The Struggle Against Silence: Media Responses to Decriminalising Sex Work in South Africa and Zimbabwe

Photo: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa giving Sisonke National Coordinator Kholi Buthelezi a sunflower at the launch of the ‘South African National Sex Worker Plan’.

In March this year, Cyril Ramaphosa – the South African Deputy President – publicly indicated support for the decriminalisation of sex work when launching the first South African National Sex Worker HIV Plan. In line with the South African Constitution, he made the statement that “sex work is essentially work as well” – eliciting rounds of applause from the audience.

The talk was a striking moment of recognition that the decriminalisation of sex work is important for the fight against HIV/AIDS and for the protection and recognition of sex workers – although it has yet to be translated into concrete legislative change.

The statement was welcomed by many, including the Sex Workers’ Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) and Sisonke as a major step in the move towards decriminalisation. Sweat national director Sally Shackleton told Independent Online: “We are very encouraged by the statement by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who emphasised that sex workers need protection under law and deserve rights like all others. Sweat and Sisonke support the legal reform mechanism of decriminalization”

Notably, the (limited) response by the national media was generally sympathetic or merely reported the issues neutrally. Some national papers like Business Day did not report on the issue at all. Even the Daily Sun tabloid, with a strong penchant for scandal, reported the statement, only adding its obligatory exclamation mark to the headline.

The only negative comments in the media I could find after an extensive online survey of reporting around the period was an op-ed on News 24 by a group called Doctors For Life International (DFL) who were “extremely distraught” by Ramaphosa’s speech. They argued that “Decriminalization of prostitution is powerless to change the essential, exploitative nature of commercial sex, and tragically grants it free rein”, ignoring arguments that decriminalisation can provide improved conditions and more protection to sex workers. Doctors for Life are a organisation, who are also opposed to abortion, are clearly motivated by a strongly religious agenda.

Nonetheless, their response seemed anomalous in the South African media, even in its tabloids. For the most part the speech was reported neutrally, followed in some cases by more in-depth studies on the lives of sex workers – for instance Zohra Mohamed Teke’s series in IOL, and a blog on a sex workers experience in the Daily Vox.

How are we to understand the lack of debate the comments brought about in the media? Does this lead one to believe that they are uncontroversial, or irreverent in the wider context of state corruption, strikes and protests? Or is this a sign that South Africans are either indifferent to, or supportive of, the decriminalisation of sex work?

The comparison to Zimbabwe is compelling.

In a context where media freedom has been a constant struggle, debates around the decriminalisation of sex work have been frank, sometimes moralistic, but have also often expressed support for the total decriminalisation of sex work.

In Zimbabwe, public laws regarding the regulation of sex work have been more somewhat more progressive than in South Africa. Although the sale of sex is not criminalised, solicitation is. However, in 2015, the Zimbabwean Constitutional Court made a ruling that the police could not arrest women without there being confirmed evidence of solicitation. The ruling has in effect helped to protect sex workers – and women walking at night, who were frequently targeted – from police harassment.

What is noticeable is that the ruling led to an open debate on sex work. The Herald asked “Should we legalise sex work”? The article wrote that “The move was greeted with wild cheers at known sex work dens while the moralistic in society were palpably angry. But then, sex workers are coming out in the open and demanding the legalisation of their time-honoured trade, which has received backing from experts in health and human rights.”

The Weekend Post asked “Is Zim Ready to Legalise Prostitution?” The author argued that “Zimbabweans have for long resented legalising prostitution as others firmly believe that there is strong co-occurrence between prostitution, drug use, drug selling, and involvement in non-drug crimes, particularly property crime. But by keeping prostitution illegal it means there are no laws to govern how the work is performed.”

Some bloggers, even while moralising about sex work, supported the judgement in order to protect women from harassment. For instance Harare based blogger Jara wrote “For police to arrest a woman simply because she has on her the scent of a hooker, or the appearance of one, is unjust.”

The response in Zimbabwean media was ambivalent: the language was simultaneously progressive and demeaning. But nonetheless it did reveal an openness to debate the decriminalisation of sex work, and – in some ways – the debate was more heated than in South Africa

Is the lack of public debate around sex work in South Africa a sign that Ramaphosa’s comments are widely accepted and it would be non-controversial to decriminalize sex work in South Africa? Or is the media not representing wide-spread opinion?

The views in the media cannot be taken as expressions of the views of the population. In a regional and global context where the harassment and abuse of sex workers is widespread it certainly does not indicate that the rights of sex workers are respected.

But the changes in Zimbabwe and South Africa over the past year indicate some progress, with a media sympathetic to – or at least open to – debate relating to the decriminalisation of sex work in the region. In the Southern African context, where sex workers are often also facing the challenges of migration, a regional debate is urgently needed.

The present movement regionally seems an opportune time to continue the public debate around the decriminalisation of sex work, and ensure that the voices of sex workers are not marginalised. Projects like the Izwi Lethu newsletter, and the MOVE project, co-produced by the African Centre for Migration & Society along with sex workers, aim to keep these voices and experiences in the public domain.

The ongoing struggle, it seems, is not only against moralists and anti-sex work evangelists, but also against indifference and silence.

Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is a writing fellow on the Migration & Health Project Southern Africa (maHp). Media reviews here were conducted through Google News and Allafrica.com

About Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon

Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is a Writing Fellow on the Migration and Health Project Southern Africa, based at the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits).

Matthew holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford, which was ethnographic study of HIV/AIDS treatment programmes to displaced communities in northern Uganda. Over the past five years he has conducting research in inner-city Johannesburg on themes of migration, religion, health and housing. He is beginning new research looking at African migration to Brazil.

Matthew has published widely in different books and journals including Medical Anthropology, Critical African Studies and the African Cities Reader, and a number of newspapers and journalistic publications including the Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, Chimurenga Chronic and the ConMag. He is presently completing a narrative book about unlawfully occupied buildings in inner-city Johannesburg. He is the lead editor on the forthcoming book 'Routes and Rites to the City: Mobility, Diversity and Religious Space in Johannesburg' to be published by Palgrave-MacMilllan.

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