Close to two-thirds of women in Africa's poor areas sell sex to feed themselves and their families. This is what a report by women journalists from the African Investigative Publishing Collective found when conducting interviews in seven African countries in neighbourhoods and villages where residents live below the poverty line. For the report, titled The Last Resource: Risking death to feed your children, 226 ordinary women- from stay-at-home mothers to market stall and salon workers- were interviewed in Nigeria, South Africa, Liberia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, The Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya. Almost two-thirds said though frightened of HIV/Aids, they had to do sex work to provide food for children and sick and elderly relatives, school fees and rent.
Anita, who sleeps on the floor with her five children, grandmother and two brothers in her one-room house, wakes up every morning at 4am to be on time at her cleaning job at a rich, white school in town.
She returns in the evening to cook for her kids, but can’t rest after that: It is now time to move on to the shisa nyama, where she dances on tables and hopes to find a guy who will part with R200 for a session with her. Sometimes they don’t want to pay that much. Sometimes the money she makes is barely enough to fill one of the lunch boxes – steak rolls, chicken legs, avocado salad – she sees the white children eat from at school.
“Whites stole from us,” she says when asked who is to blame for her misery and she has a point. It was whites who created areas like Mshengu, Atteridgeville.
Eleven of 15 women we speak to in Mshengu do what Anita does, even though they risk HIV and their reputation, they say. It makes them feel low, they say, as if they are someone they are not. That they have lost their souls. In the words of some of those interviewed who sit outside their shacks waiting for piece jobs until they, too, have to go and seek out men who’ll pay them at night. Almost all say they hate it.
“I have seen people die of Aids,” says Nomthle, part of the minority who often goes hungry. But she says she will not resort to selling sex because of what she has seen. “It is horrible.”
THE BIG-STOMACH MEN IN MOUTSE, GROBLERSDAL
In Moutse, 175km east of Mshengu, women get by having sex with “any man who can provide”.
The people blame corrupt politicians for the reason; 25 years after liberation their area still doesn’t have water, even though pipes and budgets were delivered once.
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Pieces of pipe can still be seen lying on the side of the road, overgrown with weeds. The difference with Mshengu is that the corrupt politicians are so close by. They are their landlords, the women say.
They talk of the “big-stomach men” from the “department of whatwhat”, who own the houses where they live.
The houses look like RDP houses with their grey concrete uniformity, but nevertheless the women who live here pay rent and sex to men they call both landlords and boyfriends, as if these terms are interchangeable.
Sometimes the landlords come to see the babies they made, which is good, because then they bring clothes and food and sometimes money.
When asked, the spokesperson from the municipality writes to say he doesn’t know which houses we are talking about.
But this has been explained to him in detail: Left from Moutse Mall and after 300m right at the tavern on the side of the road to Bronkhorstspruit. “You seem to have formulated an opinion of your own, which is dangerous,” the spokesperson writes.
There is not much dancing on tables here. Even the local hub, Moutse Mall, is grey and dilapidated. The women here simply hope for a baby daddy, landlord or politician, to add to the R400 monthly child-support grant; or go with the truck drivers that move between here and the mines further north and the farms of Groblersdal.
Six of the 15 women we interview here say they do just that. “At first I would fall in love,” says Hlengiwe. “But it gets easier with time.”
Three others suspect their daughters are doing it.
“I see her come home with food,” says Janey, “and I don’t ask where she got it.”
A girl of about 15 on the side of the road tells us the richest girl in class is the one with the sugar daddy who gives her make-up and clothes.
“And she has custard in her lunch box,” she says, with some longing.
AN IDEAL WORLD
In an ideal world, the municipality would do something to help, with farming, childcare, developing the small businesses the women try to run: Growing peanuts in the yard and selling them, selling hairpieces.
A caring police would help when customers don’t want to pay, “because sometimes when you don’t want to give away your wares for free you get beaten up”.
But the municipality, which deposited a big chunk of its money into the failed VBS bank, doesn’t help the women and their children.
Locals say it pays R500 000 a month for a refuse collection contract to someone who does not actually collect the refuse. The household rubbish and waste from Moutse Mall is instead collected by a local NGO, because otherwise there would be more rats and disease.
About the refuse collection contract the municipal spokesperson responds that the refuse is collected twice a week in areas covering the main part of Moutse and that “there is a plan in place for refuse removal, however there are people who take waste privately to the landfill site”.
The NGO people also ran an HIV/Aids and antiretroviral (ARV) drug distribution programme with home care until last year. But then the health department, saying it could provide the same care much cheaper took over the programme. Now you can’t get home care anymore, say locals, let alone ARVs, because they run out.
You can get tested for HIV only if you enter the clinic with another person: Everyone is seen in pairs because of understaffing.
“Who is going to ask to test for HIV when your neighbour is right there watching?” asks Hlengiwe. With a reputation for Aids you might as well die immediately if you are a woman in Moutse.
So nobody goes anymore. You simply live with the feeling that you might have Aids. There are huge, colourful, signs – the NGO placed there – all along the road past Moutse Mall to Groblersdal: Aids is everyone’s problem, don’t be a fool – put a condom on your tool, be wise, condomise.
