Poverty and Prostitution: Treat the Cause, Not the Symptoms

By Vanessa Burger · 27 Nov 2013

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Picture credit: Deviant Art
Picture credit: Deviant Art

It’s always easy to bully the weak. Or blame the victim. Or focus on superficial details instead of addressing the big picture. Most medication treats the symptoms but rarely the cause of an illness.

Unsurprisingly, this also applies to the recent anti-prostitution protests organised by the Bulwer Community Safety Forum in Glenwood, Durban. Disappointingly however, many of the organisers and participants of this protest should know better.

When symptoms of an illness persist after treatment with a variety of medications, it usually points to a serious underlying cause. A cancer perhaps that cannot be cured without surgical removal.

It would therefore be reasonable to suggest that, as prostitution has continued to proliferate for a decade and a half in Glenwood, something is seriously wrong with the way in which the issue is being addressed. Perhaps the manner of treatment has been unsuitable. Perhaps the sex workers are not really the problem. Perhaps the proliferation of the sex trade (along with the drug industry, vehicle hijacking syndicates, house and business robbery, other sexual crimes and general crime) points to a deeper malaise - an underlying cancer that has eaten away the core of our society.

Could this cancer be corruption?

Yes, undoubtedly. And many of the Glenwood protestors are aware of this. They’ve seen the cops extorting bribes from the sex workers, harassing them, ‘arresting’ them for a quick turn around the block with their pants around their ankles, and assaulting them, maybe even killing some of them. But the corruption is still really only another symptom.

Cancer is often caused by long-term exposure to carcinogens, pollution, certain chemicals, or toxic substances. Now what, in the case of the prostitution problem, could be the cause of such a cancer? Cancer is something that lurks in the hidden corners of our cells and multiplies in the darkness of our bodies’ organs, blood or bones when triggered by an unknown something. A tipping point which brings on the steady onset of debilitation of the entire body. 

So what was the tipping point that flipped our society to display such self-destructive self-absorption? Why hate the workers of a trade that has proliferated as a result of our own actions? Or lack thereof.  

Who cares about the 'ho’s' who get fed a wake-up of two rock moons by their pimp-dealers and then sent forth onto the streets to multiply the pimps bank account. Their craving is so great they will often service 20 – 30 Johns a day. Of course their life expectancy isn’t great. The impact of exposure to the elements (yes they’re forced to work in all weather), sustained physical and mental abuse, lack of food and medical care on a high HIV infection rate means many don’t see out more than two years in the trade. But then there’s plenty more where they came from – the rural areas, poor communities, the unemployed, women with too many mouths to feed and too little income to do so. You see the poor are expendable, there’s so many of them they lose their unique identities and become an amorphous, slightly menacing mass, a threat to our peace of mind, our standard of life, our property values, and must be pushed back into the dark crevices of society where they can’t be seen or upset our sensibilities. 

A member of the Glenwood business community once objected to an article on street children in the Umbilo Action Group’s community e-zine – Ukhuluma! The article was titled “Street Children – dirty little buggers pestering us at robots,” and was written by a member of our community who has fostered a street child for the past four years. The kid was interviewed for the article and his insights into the world of being a child vagrant were both shocking and inspirational. The main reason however, the complainant objected to this article, was that although she knew the problem (of street children) existed and saw them daily on her way to and from work, it made her ‘uncomfortable’ when confronted with the reality of the harshness of their lives, that they too were human beings with feelings, fears and needs, and did not simply disappear when she turned her head away from their desperate faces at her car window.

Street children, vagrants, and even informal traders are increasingly feeling the sjambok of a state and its citizens who have become ever more intolerant of the poor. The tendency by municipalities across the country to treat less privileged city dwellers as human trash to be “cleaned out”, often in response to calls by big business to stem urban crime and grime, is showing an increasing contempt for human rights, tolerance and shocking lack of understanding and empathy for the social conditions facing many South Africans.

