“We need to stop normalising things that are abnormal in an attempt to cheaply gain “political credentials” and become populists.”

11 MAY 2020

Sex work is not real work but a symptom of a broken society, and obviously colonialism is the main contributor to this. Yes, we all need to earn a living, support ourselves and our families, but in doing so, we cannot promote or advocate for sex work as real work. We need to deal with the real issues, the underlying causes of this social ill, instead of focusing on its ugly symptoms and accepting them as normal. We need to stop normalising things that are abnormal in an attempt to cheaply gain “political credentials” and become populists.

This piece stems from a very disturbing Facebook post by Naledi Chirwa, which was recently shared on Facebook. The post read as follows:

“Maybe you must ask your mothers how they managed to raise you and your 4 siblings singlehandedly with R800 remuneration or no job at all. Supporting criminalization of sex work indirectly calls for the arrest of some of your own parents for selling sex to raise you. Sex work is not a new phenomenon and nobody deserves to go to jail for being a victim of capitalism. Sex work must be decriminalized. #SexWorkIsWork”

The above post by Naledi is not only derogatory, but an insult to many low-earning women especially black women and their children whom were raised with R800 to no job at all. Self-loving and respecting mothers or women will never settle for selling sex to feed their children, especially black women, they are known for working hard and selling their physical hard labour in the farms or fields, houses of white capitalists, the elites and middle class as domestic workers. For them that money was sufficient.

They never saw selling sex as an additional income as Naledi insinuates , in instances where the “R800” was not enough or rather they had extra needs, they would hop from house to house and work overtime, put on a stall and sell fruit and vegetables on the streets or braai and sell meat.

In pre-colonial Africa, black people lived through a socialist system, led by African values. The spirit of Ubuntu was the order of the day. As Steve Biko correctly and beautifully puts it “It was never repugnant to ask one’s neighbours for help if one was struggling. In almost all instances there was help between individuals, tribe and tribe, chief and chief etc. even in spite of war. Another important aspect of the African culture is our mental attitude to problems presented by life in general. Whereas the Westerner is geared to use a problem-solving approach following very trenchant analyses, our approach is that of situation-experiencing”.

Therefore, in this instance, I will have to also agree and support Mandisi Gladile’s statement that; “the idea that sex work is real work is at variance with African modes of being and existing in the world. African culture, across all its recorded histories, and archives does not have a conception of sex as work, or sex as an exchangeable endowment. This notion of “I give you sex, I work as sex slave” therefore you must pay me money is un-African and only locatable in bourgeois logic of a money-making scheme”, from his recent piece titled; The Fallacy of Sex Work as Real Work.

Sex work is a foreign concept in Africa, just like poverty, capitalism, slavery, exploitation and all other forms of oppression which landed at our shores as a result colonialism, and the arrival of settlers. I find it very mind-blogging that a MP and member of a political party that clearly states in its preamble that it is “a radical, left, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movement with an international outlook anchored by popular grassroots formations and struggles and that it will be the vanguard of community and worker’s struggles and will always be on the side of the people” would advocate for the perpetuation of such. The question is, therefore, how are you on the side of the people when you seem to be accepting and normalising their sad demise? Isn’t that contradictory? In my opinion, I believe that, one should be radically fighting the underlying cause of this social illness called prostitution which further leads to physical illness in the form of HIV/AIDS that mostly destroys the black population than any other race.

How do you even begin to boldly and recklessly advocate for prostitution in a country like South Africa, where about 7.7 million people live with HIV and which has the biggest and most -high profile HIV epidemic in the world. In 2018, there were 240,000 new HIV infections and 71,000 South Africans died from AIDS-related illnesses. HIV prevalence among general population is at 20.4% (ages 15-49). Prevalence is higher among men who have sex with men, transgender women, “sex workers” and people who inject drugs. This country also has the world’s largest antiretroviral treatment (ART) programme, 62% of adults and 63% of children are on ARV’s.

I doubt Naledi and Thuli Zulu had knowledge of this or took cognisance of it before advocating for prostitution. Unless, of course, they were just bluffing, just to remain relevantwith their misplaced wokeness and acculturation tendencies. Naledi could not even defend or substantiate her rants scientifically nor ideologically after a critique by Mandisi; instead she went to extract an excerpt on EFF’s position on sex work, so her rants on “sex work is real work” remain illogical, unsubstantiated and irrational.

In conclusion, let me touch on that rather astonishing and mind blogging piece by Thuli Zulu, titled; “Perhaps Karl Marx was wrong: Sex Work is Work, a response to Mandisi Gladile”. Thuli Zulu states that “in Africa sex has been used as an exchangeable endowment for measuring a woman’s worth or as reward for good behaviour. In the first example we can easily observe how sex is used in the in the widely known phenomenon of iLobolo practised by several Africans to initiate the process of marriage. During Lobolo negotiationsone easily make an observation that can lead to a conclusion that sex marks the worth of the woman”.

The above statement by Thuli is not only illogical but extremely disingenuous and lacks content. In African customary law, lobolo serves as contract peculiar to customary law as an agreement between two families in order for a customary marriage to officially take place. Lobolo is the most important contract in customary law, just like prenuptial agreement/contract is important in western/Eurocentric family law in order for a civil marriage to take place. Thuli Zulu must not allow her deepened self-hate and anti-blackness to lead her to disrespect, undermine and insult an African culture.

Vuyo Nyeli is an Activist, Clinical Consultant and senior Law (LLB) Student at University of South Africa (Unisa)