Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Sex work activism in South Africa: a struggle for visibility

Organising sex workers to protest injustice, create safe spaces, and support one another is a difficult job. One South African organisation shares its stories of success.

Dudu Dlamini
9 March 2016


Dudu marching forward. Photo by author. All Rights Reserved.

We, the authors of this piece, both work for an organisation that has defended the rights of sex workers and ensured their access to health services for the past 20 years. Dudu has been a sex worker, a peer educator and organiser, while Sally-Jean’s experience has been as a worker in the South African non-profit women’s sector.

We represent very different South African experiences. Dudu is a black woman and grew up in poverty close to Durban. Sally-Jean is a privileged white South African woman who grew up in a town close to Johannesburg. We were both born in the 1970s and grew up during apartheid. We now live in contemporary South Africa, a country still characterised by racism and inequality. It’s important for us to state this first, as this context is central to our approaches to sex work as work, and to trafficking.


Dudu writes: In my own experience, I was trafficked before working in the sex industry. I was trafficked to Cape Town in 2002. I was told about an opportunity by someone living in my town. When I got to Cape Town, the salary wasn’t what I was told, the work and conditions weren’t what I was told. Instead, I was selling drugs. I wasn’t given food, or an opportunity to look for something else. When I escaped, I got on with my life. I didn’t have skills, and I had no money to find work – no money for transport or food. It was the same at home, where poverty was the norm and I was responsible for my family who were waiting for me to send money.

I needed something to do, I met someone who told me about sex work and I went to the road. She didn’t force me, she shared with me how to use a condom. I learned from the road to use a condom, I had four children because I didn’t know about condoms before doing sex work.

On the third day of doing sex work, I could send money home to my family. I could fix the roof of my house, pay for my children’s education, and I got a funeral plan. I could budget and settled my things without having a boyfriend, I only relied on myself. It brought back my power to do things on my own, without begging or asking others.

Gendered apartheid?

In The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women’s open letter to Amnesty International, they allege that Amnesty’s support for the decriminalisation of sex work will “in effect support a system of gender apartheid, in which one category of women may gain protection from sexual violence and sexual harassment, and be offered economic and educational opportunities; while another category of women, whose lives are shaped by absence of choice, are instead set apart for consumption by men and for the profit of their pimps, traffickers and brothel owners.”

We, the writers, come from the country where apartheid was designed. It still characterises our experiences and our relative access to opportunities. Sex work does not create inequalities, but, like all work, it does exist within systems that entrench inequalities. This is exactly why we want sex work to be recognised, and for sex workers to become part of an organised and empowered workers movement.

South African law criminalises buying sex, selling sex, and all associated activities (running a brothel, living off the proceeds, etc.). City by-laws also affect sex workers, and unrelated laws against things like ‘public nuisance’ are also used against sex workers.

SWEAT – where we both work – provides services and safe spaces for sex workers. Our work includes outreach to sex workers, documenting human rights abuses, advocacy for legal reform, and providing health-related services and referrals. Our work is about organising sex workers to collectively challenge laws, policies, and practices that diminish our choices.

Organising despite stigma

Organising a movement is a messy and complex affair, especially when your aim is to organise people who are criminalised and stigmatised. We organise sex workers around particular issues that are representative of a common experience.

In the coming months, a man accused of murdering a sex worker will appear in court in Cape Town. Sex workers will be outside and inside the courtroom when he does. They demonstrated during earlier stages of his trial as well, gathering outside the court to wear slogans and sing songs for weeks at a time. It may seem to the onlooker that this is an easy task, but to stand on the steps of institutions that represent your oppressor is a powerful statement. To risk exposure to police action – the media characterised our group of 15 as an “angry mob” – demonstrates courageous activism.

In November last year, we investigated three murders that took place in Cape Town. We confirmed that the victims were sex workers and attempted to help identify the victim of one crime by speaking to local colleagues.

In December last year, a small group of mothers gathered to present their stories of motherhood as sex workers. Sex workers’ role as mothers is completely ignored and made invisible. Mothers-for-the-Future, a self organised group that aims to ensure sex workers are recognised as mothers, is actively challenging this perception.

The Sisonke sex workers movement, a part of SWEAT, works to organise sex workers in the spaces that they occupy. On 3 March, as in previous years, will ensure national action to celebrate the International Day for the Rights of Sex Workers.

Resisting anti-sex work rhetoric, which is often packaged as ‘anti-trafficking’ work, is challenging. After all, sex workers are framed as voiceless victims, and by this circular logic anyone speaking out and for the recognition of sex work isn’t actually a sex worker. This means that sex workers active in our movements are undermined, silenced, and discredited by virtue of their membership to a movement! Furthermore, in the polarised ‘debate’ on legal frameworks – most often between partial criminalisation and decriminalisation – a whole lot of complexity in sex work is ignored because it cannot be neatly placed on either side of the debate.

Talking about sex work as work also places some uncomfortable realities before those who would rather ‘rescue’ women into a utopia of second-hand clothing sales and beading than talk critically about capital, labour, and gender. In fact, women in sex work earn up to three times as much as other forms of work available to them. Sex work also offers better working hours, greater independence, and in some cases, better working conditions too.

As Dudu says, without a movement of sex workers linked into safe spaces, “I will just eat it, swallow my voice, and experiences”. There is a spectrum of experiences in sex work, none of which is a single truth. Defining sex work as work will help make this diversity visible.

This article is published as part of the 'Sex workers speak: who listens?' series on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, generously sponsored by COST Action IS1209 ‘Comparing European Prostitution Policies: Understanding Scales and Cultures of Governance' (ProsPol). ProsPol is funded by COST. The University of Essex is its Grant Holder Institution.

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