But Jolene has stopped breastfeeding because her partner sleeps around and refuses to wear condoms.
Asked why the municipality broke something that worked, the spokesperson says we must ask the health department.
If there is nothing else, you subsist on the child grant with your kids, but sometimes you don’t even receive all of that.
“The baby daddy will offer to draw the money so that the mother can stay home with the kids and then he takes his own ‘share’,” says the NGO worker. She tells how one day a young man came to her office for help because he was an “orphan”.
As she checked his paperwork, he opened his wallet and she saw five SA Social Security Agency cards, one for each girlfriend who had his babies. “He was collecting the money for all five of them.”
Moutse and Mshengu have a lot in common: The criminality, the corruption, the pain, the neglect. You might as well embrace the criminals.
It’s what Thembi in Mshengu does: She helps the Nigerians forge money and also does sex work when needed.
“It’s fine for me,” she says, grinning. “Though to make good money you need to polish up your English and work on your beauty.”
You must just know you can’t steal from the big-stomach men. Sammy, the young tsotsi who lived with his mother in Moutse, is dead now because he stole some tyres from the car shop that belongs to one of them.
Sammy, locals say, was taken from his home to the car shop and beaten to death, but not before nails were drilled into his skull as a message.
Sammy’s mother buried him and nobody in Moutse speaks of what happened anymore when we visit, three days later.
Only the NGO worker cries.
The municipal spokesperson writes to say we must talk to the local police about this matter weeks after he has promised to pass on the questions.
POLITICIANS DON’T RESPECT US
Who is to blame for all this? Whites? Apartheid? Men? The ANC? “Powers in society and politicians,” say Yvonne and Nomsa. Hlengiwe mentions “government with its false promises”; Nomthle talks about corruption; and Yvonne “the politicians who don’t respect us”. Maggie, in Mshengu, blames the “fathers who abandoned us”; Yonela summarises “men, as well as apartheid”.
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“We were let down by men who were let down by the government,” says Khabo in Moutse. Busi in Mshengu emphasises the “useless men in our lives; generations of useless men”.
They know that there is something wrong with men, but they still have to please them with sex and risk disease and death if they want to feed their kids every night. So far, no politician has ever talked to any of them about any of that. Not even women politicians.
The Moutse municipality mayor is a woman but she does not show her face around here. The minister of water and sanitation until recently, Nomvula Mokonyane, is known here only as the one who brought the pieces of water pipe that still lie on the side of the road; the one whose fault it is that the children here are plagued by eye and ear infections for lack of regular washing with clean water.
Some deal in their own way with the challenges of this universe. Like Thembi, who joined the gangsters, and Linda in Moutse knows how to manoeuvre to get things. As we knock on her neighbour’s door for an interview, Linda invites us to visit her instead, then ambushes the NGO worker with loud demands for food parcels. She has also corralled some apparently unattached children from the street and announces she’ll visit the welfare office to get grants for all three of them.
Linda’s own daughter can testify to her mum’s ability to spot an opportunity and make connections: She once landed a role in a film about HIV. But her daughter is back now, the NGO worker says. She is concerned that Linda is now pushing her to make money again, if need be on the road to Marble Arch, where Linda herself is also often seen.
Linda’s house has a fridge and a stove, a combination rarely seen in Moutse. But the NGO worker knows that even these possessions of Linda – who speaks about how she works at a bank, while everyone knows what she really does have come at the cost of much pain.
THE NEW OPPRESSORS
“The pain continues from the days of apartheid,” says Emily, a social worker, academic and activist with the Bolsheviks, a small local opposition party with a minor representation in the city council, from where they – mostly unsuccessfully – protest against corrupt tenders.
“There is a vicious cycle in which those who came to power became the new oppressors and the men take it out on the women.”
Emily combines passion for corruption-fighting and for the Bolsheviks (“Not the EFF, we know them to be just as corrupt as the ANC”) with feminism. Or rather, with an understanding about the mechanisms that turn men exploitative of, as well as oppressive and violent against, women.
The big men in her area, Emily says, brag about owning women. “They will say that equal rights for women are not on. That 50-50 – it’s what they call it – is a [Nelson] Mandela thing that they will beat out of our heads. They say that it is our culture.”
Traditionally, men were breadwinners and protectors, not murderers, exploiters and threats to their own.
“It has been perverted – they have become perverted versions of men,” she says. And all women are hookers? “Yes. You could say that.”
HOPES FOR PROTEST
Asked if there is hope, Emily says there should be a new – but better – truth commission, like the one that heard victims of apartheid in the 1990s. Only this one should be for South Africa’s women to tell their stories “and be taken seriously, ward by ward”.
She hopes for protest. “There was one last week. They shouted at the premier who came campaigning. They demanded to see the provincial minister who is responsible for water, and the one for education.”
A follow-up protest meeting is planned, too, she says, but not for pay-day weekend when everyone will be queueing or sending others to queue at the bank teller machines for grants.
When we pay Anita her fixer’s fee of R500 for introducing us to her Mshengu neighbours, she cries – it means she can stay at home without needing to go to the shisa nyama to dance on tables.
• The full report will be available online from Tuesday on www.zammagazine.com