ANITA (not real name) left the country for South Africa in 2008 at the height of the country’s historic economic malady that was characterised by run-away inflation.
Having been impregnated at 17 years after her widowed mother failed to pay her examination fees for O-level, she prematurely weaned off her first born child at just 11 months and left her in the care of her mother when she was promised work at a Hillbrow hotel by a village friend — Memory who had left the country before her and was now the envy of many villagers.
Without a passport, any academic certificate and even an identity document, Anita crossed the Limpopo River into South Africa with the aid of the notorious amagumaguma, never mind the price that she paid and how she paid it. She had no money but she paid.
According to her, the price that she paid on the shores of the crocodile infested Limpopo River to the five guys during her escort was somehow a baptism of fire into the trade that she was going to enter when she got into South Africa.
They sexually violated her. Yes, they took turns to do so to her and others that were in her company, not once, not twice or thrice. They did it for days and whenever they felt like it, until they released them when they felt they were safe. It was an issue of life and death that she doesn’t want to recall, let alone talk about.
That was not the end of the abuse however. They hitch-hiked and faced the same predicament of sexual abuse or paying the fares “in kind”, according to her.
Memory had left only 150 rand for her and she had used 50 rand to buy her child who she had just weaned off some food. That means she was left with only 100 rand which was not enough, even for one who was travelling legally.
“The money was not even enough. And the guys who helped us cross the Limpopo River and evade arrest by the border patrol police were charging exorbitant amounts. They capitalised on our desperation and sexually abused us. There is nothing we could have done because our situation was no longer one of choice after we got into their hands. They were the ones dictating what should or should not be done and when.
“We were the meat in a sandwich and that was not comfortable. They raped us several times because we were with them for days. Those who resisted were physically assaulted and some were left at the mercy of the hungry Limpopo crocodiles and we never saw them again.
“They were very cruel, heartless drug abusers with faces as grim as death who preyed on powerless victims. But it was the desperation of our situation that forced us to brave and endure the torturous exertion,” she narrated with an unexaggerated sorrowful facial expression that betrays an inner pain.
She said when she finally got to Park station in Johannesburg after almost five days, two of which were spent in the abusive hands of amagumaguma, she was relieved when she met Memory — her village friend.
And instead of taking a deserved bath, food and rest, her friend seemed to suggest that those were luxuries that could wait.
“Imagine with all that we had experienced we would only bath the essential body parts as water was even a scarcity. I thought finally I would take my time to bath, eat and then rest but my friend’s actions seemed to suggest that those were luxuries. She even seemed to suggest that there was nothing unusual with the way I had travelled and the abuse I had suffered, she was not remorseful.
“She took me to her room. That is where I got the shock of my life. It was a flat in Hillbrow where the rooms were the size of a queen size bed and demarcated by threadbare curtains where one needed not to peep to see what was inside. I was startled by the love making noise that was emanating from the next curtain but she seemed not bothered. In fact Memory looked at me and said: “This is Hillbrow, you should learn to mind your own business.”
“In less than two hours of my arrival at her apartment, she threw me a mini skirt and told me to do some make up so that we could go to the hotel. That is when I realised there was no time to waste. I became suspicious since it was almost sunset but I had been violated by five strong men without rest and I was alive. I told myself nothing could be worse than that,” said Anita courageously.
She said they headed to a hotel where they met friends and that is when Memory introduced her to the work that they were going to do.
Having grown up in a village where she was little exposed to town life, she admits that the life of Hillbrow which is a notorious inner city residential suburb in Johannesburg in the Gauteng Province of South Africa is frightening, dangerous, scary, fun and lovely — all at once.
The suburb is known for its high levels of population, poverty, prostitution and is a melting pot of various other crimes like drug dealing. Anita said although she had heard of Hillbrow she often dismissed the stories as fallacies but there she was, in contact with the truth.
A recent visit by this writer revealed that Hillbrow is everything that Sandton is not. Sandton is upmarket, quiet and has a serene business ambience while sleazy, fun, debauchery, prostitutes, drugs, strippers, alcohol, guns and loud music is what defines Hillbrow.
It is a cosmopolitan area in Johannesburg and Africa where sex and nudity are celebrated and taboo is rejected. It has some of the cheapest sex in the world with a remarkable number of sex establishments where most black women frequent.
The women there are not into chatting for hours. They are there to make money and do it so quick. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes with skinny young women, chubby, super fat, pretty and ugly and since it is the body on sale more flesh should show as the ladies compete for clients.
There is more nudity. Most of them will be scantily dressed — like mermaids going back to the sea and stripping is the order of the day in the dimly lit clubs with disco lights turning red, green, yellow, and purple in a confusing order.
And according to Anita they charge 30 to 50 rand for a “quickie” depending of course on the days of the week with weekends being more expensive. She says the kind of work that she is doing in South Africa is a closely guarded secret back home.
“They know I am working in a hotel. It’s partly true because I spend most of my time in hotels and clubs and in the streets in the afternoon,” she said with a chuckle. “And with the amount of money that I get I am able to send my daughter to school and buy some clothes and groceries for my mother,” added Anita.
The ladies of the night in Hillbrow are not even ashamed of loudly asking clients for sex with some of them even marketing themselves in Shona using the most obscene language that you would not hear them say at home or even being said by the most rowdy touts.
“If you pretend to be shy, you will eat that shyness,” said another lady in Shona after being quizzed on why they are not ashamed of saying some of the words they were saying.
Not only is Hillbrow a home to Zimbabwean prostitutes, there are also drug dens operated mostly by Nigerians.
“My brother, these drug dens here are extremely dangerous even if you are combat trained with a firearm. And most of them work hand in glove with these prostitutes. They are not just a part of urban mythology, they are very real and very dangerous in the strictest sense but we still find ourselves here. The economics of it makes sense to most men, considering the price of a girlfriend, 30 rand is not much but if they take you to a rundown building with a high and strong security gate turn around even if you are a Rambo, these people will make sure they steal from you and they will use force,” said a young man who only identified himself as Thabo.
He said the police were often bribed.
“Many are found doing it in a car and are charged with Public Indecency but this is not a particularly serious offence especially if it is dark and far from schools and churches,” he added.
One of the co-ordinators with the Sisonke Sex Worker Movement affiliated to the greater African Sex Worker Alliance which unites sex workers from all over Africa who also operates as a prostitute in Hillbrow had this to say:
“We are busy working for our families and the choice to work in the sex industry should not be relegated to the arenas of feminist discourse or moral/immoral diatribes but rather on the reality that we choose to sell sex and that the choice to do so should not be met with stigma, violence and malfeasance.”
She said it was most unfortunate that their choice to work as sex workers was not protected by the law, adding that it however, does not mean they have surrendered their rights to dignity and respect.