12 February 2018

South Africa: Police Target Immigrant Sex Workers in Gauteng

Police are cracking down on sex workers in Gauteng for being illegal immigrants, not for sex work. We are only following orders from Home Affairs, say police.

Police are cracking down on sex workers in Gauteng for being illegal immigrants, not for sex work, say police.

In early February police conducted a late night raid on the Springs Hotel, Gauteng, and arrested around 20 women, mostly from Zimbabwe. Some men were also arrested. Witnesses say police fired two warning shots before proceeding into the hotel to make the arrests.

The arrests "are part of an ongoing joint operation between SAPS and Home Affairs against illegal immigrants" said Captain Johannes Ramphora of Springs police station. "We did not arrest them because of sex work ... We are only following orders from Home Affairs."

Other arrests were reported in January at the corner of Bree and Mooi streets in Johannesburg where immigrant sex workers are known to operate.

GroundUp spoke to Danai, an immigrant sex workers who had been arrested while on Zigzag Road in Nigel, Gauteng. Police stopped her with three other women and asked to see their passports. Two of the women had Zimbabwean passports, one had a Swaziland passport, and Danai had no passport. Leave to enter had expired for the three with passports. All four were arrested.

Danai (all names have been changed in this article) who is being held by police, is expected to be taken to Lindela Repatriation Centre for deportation. It is not the first time she has been deported. Last time she was dropped at Beitbridge and she came back into South Africa on the same day, crossing the river and paying smugglers for safe passage.

Danai, who is 37, first smuggled herself into South Africa in January 2005. Sex workers are routinely arrested for practising sex work in her hometown of Harare. She had heard sex workers had more freedom in Johannesburg.

Danai shared a flat with two women in Nigel. On week days when town was quiet, she'd be out on Zigzag Road. Her clients often picked her up in their cars. On weekends she would work in one of the brothels in town. Sometimes she would work in the Joburg CBD and Pretoria especially around month end. She and other women would book a hotel room for a few days.

Back in Harare, Danai has a 15-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son, who live with her parents. Although she has not travelled home for a while, she sends them money every month.

A late night raid by police on the Springs Hotel, Gauteng, was reported on 3 February. Photo: Kimberly Mutandiro

Gloria and Linda, who share a flat with Danai, left R1,000 for her with the Springs police in case she is repatriated. Gloria is from Kwekwe, a small town in Zimbabwe, and she has been in Johannesburg for five years. She is currently building a house in Zimbabwe and she travels home when she can. She regularly sends money to her mother who is looking after her two-year-old son.

Linda is from Swaziland. She came to Johannesburg when she was 24 to study beauty therapy. She paid for her tuition through sex work. She recently visited her parents back home and her passport stamp is still valid.

Another sex worker GroundUp spoke to, Zeria, is originally from Lesotho. She has been living in South Africa since 2007. Her parents chased her away from home when they discovered she was doing sex work. Her passport expired three years ago.

"Police normally ask for passports when they see people loitering in town. For me, private residential areas are better," she says. "This is how we earn a living, but society will never accept us."

Zeria keeps a low profile by hosting her clients in a room she rents in a Thembisa house. The landlord does not live on the premises and she deposits rent money into his bank account.

She has business cards which she hands out to clients. They contact her by cellphone. Some of them come from as far afield as Kempton Park where she used to work.

Zeria has a 14-year-old son living with her sister in Orange Farm. Her son attends a special school. "My son means everything to me. I'm only trying to provide for him," she says.

Recently neighbours have started to call her names and threaten her. They want her to take her business to a brothel. But undocumented immigrant sex workers avoid brothels because such places expose them to the police.

Originally published on GroundUp.

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