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Resilience in a Risky Trade

31 July 2005

By Claire Keeton

Published in The Sunday Times

This prostitute, mother and gang-rape survivor fights on, writes Claire Keeton

Three loose cigarettes," Khanyisile commands the shopkeeper at Protea South Mall in Soweto. "I'm smoking about five a day. Do you think that's too many?" she asks, lighting up.

Khanyi, 33, understands the risks of smoking, but her life is full of risks much more immediate than the dangers of lung cancer.

Looking at her, you wouldn't know this. Her broad face is unlined. She has a high forehead above deep-set, dark eyes and her hair is straightened and dyed black. Her honey skin is slightly freckled and two missing front teeth give her mouth an uneven shape.

The gap in her teeth is endearing when she smiles. Men know her as "the woman with no teeth".

Khanyi has gained 10kg in one year and is glad to have curves back on her 1.65m frame. On this Sunday, she wears a red T-shirt and immaculate white pedal pushers with track shoes.

She wants to look perfect, as she is seeing her 11-year-old daughter for the first time in about six months - as well as the girl's foster mother, the same woman who cared for Khanyi when she was a teenager. They are two of the people she loves most.

On the way to their shack, she stops to buy pizza, fried chicken and a two-litre Fanta. She radiates excitement as her "Gogo" and daughter run out to embrace her.

"Look what I've got for you," she says, giving the girl the fast food and, once inside, a cellphone.

Meeting Khanyi in this place for the first time, you wouldn't suspect what the rest of her life involves - that she earns her living and supports her children through sex work, that she has survived a gang rape and that every day she resists the HIV virus that came into her life through a boyfriend she trusted.

Khanyi, like everyone, longs to be loved. But now, with one exception, the men she takes to her room are clients from the bar in the downtown Johannesburg hotel where she lives.

At this bar one afternoon, she grins as she sinks yet another ball on the sloping pool table. "How do you like my boyfriend?" she laughs, leaning into him. He is young and has told Khanyi he is a student.

During the day the purpose of the almost deserted bar, with its plastic-covered seats and red lights is more obvious than at night. Up to 100 girls work in this brothel, where rent is R80 a day for a room - and sex usually sets a customer back R50 for half an hour, R150 for the night and R250 for 24 hours. Some girls share rooms. If they pick up men at the same time, they ask them if they object to being in the room together. Usually they do not.

Girls willing to strip at the bar pay a reduced rent. Despite this, Khanyi will not strip. She would rather make money from men in the privacy of her room, where she is usually in control.

However, in 1994 Khanyi lost control when she became addicted to crack, not long after she had been gang raped. When she went into rehabilitation, she realised that drugs put her relationship with her children at risk. This has been enough reason for her to stay clean ever since.

Police raids are still a recurring problem. Khanyi regularly gets locked up in the cells of Johannesburg Police Headquarters for soliciting.

"The criminalisation of the industry has made sex workers particularly vulnerable to clients and police," says Vivienne Lalu, head of training at the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce.

"Like women selling fruit and vegetables, sex workers are just trying to make a living."

Khanyi was encouraged to try prostitution by a friend, after the birth of her son in 1990. "The first time selling my body was difficult. But then I collected lots of R50 notes in my drawer and had money to buy food and clothes for my family," she says.

When a man wants to have sex, she does not talk about HIV, but says she always insists on condoms. Yet rape is a risk every time she walks up the stairs to her room, or gets into a car.

The clean-shaven student in the bar seems decent and his R250 payment is timely. After Khanyi sinks the winning ball, they go upstairs. It's another day, another man - the same job.

The weak morning sun in Khanyi's room shines on her black eye and wounded inner arm.

"Look at the stitches," she says, more forlorn than angry. The injuries are not from a client, but from her former partner. His fury at being infected with HIV sparked the attack.

Khanyi discovered in 1993 that she had HIV, when she was pregnant with her daughter. From 1995 to 2002 she and her two children lived as a family with Mike (not his real name), a mechanic, who supported them. But their relationship began to unravel when he was diagnosed with HIV in 2002. He became violent with Khanyi and ordered them to move out, hurtling Khanyi back into full-time prostitution. Mike blames Khanyi for his infection.

Khanyi attends the Shembe church and a Bible lies on the table next to the narrow bed where she works. Underneath it is a box of government-issue condoms and a murky potion in a bucket of water. Betty and a friend are amused as I recoil from it.

Twice a week they drink the potion, after the sangoma promised them it would attract men.

Khanyi also turns to charms and prayers to reinforce her efforts at improving her income and health. She has opened a bank account and, when she can afford it, buys vegetables to stave off HIV.

Her blood tests indicate that she may soon need to go on antiretroviral treatment. Meanwhile, she takes vitamins, antibiotics and painkillers given to her by the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Research clinic in Hillbrow. Khanyi also takes garlic every day.

The clinic staff are not the only ones who look after her. Lately Khanyi has a new friend, a guy who treats her with respect and plays her Luther Vandross songs from his computer. His kindness appeals to Khanyi, whose past is scarred by abusive men starting with her father.

Artificial roses adorn a living room decorated with faded yellow wallpaper, where Khanyi sits with her mother and grandmother.

Her grandmother's four-room house is close to where Khanyi grew up in Natalspruit. Her mother lives in a shack nearby and her father lives across town. From her black sequin hat to her matching peach lipstick and nail varnish, Khanyi is out to make an impression.

Her mother's conversation drifts back to Khanyi's childhood - much of it spent fetching and carrying muti for her other granny, who was a natural healer, since her parents could not afford to keep her at school. The grandmother seems more concerned about the present and gives Khanyi a large plate of food.

"We didn't believe her [about having HIV] as she looks strong, but then she showed us her blood results," she says. "It feels very sore, but she is a survivor."

Khanyi has proved this, from the time she ran away from home at 14 when her mother did not believe her accusations against her father.

Almost 20 years have passed since Khanyi left Natalspruit for Soweto, and was taken in by Gogo, whose oldest daughter was her friend.

"She was like a mother to me," says Khanyi.

Nowadays Gogo and her husband are bringing up Khanyi's daughter. When the shy little girl asks Khanyi where she is working, she replies quietly that she has a job in a clothing shop downtown. Once Khanyi's son asked her if she was sick. She responded by asking if he would hate her if she was, and was relieved when he said "no".

By the time she leaves Soweto on Sunday, where Pirates fans block the streets with victory celebrations, Khanyi feels happy. "Maybe I'll go back and build a shack there," she muses, dreaming of another life far from the deadly risks she runs each day on the job.

Copyright 2005, Used with permission from The Sunday Times.

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