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Sex workers: Hard times at the love café

Posted on Monday, 9 January 2012 23:00

With shore leave dwindling to only a few days, Durban’s last remaining sailors’ sex club is struggling for business, but for the women who work there it’s a safer bet than being out on the streets

Night casts an extra film of neglect over downtown Durban. The dark rows of shuttered-up stores and closed iron gates are broken only by the neon of an occasional fast food joint and the illuminated window of an ATM; the streets are all but deserted.

The entrance to the Riviera*, Durban’s last remaining ‘seamen’s club’, is discreetly advertised. Inside, at the top of a flight of stairs, a white woman in a short denim skirt is rapping at the closed steel door. A frowning, muscle-bound black man with a gold chain lets her in.

Entrance costs R40 ($5) a head. Reputation has it that locals must be very rich white or Indian to gain access, or belong to the local mafia. Foreign landlubbers are supposedly not admitted, but the rule is only laxly enforced.

At 8pm, the dimly lit club – complete with 1980s disco lights, cheesy pop music and sticky seats – borders on empty. Business significantly picks up when the sailors roll in for the midnight show, and stay on until the early hours. The bar is lined with a collection of flags to rival the United Nations. “The sailors come from all over the world,” says Tony*, the club’s Greek owner. “Every country – Spain, Hong Kong, Philippines, you name it.”

The woman in the denim skirt turns out to be Tanya*, a bartender at the club for the past 12 years. “Some of the sailors are generous, some not. But this is where many spend a good portion of their time in Durban.”

On arrival, sailors are expected to sign a register detailing their ship, nationality, date of birth, and other identifying details, allowing management to track who comes from where and how often, as well as offering them a special welcome on their birthday. But weeks in port have trickled down to days and clients are sparse. The global dockside industry has dwindled to a handful of ‘survivor’ clubs.

“We’ve been here since 1979. Now, we’re just trying to break even. Technology has changed everything,” says Tony. “They come and leave so fast, in a matter of days.”

This is partly due to the rapid turnaround time of ships in Durban. “Durban is a cargo port, oftentimes with a turnaround of 24 hours – dump, reload and leave. It becomes a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’, type of culture,” says Henry Trotter, who spent 15 months researching the dockside sex industry for his book Sugar Girls and Seamen: A Journey into the World of Dockside Prostitution in South Africa (Jacana Media, 2008).

“The structural factors of this sector are very different from that of other sex trades, in the military, the brothels, or on the streets,” he elaborates. “These girls are independent contractors, expected to be at the club between 10pm and 2am – peak traffic for the sailors.”

A regular three dozen or so women work the Riviera club, facilitating a unique economic climate where the local ‘unskilled’ economy meets a ready and willing foreign currency. Some waitresses work part-time as sex workers, leaving the club with a sailor after their shift finishes. No pimps are involved, nor does the owner act as the girls’ manager. Instead, he makes his money from steeply priced alcohol.

We have been around forever… they know where to find us

“Tony is very much a businessman,” says Trotter. “While he needs the girls to attract the sailors, the business of sex is almost ancillary.” If the women decide to leave early, before 2am – whether or not they ‘hook’ a sailor – they know to leave R100 at the bar, alcohol ‘rent’ that the club might otherwise have benefited from. But with the clientele diminishing, the women are reluctant to pay up. One woman who claimed to frequent the club told The Africa Report that the girls who did find clients did not always pay the R100 alcohol fee. “It is all about taking part of the sailor’s coin,” says Trotter. As well as the owner, taxi drivers get their share, while the girls get the largest share of all: about R200 or R300 per ‘contract’, several times a week.

The sailors’ eagerness is as much for the simple company of women as for sex – the girlfriend experience without the commitment. One Norwegian deck officer, Christian, who was taken to the Riviera by a cab driver, was approached by a young woman who offered him sex. At first she wanted $50, then dropped her price to $30. “This isn’t just a bar, but a bar where most of them can be taken back to your hotel for a price,” he said. While it was not his ideal place to relax over beers, it was nice to watch the girls who “keep you company in the hopes of something more”.

For the women, the great escape often comes in the form of anonymity: sex with foreigners at a discreet downtown location. Unlike in brothels, they operate as independent agents with greater control over the price and location of the sexual ‘contract’. These often take place in a nearby one- or two-star hotel, in cheap apartments rented by the girls, or other flats owned by third parties.

“Many of these women are smart and savvy about their line of work,” says Sally-Jean Shackleton of the non-governmental organisation Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT). “If they can maintain their independence, they are that much more able to ensure their safety.”

The dockside sex workers operate under a system of ‘safety through surveillance’, giving them an advantage over prostitutes working the streets or in brothels. The club register is used to track sailors should anything happen to one of the girls. Though aggressive sailors would not be reported to the police, the ship’s captain or agent would be told. Sailors might have their wages docked, or even lose their jobs.

“The ship captain, agent and club owner all want to avoid any possible hiccups or embarrassment,” says Trotter.

While most of the girls in the Riviera pass themselves off as locals from the Durban area, many are from ‘up country’ towns such as Newcastle, or neighbouring Mozambique and Zimbabwe. One young black girl in her mid-20s standing outside the club, who would neither confirm nor deny if she traded sex at the Riviera, said the club “isn’t rough”. Her boyfriend didn’t know she entertained, the girl said, and she was able to choose who she made friends with. She was saving up to start her own beauty business and to take care of her baby, left with her mother back home.

What alternatives are open to seamen looking to kill time on shore? They can go to watch television, email family and relax at a recreational centre run by the Christian-run initiative Mission to Seafarers at Bayhead. The centre, which is open to sailors of all religions, receives over 1,000 sailors monthly and has three other bases in Cape Town, Richard’s Bay and Port Elizabeth.

But the Riviera club isn’t out for the count just yet. It is looking for new club girls and waitresses. And though the traffic to the club fluctuates, Durban is still the ‘port of ports’ in Southern Africa and the ships keep coming.

“We have been around forever,” says Tony, confidently. “They know where to find us.”

*Names have been changed.

This story was first published in the November edition of The Africa Report, on sale at newsstands, via our print subscription or our digital edition.

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