in the morning, she, her sister and some others crawled through the barbed border fence between South Africa and Botswana. She took a bus to Johannesburg. She had only R250 when she left Bulawayo and made it to Joburg. With her she had a bag with clothes and a blanket – no passport or papers. The first night in Joburg she spent with a friend. The friend left in the morning without offering her breakfast, telling her to go and find work. Pauline located another friend living in a hotel in Hillbrow. This friend introduced her to the sex trade and helped set her up. Pauline has been able to make a living since and tells me that she now has a passport and visa.
We examine the Liquorice nail polish I have brought and try to find the purple glint that it projects in the right light. The room is too dark and my finger nails turn me into a goth. I tell her how I like the idea of looking like a fearless witch when I have black finger nails. She shrinks from the metaphor, but is happy that I am happy. I don’t want to ruin my shiny new nail polish and she helps me to fish R300 out of my jeans pocket, where I have hidden it safely against spying street eyes. She hides the money in the cupboard and takes out R20 for her security guard friend. “So that he lets through my other clients in future”. For a moment I am puzzled. Surely her johns don’t come here for business? I then realise she means the clients who require perfectly manicured nails – not the ones who need other, more private parts of their anatomy attended to. Either way, I am sure we all leave in shiny, new ship-shop shape.
We take the lift down to the foyer and I see my cockroach friend is still making the rounds. The security guard has his palm crossed and I wave him goodbye. Pauline walks me to the door and says she needs to clean up the room before her boyfriend comes or there will be trouble. I feel a faint tremble in my heart at the thought of having to walk back through Hillbrow unaccompanied, but then again I have my fearless black nail polish on.
I take the same route back and walk past the same enquiring eyes. I giggle quietly at the sight I must make. My feet are slimy (yet beautiful) from the cream Pauline rubbed into them with so much care, and my soles skid around in my plastic sandals. I pass school children scoring goals with a Coke can against a tree, miserable chickens awaiting a painful death, colourful West African skirts flapping in the wind, and the many hawkers waving their wares at me, legal or not. Although I work here too, I am but a tourist in Hillbrow, passing through. A curious white visitor who makes a living from gathering stories and information from people who have to survive in the harsh reality of Hillbrow every day: those whose living is fraught with dangerous clients, violent boyfriends, megalomaniac police men, corrupt hotel managers and life-threatening viruses. I am uncertain on my feet and it is only when I am back in my car where my trusty cellphone awaits that I feel that I am on safer ground.