Zohra Mohamed Teke spent some time getting to know some of the elusive prostitutes who work underground in Durban. These are their stories, told for the first time.
Michell, a 28-year-old transgender: I was born in the Eastern Cape and grew up as a boy, but I felt different. I gradually started becoming gay and at 18 I left home to study communication science at UCT. By then I was openly gay with feminine ways. After two years of studying I ran out of funds and started waitressing but could not save enough money to go back to university.
After becoming openly transgender, the restaurant I worked at asked me to leave, saying I was too controversial and they didn’t want someone like that working there. I left for Durban thinking it would be easier here, but boy, was I wrong! It was much worse and I couldn’t find a job anywhere, even though I had two years of communication studies behind me.
I met other transgenders and saw they were living quite a good lifestyle from doing sex work. I eventually became so desperate as I ran out of money and decided to give sex work a go because I needed to survive and could no longer live with my friend for free.
My first time was with a white guy, a friend of a friend who met me at a club. He asked me to go to his place and I was terrified. But he offered me more money and we went to his house where we started the evening drinking.
I drank a lot because I could not handle the thought of what I was doing. It was nerve racking. I didn’t have any connection or experience, but I needed the money. After we had sex and he paid me, I felt relieved because just having some money took away the stress to pay bills and so on.
From then it became easier. I am now able to rent my own place, advertise my services discreetly and earn around R2 000 a week. It’s been very hard at times, especially when we get harassed by cops. They pick us up, demand a bribe or sex, keep us overnight in a cell and then let us go. We often get beaten, and as a transgender it’s worse. I am humiliated and mocked in front of everyone. We are treated like animals or objects that don’t belong in society, and because sex work is illegal we are too scared to report it.
This is not the profession I chose in life, it’s what I had to do to survive. I don’t want to be a sex worker for the rest of my life. I have other plans for my future. I want to get my passport, finish my degree and work in a corporate environment in South Africa or elsewhere if the environment is not welcoming of me as a transgender.
My message to society is not to judge us. We all have dreams. For most of us, our circumstances push us into doing what we do.
The government should stop handing out free things and let young people understand and value hard work through education. Young people need skills and help in getting and completing their education so that they are not pushed into desperate situations like me.
Denise, a 40-year-old single mother: “I was raped five times and left for dead. He drove me to different fields where he held me down on the hot bonnet of his car with my back burning from the heat while he continued to rape me again and again. He forced me to perform oral sex without a condom. He then tried to stab me and left after he heard a police car approach.”
This is the story of Denise, a strong, beautiful woman who has been working as a prostitute for the past 18 years. Raised by her grandmother, Denise explains how she entered the world of prostitution and the impact it has had on her life.
“After my grandfather died, our lives were turned upside down because my grandmother never worked and we were suddenly without any financial support.
“I was 20 and my friends were dressing well and always had money to do their hair and buy nice things. I kept asking them how they did it and they refused to tell me until one day I cried and asked them, Do you like seeing me suffer like this in poverty?’
“That night they took me with them and I witnessed how they stood on the side of the roads and sold their services as sex workers. I was shocked and desperate at the same time. I took some drugs to forget the pain and embarrassment and did the same. I couldn’t believe it was so easy.
“In one week I earned R800, which was a lot of money then, and once I began getting the money and all my financial troubles started going away I couldn’t get out of it. I was a single mother with a young daughter at school and she didn’t know what I was doing, but she knew I always had money to support her and was always away at night.
“Then all that changed when I met up with an accident and couldn’t move my leg, so I wasn’t able to work. The next month was January, and my daughter began matric. Towards month end she came home crying because she was punished by the teacher for not having her school books which I couldn’t afford to buy, as I was not able to work.
“My daughter was so affected and emotional about what happened to her that she tried to commit suicide. The next day, I was called into the hospital and referred to a social worker, who told me my daughter confessed she suspected me of being a sex worker and that’s why she tried to commit suicide. My daughter wanted me to tell her the truth. When I admitted to my daughter that I was a sex worker she became hysterical, saying she didn’t want to be raised by a prostitute. It was hell.
“We were both crying as I tried to explain to her how it was money from prostitution that kept us surviving and her in school.
“After we both calmed down, she made me a promise. She said she would study so hard and take us out of a life of prostitution. After she was discharged from hospital she went back to school and I managed to go back to sex work.
“She studied every night, even when we didn’t have electricity. She would study by candlelight until the early morning, then go to school. I used to tell her to stop studying so hard because I was getting worried about her, but she would just tell me she had to do it for us.
“That was two years ago. She matriculated with four distinctions and was offered two full scholarships to study at any university. She is now a second-year student at a top university and is doing extremely well. We are busy planning a new future for both of us once she completes her studies. I cannot tell you how much it means to see my child, a daughter of a prostitute, at university.”
By that stage of her story, Denise and I were both in tears. I was truly moved by her remarkable story of resilience, inspired by her strength to overcome her horrendous experience, and in awe at the softness in her character despite the hard curve balls life had thrown at her.
“This is where the guy stabbed me after raping me,” she says, pointing to a scar on her left arm, now wet with her tears.
“I have never spoken about my life to anyone, I did not want to remember what I’ve been through. But it’s time to move forward. Those in this business should not lose hope. It is difficult to get out, but its not impossible. There is always light at the end of the tunnel.
“But government can’t pretend sex work doesn’t exist and continue to ignore it. It doesn’t solve the problems of HIV and Aids. They must decriminalise the profession so that sex workers can have a safe place to practise their trade where their health can be monitored.
“There are many empty buildings in the city. Why don’t they renovate these and turn them into safe places for sex workers – they will be able to conduct regular checks and make sure they are drug- and disease-free. Sex work won’t go away, so we must make it safer.”