SOUTH AFRICA-ZIMBABWE: Sex for soap, salt and sugar

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The border between South Africa and Zimbabwe is more than an international boundary; it also determines the method of payment for sex workers, because on one side cash is taken, while on the other, goods are bartered.

The South African frontier town of Musina is a regional trucking hub that has long been a haunt of sex workers, who use the boredom of truck drivers waiting for their cargo to be cleared by customs as a window of opportunity.

"Women tempt us. They come here in their short skirts and tight jeans and ask us if we want to have a good time," a Zimbabwean truck driver, who declined to be identified, told IRIN. "Naturally, as men, at times it is tough to say, 'no'. I use protection whenever I have sex with a woman."

The transmission of HIV/AIDS among truck drivers has been recognised as an important factor in spreading the virus, and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has targeted Musina for HIV/AIDS awareness education since 1999, as part of their "Corridors of Hope" project.

"Shayela nge condom" ("drive with a condom" in the Zulu language) says a mural at the Musina taxi rank, while other wall paintings shout the advice: "Play it safe, AIDS kills" and "Don't take a chance, always use a condom."

Susan - one of the sex workers frequenting the truck parks, who charges R50 (US$6.50) for "a short time" and R150 (US$19.50) for the night - told IRIN that the growing number of sex workers was making it difficult to get these rates. "At times, I can settle for R100 ((US$13) for the night. It is better than nothing - there are more women here."
Another Zimbabwean truck driver, who identified himself only as Dube, said there were now more sex workers from Zimbabwe, and he did not know where truck drivers could get free condoms.

"The situation in Zimbabwe has seen more women trying to make quick money by offering their services to us [in South Africa]. They just want money that will enable them to take care of their families back home," he said.

"The women in South Africa are expensive, but across the border in Zimbabwe you can have a great time for a few bars of soap, and goods like salt and sugar."

Zimbabwe's economy is in meltdown, with more than 80 percent unemployment and an annual inflation rate officially estimated at 2.2 million percent, although some independent economists have put it at about 12 million percent.

South Africa, the continent's economic power house, has become a magnet for Zimbabweans seeking work and an escape from the grinding poverty at home. More than three million Zimbabweans - around a quarter of the population - are thought to have left the country since 2000 for neighbouring states, or further afield for England, Canada and Australia.

The 1999 Corridors of Hope research project, carried out before Zimbabwe's crisis, noted that "The HIV vulnerability of young women, including schoolgirls and young vendors, who seek an income from commercial or casual sex with truckers and other groups of older men with income, is distressingly high."

The report said there were at least 400 permanent, full-time sex workers, and another 300 transient sex workers who visited the town at peak times. "The youngest are aged 15. Most sex workers stay in the informal settlements or low-income suburbs and travel to the border to solicit truckers at the border truck stop."