This was demonstrated recently in Johannesburg’s “Clean Sweep” operation when thousands of street traders were “cleaned” out of their trading areas – for which many had paid up licences from the city. Now left without an income, many street traders will become homeless, their children will be denied an education as their parents cannot afford transport costs to and from school, some will turn to crime and others to sex work. Not only this, but an entire generation – the traders’ children will be forced into a similar cycle of poverty, thanks to their education being impaired. The result doesn’t take a brain surgeon to work out – increased crime and grime and more pressure on state resources as thousands who were previously able to support themselves and their families, are now forced to rely on social grants! Is this the way of a ‘world class city’? It sounds to me more like shooting oneself in the foot.

I think we may be getting to the cause of the cancer now. You see it’s within all of us, a deep-seated reluctance to face unpleasantness or do anything about it. As long as we’re all right, the rest can go to hell and we will fight tooth and nail against any threat to this status quo. We blame the government, but we are the government. We blame the police, but we are the police. We blame the sex workers, but we’re also the sex workers. Our community is made up of all of these, so the cancer really is within us all after all. But we will never blame ourselves and as the weakest link in the chain are the sex workers – we target them.

We judge them for flashing at fathers collecting their kids from school. But how many of these fathers have had a quickie before collecting the kids? It’s just advertising after all and no one advertises to a non-existent market. That would be bad economics, something we should all understand given our fixation with the accumulation of wealth. But that thought would make us ‘uncomfortable’ wouldn’t it?                     

We blame the sex workers for fouling our area with used condoms and faeces. Absolutely! But have you considered walking a mile in their stilettos? Do they really have a choice?

“Oh but they’ve been offered exit strategies!” you cry. Indeed. A drying out period, a place of safety, maybe a little training...and then what? They’re turned back out into the cold uncaring world, still have mouths to feed (if their pimps aren’t holding their kids hostage in return for their continued compliance) and guess what? They still can’t get a job.

I am a privileged whitey, I have a diploma, skills training, a good education, heaps of experience, am pretty good at a few things, but hey, I’ve been unemployed for 15 months – still am. I know what desperation feels like and the terrible choices you have to make to survive. A little light training hardly equips these women for the cutthroat South African job market, where unemployment in some areas of KwaZulu-Natal reaches 80%. So without the support of a caring community, family or support system, they return to the life they left behind where at least they can use the one asset all women can make economic choices with. Yes, they made a choice, in many cases, the only choice open to them, yet they are assigned the title of human trash to be “cleaned out” of our suburbs like so much rubbish.     

As with so many of the evils in our society it all returns to survival. Have we become so intolerant of another human beings desperate attempts to stay alive that we must persecute them because their struggles impact on our quality of life? Believe me, whatever shit you’re facing, you’re in a better place than they are.  

So I believe this is the cause of our cancer. From the head of state down to the lowliest labourer, we are rapidly losing that which makes us human – empathy for the plight of others and the will to change things we do not like to see.

So, like the patient who has suffered a nagging, inexplicable pain for years, but refuses to visit a doctor in case he is diagnosed with cancer, we struggle on in painful ignorance, when a minor operation may be all that’s needed, for without knowing the cause, we cannot treat the pain. And although not knowing is bad, not wishing to know is inexcusable. But however, this is our choice, and we must now lie in our gurney. Bloody uncomfortable isn’t it?

Burger is a member of the Umbilo Action Group and a part-time Dennis Brutus Community Scholar at the UKZN Centre for Civil Society.

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Barry Saayman
27 Nov

This is the Most Enlightened Column that I read in Many Years

"Who cares about the 'ho's' who get fed a wake-up of two rock moons by their pimp-dealers and then sent forth onto the streets to multiply the pimps bank account."

Vanessa cares deeply and it is my prayer that she will soon get the opportunity to make a growing difference in the lives of these much abused women.

"I am a privileged whitey, I have a diploma, skills training, a good education, heaps of experience, am pretty good at a few things, but hey, I've been unemployed for 15 months still am."

You left me wondering what role the fact that you are confronted with an existential crises played or still plays in her life.

"Oppression" can be wholesome if one learns the correct lessons from such experiences.

A privileged position and affluence on the other hand are in my view even bigger corrupters than poverty or drug addiction.

One can learn only the wrong lessons from power and money.

"Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." Luke 18:25

Today I wonder about Archbishop Tutu and the "more than 80 other prominent South Africans" that are apparently more concerned about "democracy" in the Western Cape than anything else.

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