Research, arts and advocacy: launch of Izwi Lethu project book

Izwi Lethu: a participatory arts-based project’ book was launched at the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) and Sisonke office in Johannesburg last week. The publication focuses on the first year of the Izwi Lethu project: a newsletter by sex workers for sex workers. In addition to reflections by participants, researchers, and various civil society partners, the book provides readers with unique background information and explains the collaboration. Izwi Lethu in Zulu means ‘our voice’, a name selected by Sisonke members during a monthly sex worker meeting.

Through stories, images, and extracts of the Izwi Lethu newsletter, the project book challenges stereotypes about sex work and migration, while broadening and deepening our understanding of the complex lived experiences of migrants who sell sex in South Africa.

“The Izwi Lethu project is about injecting a set of representations (made by sex workers workers themselves) into the world; representations that challenge, contest and sometimes subvert the normative depictions often associated with the sex industry and those involved”, explained Elsa Oliveira, co-coordinator of MoVE method:visual:explore, which publishes the newsletter at the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS).

MoVE is pinned on the belief that research needs to be driven by social justice agendas, and that knowledge about people needs to include the direct involvement of those under investigation. Which is why the Izwi Lethu newsletter editorial team is made up of members of the national Sisonke Sex Worker Movement.

Bearing witness to sex workers’ lives
This initial launch of the Izwi Lethu project book was attended by civil society partners, such as the Women’s Legal Centre (WLC) and fellow sex worker rights’ activists from South Africa and abroad.

“On Wednesday my friend and I from Australia went to the SWEAT office for the launch. We arrived just in time to join a room full of excited faces eagerly anticipating the fruits of their labour. The results were fantastic. The thick booklet contained stories from sex workers themselves about their lives, their work and their experiences. It was an honour to join the group and bear witness to their hard work”, said sex worker rights’ activist Erica Magenta.

The launch began with the unravelling of four giant quilts handcrafted by Izwi Lethu reporters and other Sisonke members to be showcased at the upcoming AIDS Conference in Durban. Created on seshweshwe fabric (traditional Sotho cloth) the colourful quilts — commissioned by the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC) — depict sex worker experiences, political events, and health issues, with specific attention to HIV/Aids, spanning the years 1994 to the present, and with one quilt focused on ‘moving forward’.


Greta Schuler, ACMS researcher and co-coordinator of the Izwi Lethu project, then described the various chapters in the book, which detail the co-production process of the newsletter.

“This publication is an important complement to the Izwi Lethu newsletter itself. Reflections on the first year of the project from researchers and participants stand side by side, highlighting the strength of the project: it’s participatory process”, said Schuler.

Izwi Lethu as an art advocacy tool
The quarterly newsletter contains personal accounts of sex workers’ triumphs, struggles, and statements of pride in being able to provide for their families through their sex work earnings.

In addition to contributing to research on issues of migration, health, gender, and sexuality, the Izwi Lethu project aims to support the production and dissemination of materials that can be used as advocacy tools.

“The project is a great tool that motivates sex workers to speak out through art”, attested Sisonke Advocacy and Media Liaison, and Izwi Lethu reporter Katlego Rasebitse. During the launch Rasebitse was moved into reciting one of his recent poems published in the latest newsletter (Issue 10, June 2016). He will also be performing the poem at the AIDS Conference (18-22 July).

Click through to the MoVE blog to listen to this podcast.

Click through to the MoVE blog to listen to this podcast.

Under MoVE, the Izwi Lethu newsletter continues with support from Sisonke and the Migration and Health Project of Southern Africa (maHp) at ACMS. maHp is funded by Wellcome Trust.

Throwback: For previous Izwi Lethu newsletters visit MoVE ISSUU e-publications.

 Coming up: be on the look-out for Issue 11 (August 2016) of the Izwi Lethu newsletter for a detailed review of the project book by Sisonke photo-journalist ‘Clara’.

About Ntokozo Yingwana

Ntokozo Yingwana joined the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS, at the University of the Witwatersrand) in April 2016 as the Communication and Research Uptake Officer, and a PhD Candidate. Ntokozo holds a Masters in Gender and Development from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS, at the University of Sussex in England), funded by the Chevening UK Scholarship. Prior to joining ACMS she worked for IDS as the Content Coordinator for the Open Knowledge and Digital Services Unit.

Ntokozo’s experience and skills are in journalism, online media, advocacy, open access/knowledge and research. She freelances as an Online Media Consultant, Digital-storytelling Trainer, and Researcher. However, her main passion lies in gender, sexuality and sex worker rights’ activism in Africa. In the past she has worked for the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), the African Sex Worker Alliance (ASWA), and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP).

Under maHp Ntokozo supports the project’s communication and research uptake.