“I did unprotected sex to avoid deportation from South Africa. Visa means nothing when you are a foreign sex worker. An infant baby perhaps protects me from deportation jail,” says Sarah, 34, who changes her name.
Sarah is a daring type of immigrant sex worker in South Africa. She works from 10 AM to 9PM in an illegal brothel “hotel” in East Rand, in a room filled with awful tobacco smoke, brawling men, and clinks of cheap whiskies.
East Rand is a belt of industrial towns lying 60 kilometers west of Johannesburg, South Africa´s commercial capital.
Three times weekly, Sarah says she bribes West African immigrant security guards on the “hotel´s door” with R45 ($US3) to sneak into the brothel her five months old daughter for a session of breast feeding. “Alarming? Yes, I breastfeed her in my room for thirty minutes every noon. I feel so bad of it,” she says.
“I only bring my baby into my room when I’m not busy with clients,” she says, and plays down her actions.
Sarah repeatedly describes herself as an “unwanted immigrant” from Zimbabwe. She says she came to South Africa in June 2010 when rains failed in Chiredzi, a rural sugarcane growing district in south-east Zimbabwe where heat wiped off her family´s entire fortune of four cattle.
She was already a mother of a six year old boy then. “I abandoned him in Zimbabwe; I’ve not seen him in seven years,” she says, a tear speckling in her eye.
Sarah has a vocational skills certificate in dressmaking obtained from a college Zimbabwe in 2008. Its grades shows decent marks. But she never found a job because according to her, Chinese cheap garment imports erased Zimbabwe´s textile factories.
“To my family in Zimbabwe I lie on the phone that I’m a shirts tailor in South Africa. They must never know I sell my body daily for money,” she stresses to this reporter.
She openly describes herself as a “foreigner”, and part of the estimated 138 000 commercial sex workers that work in South Africa according to the Sex Workers Education Trust (SWEAT) lobby.
She operates in a rusty suburb located halfway between two towns called Brakpan and Springs. This region in some areas is becoming a cliché for hideous mine holes, white poverty and foreign sex workers following the money trail of illegal miners.
Here Sarah is signed up to a brothel which she says – “I don’t know who owns it...only security bodyguards, whom I know for sure are Congolese, Nigerians immigrants, very bulk in body, guarding foreign sex girls.”
“And here falling pregnant shouldn´t be a problem,” she reveals.
She spins the latex on condoms supplied to the brothel by South Africa health ministry community workers. Her hands are oily from the packet linings.
She spits angrily, “Forcing yourself to fall pregnant here; we are tied by circumstances, damn!”
Sarah is doubly upset today. She claims donated branded condoms have an overreaching pineapple smell that frowns away her male clients.
“Men don’t like these brand new condoms with guava smells. The odour sticks and outs them to their wives. We lose business.”
Babies in exile,
Sarah begins to narrate her ordeal. She says she abandoned her 6 year old son when she came to South Africa but she is a new mother again. In November 2016 she gave birth to a daughter here in exile after being thrown into deportation jail four times.
She named her baby “Nyaradzo” meaning “consolation” in her native Zimbabwe´s Shona language. “Nyaradzo is the fruit of a forced pregnancy,” she explains, “forced by fear of deportation jail.”
Sarah reveals, “I fell pregnant to one of two illicit gold miners whom I met for just one week here in the brothel. I deliberately slept with them without condoms to increase my chances of scoring a pregnancy.”
It’s a dilemma: “My daughter doesn’t know her father between the two. I don’t either. Haven´t seen the men again.”
After Zimbabwe´s economy tumbled under world record inflation, in 2010, South Africa´s government issued 242, 731 “Special Dispensation Permits” allowing immigrants from Zimbabwe permission to work or study for four years. These visas were renewed in 2014. According to former South African immigration minister, Mr. Malusi Gigaba, the visas will expire in December 2017. “I lied on the permit forms I’m a tailor; just to obtain this permit,” says Sarah.
Up to 200 000 foreigners, like Sarah the sex worker, live on the mouth of chilling deportations. Each year hundreds are routinely taken back to Zimbabwe, just 700km away from Johannesburg.
So, Sarah scans the windows of her brothel room with her ever present fear. An ambulance bellows its siren on the tarmac down below. She is rattled. For a moment she wrongly thought the ambulance is an immigration police raid alarm.
“Here in East Rand, unless you are a brothel girl who is breast feeding, immigration police will likely deport you back to Zimbabwe, without remorse; we even hide passports and visas.”
Babies are protection from deportation,
“In South Africa´s sex work industry, a baby on breast milk can earn you some pity from deportation vans. We now know.”
“A valid passport is no salvation. Police say our visas are written “visit or proper work only” not sex work. Police can tear a sex worker´s passport if they see a valid visa.”
Police in South Africa are routinely accused of exerting beatings during brothel raids. Indeed “rogue police officers know stigma prevents sex workers from lodging complaints of violence,” says Ishtar Lakhani, the Human Rights Defence Manager for SWEAT speaking at “SAY HER NAME” a forum to persuade authorities to establish a database of all murdered sex workers.
Knowing this, Sarah sighs with fatigue, and stares at the violent red ink stamps that brothel guards routinely insert on her arm daily to prove she paid the R400 ($40) “service fee.” The ink sparks moulds of rash on her skin, she fumes.
“If you are foreigner police can seize your HIV anti-retroviral medicines packets. This pressurizes you into a deportation car,” she adds.
The South Africa Women Legal Centre on its part say 20% of sex workers in South Africa cite police abuse like being hit, grabbing of condoms boxes and fist attacks in the eyes.
South African police spokesperson, Hangwani Mulaudzi says all offended citizens or sex workers have a right to report grievances to the police independent complaints directorate.
