Celebrating sex workers’ stories at the Workers’ Museum

This article is by the Izwi Lethu newsletter team; written by reporter Ziyanda with facilitator Greta, and photographs taken by Ziyanda and Chidhavazo. 

All the nine provinces were represented at the Sisonke Sex Worker Movement’s National Meeting held in Johannesburg on 20-24th November. We were discussing how to lobby for the decriminalisation of sex work. I was thinking about my work for Izwi Lethu because the more we write our stories, the more people can see what we are facing in this industry. Kholi then introduced the Izwi Lethu reporters to everyone at the meeting and explained that we would all be traveling to Newtown to see an exhibition of Izwi Lethu and the Sex Worker Poster Project, hosted by the MoVE Project at the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) at the University of the Witwatersrand. Kholi told us,

You can see what other sex workers are doing with their own hands. Sex workers are not always thinking about sex work but they also do other things with their brains.

I was so happy because I knew all the provinces would see the work that we have been doing and read the stories that we have written.

Before we left the National Meeting, Kholi asked for the Editor in Chief of Izwi Lethu, Kagee, and his team, including me, to sit at the front of the bus so that we could lead all of Sisonke into the exhibition. We were singing about us sex workers — or rather we were singing old struggle songs, but aren’t they also about us as sex workers as we struggle for the decriminalisation of sex work? The MoVE team at the ACMS hosting the exhibition understood this connection, inviting Judy Seidman to be the keynote speaker at the exhibition. As a visual artist and cultural worker, she created posters for the liberation struggle in South Africa.

We carried on singing all the way from Observatory to Newtown. When we arrived at the Workers’ Museum, we got off the bus singing and dancing: “iSisonke izophatha iyoha!” We lift our thumbs in agreement to say Sisonke will rule! We danced from the parking lot into the museum where ACMS researchers and other people there for the exhibition were clapping and cheering for us. We sang other struggle songs, such as: “iSililo sesex worker asihoywa,” which means no one takes a sex worker’s tears seriously. The song goes on to ask people to keep quiet because sex workers themselves are no longer crying. What we are writing for Izwi Lethu is about these tears that we’re tired of crying. We as Izwi Lethu that’s what we’re writing so people can hear us crying out. The more they hear our stories the more they will take us seriously. The stigma around sex work will be reduced.

Everyone then gathered inside the exhibition, surrounded by posters that sex workers had made to tell their stories and let others know what we face as sex workers. Kagee introduced the zwi Lethu team and acknowledged the researchers who were there, including Jo Vearey who made it all happen. We were so happy to be recognised by the researchers.

Judy then spoke. She encouraged us and empowered us to create more—to do more with our hands and our art to tell our stories. We can tell our own stories to fight against the stereotyped images of sex workers that we see on TV.

Judy quoted Steve Biko and then reread the same quotation substituting “sex workers” and “sex work” for “black” and “blackness”. She then said something which made the crowd cheer:

Merely by describing yourself as sex workers you have started on a road toward emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your sex work as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being.

In a Sisonke space, I call myself a sex worker proudly. But still on the street, people call me a “magosha” and tell me that I’m selling my body. It makes me feel small. I feel embarrassed when I’m talked to like that in front of people. But deep inside, I know that sex work is work. That is how I survive.

Judy quoted Steve Biko again, and again to great applause: “Change the way people think and things will never be the same.” She explained that our art will change the way people see us and the world around us.

We sex workers are survivors. We are also human beings. We need to make people understand that. When someone swears at me when I am working on the street, I just ignore them. But I want to teach them and other people about what sex workers survive. Even though I cannot explain all of this to someone who yells at me on the street, I have written stories in Izwi Lethu that show what’s in my heart. In a recent issue, I wrote about a party that my sex worker friends and I threw on June 16th for our neighbourhood. We bought food—but no alcohol—and braai-ed and cooked for everyone. We asked the police for permission to have our party in the street, and we danced and sang with all our neighbours. We even invited the woman who complains about us to our landlady. We cleaned up the street after the party. I want people to know that story.

Judy also said that “making art is a crucial way to breaking this silence”—the silence that follows when that man on the street curses at me, the silence of people whom society sees as not good enough to listen to. Like Kholi said before we left our national meeting, these posters and newsletters prove to people that sex workers can make art. We are more than our jobs. Our job just gives us money to feed our children. Judy pointed to one of the posters that says, “Tradition doesn’t pay my bills,” and added that “stigma doesn’t pay the bills” and “prejudice doesn’t pay the bills”.

For me, I don’t know about others, immediately when she spoke about this, I thought to myself: just go do your job outside so you can survive and look after your siblings because no one will help you. Those people who curse at me won’t help me. Only I can help myself, and I have the strength and power. And if I work with other sex workers we have even more power and can encourage each other. I can’t yell back to the man on the street, but if I work with the Izwi Lethu team and we tell our stories together—we verify each other’s stories—then someone will hear our voices.

