The Movement to Decriminalize Sex Work in Gauteng Province, South Africa, 1994-2002


This article explores the movement to decriminalize sex work in the Gauteng province of Johannesburg from 1994 to 2002. In particular, I examine the actions and statements of the provincial Ministry of Safety and Security and other ministries in the decision to de facto decriminalize prostitution using the international language of human rights. This article illustrates that the movement to decriminalize sex work in the postapartheid period is not a sharp departure from the past. Rather, as early as the 1970s there were minority contingents that advocated a legalization or decriminalization of sex work, arguing for the public health or policy benefits that would follow. What is new in the postapartheid period is the justification for decriminalization, which now is based on the international language of human rights. Also new in the postapartheid period is the inclusion in the debate of voices that were not heard during apartheid, when the media was dominated by white South Africans. There is now a counterdiscourse opposing decriminalization, based on religion and on the argument that sex work is “un-African.”


The research for this article was conducted in the greater Johannesburg area of South Africa in 1996 ( july-September) and from September 1997 to September 1999. Gauteng was chosen as a site for research because of an effort to decriminalize sex work led by the department of Safety and security (Gauteng province) in the Johannesburg area. Some of the questions posed by this article include the following: To what extent was the movement or effort to decriminalize prostitution in the 1990s a shift and departure from the control of sexuality during the apartheid period? What factors account for the movement to decriminalize sex work? How does South Africa’s racial diversity figure in the movement, and how did it affect previous discourse on this topic?1

To understand the origins and (at least so far) the limited success of the decriminalization movement, one has to examine the nature of sex work in apartheid South Africa and the changes that have taken place in the postapartheid era. Before the ending of apartheid, most advocates for legalization or decriminalization of prostitution had focused on the public health benefits of an increased tolerance and leniency. A history of tolerance toward prostitution in the Cape Colony and the ZAR (Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek) also provided an historical precedent for the postapartheid movement. Significantly, most of the voices of liberalization in the apartheid era were white; black South Africans had neither the power, nor sufficient access to public media and airwaves, to make their positions known. …

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Résumé: Cet article examine le mouvement de dépénalisation de l’industrie du sexe dans la province de Gauteng, Johannesburg, de 1994 à 2002. Nous examinons en particulier les actes et les déclarations du ministère de la sûreté et de la sécurité et d’autres ministères de cette province à la lumière de la décision de dépénaliser de facto la prostitution en invoquant le langage international des droits de l’homme. Cet article montre que ce mouvement de dépénalisation de l’industrie du sexe pendant la période postapartheid ne constitue pas un tournant radical par rapport au passé. Au contraire, dè;s les années 1970, il existait des contingents minoritaires qui militaient pour une légalisation ou une dépénalisation de l’industrie du sexe, invoquant les avantages en matière de santé publique et de politique qui ne manqueraient pas de s’ensuivre. Ce qui est nouveau dans la période postapartheid est la justification citée pour la dépénalisation, qui se base désormais sur le langage international des droits de l’homme. Une autre nouveauté de la période postapartheid est l’inclusion dans ce débat de voix qui n’avaient pas pu être entendues pendant l’apartheid, les média étant alors dominés par les africains du sud blancs. Il existe aujourd’hui un contre-discours s’opposant à la dépénalisation. Ce discours s’appuie sur la religion ainsi que sur l’argument que le travail de l’industrie du sexe est “contraire à l’esprit africain.”

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