Crossing red lines,
Edzai, 32, Sarah´s friend, an immigrant sex worker from Zimbabwe too, helps glue the mouth of Sarah´s baby to her nipple for breast milk in their shared brothel room.
“We are breastfeeding her inside the brothel because we have no proper childcare. Two, if police raids arrive, our baby can earn us mercy from deportation.”
They hear footsteps. Edzai elopes with the baby into a wardrobe in rival brothel guards will see the baby and demand a new R60 ($5) bribe.
However, the South African government director of Social Evaluation in its Social Development Ministry, Mr. Thabani Buthelezi, says bringing a baby into a brothel is “crossing a big, big red line. This is sad to hear. Social workers will take away such babies, heavily penalize the mothers and brothel owners.”
But Edzai the sex worker, explains, in defiance: “Immigration police when they bang into brothels, it is so humiliating. We are told to lie on the floor while police empty our medicine tins, sanitary bags. I hide my passport in my pants or its pages will be roughed up. ”
She adds – “Only when you tell them in jail that you are breast feeding they usually show remorse and release you.”
Edzai too who says she finally decided to fall pregnant to a South African ex-policeman`s son in 2011 to avoid forced deportation back to Zimbabwe reveals, “Then I chose to have unprotected sex at all costs when I met this former South Africa policeman who is now father to my son. A policeman’s child is the best.”
She adds, “Every foreign commercial sex working girl must have a maid who keeps her infant baby on standby in case of police raids.”
Sarah, jumps into the chat and explains the reason behind this tactic. “As soon as immigration officers shut you into jail cells, you dial a call to your maid, and she rushes and shows up with your baby. You scream to police that you want to breast feed.”
She cringes her teeth. “The trick works. Police without fail release from deportation jail sex workers who are breast feeding. Is this the law? Just pity.”
The release is not without awful humiliation says Sarah. “In March this year I shouted to police after a brothel raid that I am a new mother. Two female officers attacked my dignity. They demanded, “Show us your wet nipple if really you breast feed.”
No special law for breast feeding brothel girls,
South Africa Home affairs ministry which is responsible for handling immigrants refutes these tactics, “There is absolutely no South African law that says breastfeeding illegal immigrants are exempt from deportation.”
“Unlawful immigrants are in breach of the law. It´s simple,” says Thabo Mogkola, the ministry´s spokesperson.
How to fall pregnant and avoid 2017 deportation,
Edzai the sex work is mightily troubled. Her son born to a policeman in South Africa is now 6 years old. She says she too needs a new pregnancy fast to avoid deportation in December 2017 when her “Special Dispensation Permit” expires.
“I know the about horrific infections from unprotected sex,” says Edzai. She knows roughly 59% of sex workers in South Africa live with HIV according to a 2013 study led by the Sex Workers Education Trust.
“I´ll chose carefully and selected the healthiest man to make me pregnant for my next child.”
Her criteria? “I chose by eye, simply looking.”
“Oh, I need the insurance of this new baby against deportation. Especially in dreadful 2017.” She is already three months pregnant, she reveals.
She is nervous the South Africa home affairs ministry won’t renew her permit for the crimes of “being seized thrice in a brothel” but will instead send her back to Zimbabwe.
“Come Dec 2017 I must be nursing a new infant baby to earn pity if ever I’m seized from the brothel and thrown into an immigration car.” She pumps her fist lightly on her stomach, “this baby will be my salvation.”
“I must give birth by November.”
Edzai races down into the brothel main bar, flaunts her lacy coat to lure more male clients. Apart from the lodging fee she pays daily, brothel owners demand a punitive R300 ($28) for every man she takes overnight.
“I feel burnt by life even here in South Africa,” she says. “Zimbabwe is home but a big no country to return either. Village chiefs will beat me.”
Tribal chiefs stigmatize sex workers families,
Where Sarah and Edzai originate, Chiredzi, rural Zimbabwe, tribal chiefs hold huge moral authority over communal families.
In February this year, somebody, a frequenter visitor to South Africa, they say leaked WhatsApp brothel pictures back home that the two women are commercial sex workers in South Africa not shirt tailors.
“My family was fined six goats by the tribal chief when word broke out I´m a sex worker in South Africa. My family was rebuked that it is a bad omen to the community ancestors for a family to have a daughter who sells her body – even 1200 km far away in South Africa,” says Sarah.
“Though I am absent from Zimbabwe, I too feel deeply stigmatized by the threats and gossip,” adds Edzai.
Sarah says her chances of being married back home in Zimbabwe have dimmed. “I will receive fifteen lashes at the chief’s court if I return. Sex work is a taboo in the villages.”
She counts, R2500 ($200) brothel “society earnings” money. “It will be sort of a danger to be deported back to Zimbabwe.”
“Society” money plus baby is insurance in brothels,
“A baby on my milk nipple and “society money”, I am safe from deportation in 2017,” Edzai says and concurs with Sarah by shake of heads. “Society means, among twenty girl from Zimbabwe living in this brothel, we give $200 to a different girl each week.”
She laughs ruefully, “It is brothel in-house banking, informal. A baby, plus these savings will buy one´s out of deportation jail.”
High fees to get pregnant,
Sarah on her part says out her path. “I didn’t just get pregnant in 2016 to any man who visited the brothel then. The men paid to pay R3000 ($200) each to father a baby who is my insurance against deportation. Unprotected sex costs R1 400 ($100) in this brothel.”
Nyaradzo, her five month old daughter is her last, she says. “I won’t go beyond two kids. My daughter, my comforter, will save me from deportation in December.”
(Photo: Sarah sorts her baby´s clothes inside her brothel room)
(Photo credit: Ray Mwareya)
(Note: the women in the story have had their names altered to protect them)
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