Sex Trade Survivors and Women’s Rights Advocates Celebrate the Withdrawal of South Africa’s ‘Prostitution Bill’

by Taina Bien-Aimé

Photo by FourOaks from Getty Images

It was a cold day in New York on December 9, 2023, when I logged on to my computer to watch the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development Ronald Lamola and his Deputy, John Jeffery, hold a press conference announcing their plans to repeal the 1957 Sexual Offences Act and Section 11 of the Criminal Law that would decriminalize the sex trade.

The reckless bill called for the legalization of sex buying, brothel ownership, pimping, and sex tourism in every corner of South Africa. The announcement brought a terrifying chill to sex trade survivors in South Africa and women’s rights advocates around the world. Such a law would have triggered disastrous consequences for generations of the most disenfranchised Black women and girls in South Africa.

So, on June 1, when Deputy Minister Jeffery announced that they would no longer table the prostitution bill due to concerns about its constitutionality, we breathed a sigh of deep relief.

However, Jeffery’s promise that the decriminalization of “sex work” will resurface after the elections is alarming. The term “sex work” is a ubiquitous euphemism for the sex trade coined in the United States in the late 1970s by the commercial sex industry to mainstream and legitimize prostitution, masking its harms. Prostitution is neither sex nor work, but a system of inherent brutality and a consequence of entrenched inequalities.

The Deputy Minister rightfully denounces the violence women in prostitution face at the hands of the police who harass, arrest and brutalize them, which indeed must end. However, he fails to specify that sex buyers are the main perpetrators of the high levels of violence, sexual assault, or even murder. Decriminalizing these men would further exacerbate these abuses.

As an American woman of African descent, I was struck by Jeffery’s ease in touting the buying and selling of human beings for sexual acts. The South African government’s clever marketing of prostitution as labor shows how difficult it is to upend harmful traditional practices and centuries-old systems of exploitation.

We cannot examine the sex trade without reckoning with colonialism, racism, male supremacy, and in South Africa — apartheid.

The Dutch legalized brothels in the 16th century to protect “respectable” women from being raped, believing that men were incapable of abstaining from sex. They brought this concept with them when they invaded South Africa.

Any bill calling for decriminalization of the sex trade therefore evokes the continuum of a not-so-distant past when European settlers reaped millions from the trafficking, sexual exploitation, and rapes of Black and Indigenous women, not just in South Africa, but every place they colonized.

Any bill that legalizes prostitution would again doom its poorest daughters to auction blocks on the street, indoors and online.

Prostitution was never inevitable but invented to subordinate women as objects for the sexual gratification of men and the profit of the state.

If Jeffery’s bill would ever pass, South Africa would also witness an exponential increase of sex trafficking never yet seen. Why? Once the state gives men permission to purchase sexual acts, the demand for prostitution increases; traffickers and pimps will fill that demand by recruiting the most marginalized populations of South Africa, women, girls, trans and gender non-conforming youth, primarily Black.

Yes, the South African government must amend the 1957 Immoral Act, enacted under the apartheid regime, but repealing it entirely means that South Africa would violate its commitments under international law and its Constitution.

There is an alternative.

The Ministry of Justice must instead propose a law that solely decriminalizes people bought and sold in prostitution and offers them services but holds accountable sex buyers and third-party exploiters. South African sex trade survivors call this legal framework the Sankara Equality Model after the late president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, who recognized that prostitution is violence against women Any society, he believed, that allows prostitution values neither equality nor democracy.

The Sankara Equality Model is based on human rights and feminist principles enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution. In a country that has one of the globe’s highest levels of rape, South Africans deserve a future where everyone, including Black women and girls, has the right to live a life with dignity and free from dehumanization.

At a time when the #MeToo movement is helping us understand the devastating impact of male sexual violence in women’s lives, the South African government must not sentence the most marginalized to the sex trade in exchange for food and shelter.

The government must instead care enough about women and girls to offer them opportunities in education, employment and access to health care; not offer them up to sex buyers who destroy their lives.

The promise of equality in South Africa depends on it.



Coalition Against Trafficking in Women

One of the oldest international organizations working to end the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and girls. Feminist, human rights advocates.