My June 16th article is featured at the exhibition. I was over the moon to see it blown up to the size of a poster. I did write something with sense that could teach those people who stereotype sex workers that we have vibrant lives outside of work. I took a picture of a police car to go with my story because even though the police often see us as criminals, on the day of our party, they came and supported us. The posters and pictures say so much. If you were not at the exhibition, please go to the Workers’ Museum and see our stories for yourself.


One-on-one with Judy

My colleague, Ndumie interviewed Judy after she spoke. Here is what they said:

Ndumie: OK, Judy, I’d like to ask you these four questions. What drove you to make the posters of the struggle?

Judy: I think anybody who was alive at that time, who was aware of the kinds of things going on in southern Africa, particularly South Africa, had a responsibility to try to stop it however you could. I’m actually not South African, so I was originally born in the United States and then I went to school in West Africa. My parents were teaching there. And then I went to Zambia and got to know people in the ANC and the liberation movement. The first poster I did for the ANC was actually one of the person—at that point I had been an art student. Because of this funny history of being in Africa and moving around I had become very aware of issues around race and culture and so forth, and I had an exhibition in Zambia when I was visiting my parents, which some of the guys from the ANC helped me put up. And there was a bomb in the office the day after we put the exhibition up, and one of them was killed. So the very first poster I did for the ANC was for this person who was killed. I stayed in southern Africa and the more I lived here the more I realized that this is one of the fundamental—it was then—one of the fundamental ways that human beings were being damaged. There’s not an easy answer to that question.

Ndumie: Are there lesson to us as sex workers fighting for decrim that you can give us from your time fighting against apartheid?

Judy: I think the lessons which you’ve learned doing this hard work, it’s a really incredibly powerful tool, what I was saying today. I think you’ve learned that; I can’t add to that. Maybe the one thing that I didn’t say here but ought to be said is coming from this history of having fought an incredibly entrenched regime which at one stage we thought we wouldn’t win and a lot of people did lose their lives doing that—there was a lot of damage done—but you actually can win some of it. And I suppose having won it, you don’t then discover that everything’s perfect either, and there are still a lot of struggles you have to go forward with.

Ndumie: What do you think of the sex worker-made posters?

Judy: I think they’re incredibly powerful. As I said, I think there’s still a stage to come, that they need to be distributed in the society. And they can be used to get people to talk about these issues and see that there is actually—our society is doing ongoing damage to people by the way we treat sex workers, by the way we stigmatise. One of the issues that maybe these posters touch on but needs to be thought about is that many of the ways that women are oppressed overall are reinforced by dividing us up into different groups. There are sex workers here and maybe LGBTI people here and there are middle class white women somewhere else. But by making it so that we don’t even think that the other people also have problems that are a direct result of the way society treats us as a whole, we don’t talk to each other, we don’t support each other. And one of the things about those posters, is that it becomes a starting point to be able to see that this is part of our shared struggle. I think that’s something. If I had any suggestions about what might be an additional way to go with those is to think about how some of those messages could be put in that framework. I think some of them already do. There’s one that talks about “I’m a sister, too” – but that whole question of supporting, “I do this work because it’s how I support my family,” “I support my kids,” you know and so forth. It’s something that is very easy for people to identify with and to suddenly say, hang on, whatever I might have been told about these people… Usually the image that is given of sex workers is that they are destroying our nice families, which I won’t even go into the lies about that. But that’s why we need those stories.

Ndumie: What would you like to say to Sisonke members who weren’t here today?

Judy: I think you’ve done an amazingly great job! I think you should keep it up! I hope we can build. The more organisations we have and the more people we have—and we need to make links between each other as well—and we can win this one!

Ndumie: Thank you for your time!

Judy: One more thing that probably needs to be said at this time: I feel very strongly, many of us involved with cultural work feel very strongly, starting in 1990 with the negotiations when people moved into government there was almost a sense that we didn’t need to have the posters, we didn’t need to have mass representation, we didn’t need to have magazines, we didn’t need to tell our own stories, and that was a disaster. It actually undercut some of that sense of power and mass base that we had started to build. And the fact that people are now beginning to do this kind of stuff so effectively at this point, I think it’s very important.


I was taking pictures while Judy and Ndumie spoke. We were grateful that she shared her wisdom and encouragement with us. I think people in power in South Africa are now hearing our voices, but they are still ignoring us. We must share our posters and newsletters with our sisters and brothers to fight stigma. We need more people in South Africa to join us in fighting for the decriminalisation of sex work. I was so happy when I saw researchers from the ACMS at the exhibition. I think our voice will be louder because of their research. We are telling our stories, but they are helping us make our voices louder.

About Greta Schuler

Greta Schuler is a PhD candidate in creative writing and a doctoral fellow at the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS). Her dissertation focuses on the lives of migrant sex workers in Johannesburg.

With ACMS’s MoVE project, Greta is facilitating creative writing workshops with sex workers and running the Gauteng sex worker newsletter, Izwi Lethu: Our Voice. Greta’s short stories and essays have appeared in various literary journals, including Creative Nonfiction, the Crab Orchard Review, and PANK (online). She holds an MA in Forced Migration from the University of the Witwatersrand and an MFA in Creative Writing from American University, Washington, DC.