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Burger, Vanessa (2013) We must clean up our own crimes before others’
Eye on Civil Society (The Mercury) : -.

DURING these 16 days of meaningless teeth gnashing, the good citizens of Glenwood launched another attack on our ladies of the night, so-called activism to “clean up crime and grime from our streets” – an anti-prostitute protest.

I wondered precisely which part of the phrase I found so offensive. Was it the “cleaning up” part which verbally lumps these women into the same inanimate category as discarded shoes, cardboard boxes and broken bottles, to be tossed on society’s rubbish with vagrants, street kids and street traders.

“Grime” similarly conjures up images of rotting buildings, or the scum around a dirty sink, a far cry from the living, breathing, feeling beings who are frequently forced through poverty, crime or other difficulties to walk the streets.

Which brings me to the “crime” part of this obnoxiously sanctimonious little phrase. Exactly whose crime are the gung-ho guardians of our morality referring to?

Could it be the criminal cops who cruise our streets at night, picking up prostitutes for a little slap without the tickle before dumping them back at their street corners?

Corruption is, I last heard, still a legislated criminal offence in South Africa. And is it not a crime for members of the community to shoot unarmed women with paintballs and rubber bullets? Or spray them with water laced with pepper spray or acid? Of course rape, murder and assault are crimes too.

I also would’ve thought coercing young women into drug addiction was a crime. Or forcing them to sell drugs. Or themselves. Or starving them and preventing them from getting medical attention. Or withholding their earnings, or passports, or even children sometimes to ensure their absolute compliance. Or throwing them out of windows so they break their backs, or gang raping, hanging or stabbing them. Or forcing them to abort pregnancy after pregnancy. I thought human trafficking was a crime too.

And in case you’re interested, each scenario described here refers to an actual crime against a real woman, a sex worker. Not committed once or twice, but over and over.

With some, the gaping maw of their families’ starvation keeps these women on the streets.

With others, the excruciating agony of whoonga ensures total submission to their pimps.

Or the so-called exit strategies, raising their hopes of reintegration into society with a little light training, only to be dashed by the soaring unemployment rate, ensuring their return to the oldest profession in the world, the only one that assures them some sort of income.

I would have thought the real crimes were public disturbance, littering, indecent exposure and urinating in public. Crimes that should have got the community standing shoulder to shoulder, lining the streets in outrage and demanding social justice, human rights and an end to corrupt policing.

Some observers might politely call what Glenwood’s frightened citizens are doing a “misguided” approach. Some would say it’s the coward’s way. Others may even say it’s a way of appearing effective while ignoring the massive elephant looming over the room. I say, there are always two sides to every coin.

But hell, sex workers aren’t really human are they? So let’s bang a few more “hos” during the remaining 16 days while denouncing violence against women – it’s all good so long as we hold hands on Sundays. I wonder though, what will it take to “clean the crime and grime” from our hands... or what’s left of our souls.

To quote Nigerian author and Booker Prize-winner Ben Okri: “In the old days, people used to see angels, now they don’t even see their fellow human beings.”

Burger is an Umbilo activist and Brutus Community Scholar at the UKZN Centre for Civil Society

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