Now, I have to take whatever clients offer for sex

I’m a sex worker in South Africa. Sex usually costs 70 Rand (about $5), but now I have to accept almost half that, just to have food. #HumansofCOVID19

Kerry Cullinan
4 June 2020
Zinzi* in Khayelitsha
Photo courtesy of Zinzi*. All rights reserved.

My name is Zinzi*. I am a sex worker and I am HIV positive. I work in the bushes along Baden Powell Drive, a road that goes past Khayelitsha in Cape Town, South Africa.

With COVID-19, things have been very hard for us. We are not getting any money because we are not getting any clients. Usually, I would go to the road at 8.30am and have my first client by 9am. But in the past two months, since the lockdown started, I have had only five or six clients a day in total. I might get a client by 2pm.

My clients are people who live around Khayelitsha. Usually, sex costs 70 rands (about $5), but now I might have to take much less – just to have something for food. I just have to take whatever he is offering.

I used to send money home to the Eastern Cape for my 12-year-old daughter. But since this virus started, I have not been able to send anything. I share a shack and I am struggling to pay my rent of 600 rands ($40). Although the government says that there are not supposed to be any evictions, things work differently in informal settlements than in the suburbs. My landlord depends on our rent money to survive, so we have to try to pay rent.

The antiretroviral (ARV) medication I am on makes me hungry, but I need to limit myself because I don’t have enough food.

We are not protected at all when we are with clients. There is very little that we can do to protect ourselves from the virus. Even if I have a mask, maybe the client doesn’t have a mask. We don’t have any sanitiser to sanitise the clients. Where we work, in the bushes next to the road, there is not even water to wash with. We are scared, and so are the clients – which is why they’re no longer coming to us.

Sometimes the police arrive and tell us to go. There is a certain time of day when they come past, which is another reason why I don’t stay where I usually work for too long. But they haven’t arrested anyone. They just warn us to go home.

There is no such thing as physical distancing where I live. We have been told to stay at home and stay away from others, but we don’t do that at all. I can’t stay inside a shack all day. I need to go out and try to find a way to get something to eat.

Sex work is illegal in South Africa. If it was decriminalised, we could be like other workers and apply to the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). I have applied for the one-off relief of R350 ($24) that the government announced for unemployed people, but so far I’ve had nothing.

We have been getting support from the NGO SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce), and I get medical care and my ARVs from TB HIV Care. But they are also struggling to give us what we need. What I need most is food and money for rent.

(SWEAT is fundraising to support sex workers in South Africa affected by COVID-19. Donations can be made here.)

"We are scared, and so are our clients"

Baden Powell Drive, where Zinzi* looks for customers | Photo courtesy of Zinzi*. All rights reserved.

*Not her real name.

[As told to Kerry Cullinan]

Between 27 March and 30 April, South Africa adopted a hard lockdown in response to COVID-19. All residents were required to stay at home unless they were shopping for food or seeking medical help. Since 1 May, regulations have been relaxed slightly to allow residents three hours of daily exercise and certain businesses to reopen.

Sex work is illegal in South Africa, although in 2016 the country’s AIDS council adopted a policy aimed at reducing HIV infection in this sector and the government undertook to investigate the decriminalisation of sex work. However, in 2017, the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) report on sexual offences did not support its decriminalisation. The department of justice has since undertaken to do further research on the issue.

This story is part of our Humans of COVID-19 project: lifting up voices from across the world that are not being heard during this crisis.

Who's getting rich from COVID-19?

Boris Johnson's government stands accused of 'COVID cronyism', after handing out staggering sums of money to controversial private firms to fight COVID-19. Often the terms of these deals are kept secret, with no value-for-money checks or penalties for repeated failures which cost lives. And many major contracts have gone directly to key Tory donors and allies – without competition.

As COVID rates across the country surge, how can we hold our leaders accountable? Meet the lawyers, journalists and politicians leading the charge in our free live discussion on Thursday 1 October at 5pm UK time.

Hear from:

Peter Geoghegan Investigations editor, openDemocracy, and author of 'Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics'

Jolyon Maugham Barrister and founder of the Good Law Project.

Layla Moran Liberal Democrat MP (TBC)

Chair: Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief of openDemocracy

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