WATCH | Brazen, bold and booming: Prostitution in Witbank
Three words sum up the murky world of prostitution in Emalahleni: brazen, bold and booming. And it seems Mpumalanga police are unable to tame the growing trade.
Police officers have set their sights on dealing with prostitution in the Witbank area, alleging that it has created a web of other serious crimes. They've conducted raids and want to bring down the men and women who own houses from which brothels operate.
According to police, murder, car theft, kidnapping, drug possession, mob justice, looting, arson and even child abandonment cases have been linked to the scores of brothels that operate in several suburbs in the city.
TimesLIVE and MultimediaLIVE spent time in Emalahleni, speaking to police, taxi drivers, victims and the women at the centre of the storm, all in an attempt to understand the dynamics of a situation playing out a 90-minute drive east of Johannesburg.
This is what we found:
“There are many criminal elements that might crop up around the issue of prostitution,” said SAPS spokesperson Brig Leonard Hlathi. “There are people who have been killed around prostitution areas, where you find these ladies. When they stand on the road soliciting people to come and sleep with them, there are people in the bushes they are operating with.”
Hlathi said male customers were kept busy by the women, then came under attack.
“Those guys hold you up at gunpoint, where you are going to be robbed or killed,” he said.
Apart from the male victims, police have found at least two bodies of unidentified women who were murdered in areas known for prostitution.
Hlathi said both women had been strangled. The circumstances surrounding their deaths were unknown, but police believed they may have been involved in prostitution.
Hijacking and car theft
Some who have visited Witbank’s brothels have been victims of hijackings or car thefts, TimesLIVE established.
In October, just days after police raided a string of brothels, a man reported to the Witbank police station that he had been given a laced drink while at a local brothel. He said he blacked out and woke up elsewhere. His VW Polo was gone, as was his cash.
According to the annual SAPS crime statistics, Witbank recorded 104 carjackings in the 2018/2019 financial year. This was the highest number recorded in at least the past nine years. In 2010, 46 carjacking cases were recorded.
Illegal immigrants, human trafficking and kidnapping
In October, police embarked on an intense raid of suspected brothels in the area. Among the 104 people taken in by police were dozens of undocumented foreigners.
Of the women, at least six told police they had been brought to Witbank’s brothels under false pretences and were forced into prostitution. They begged police to take them home, said Hlathi.
The women were rescued, but no arrests were made.
Days after the raid, TimesLIVE visited the area to see whether police were any closer to quelling prostitution rings.
There, we found a number of communes in the infamous French, Jellicoe, Plumer and Allenby streets. At several of these properties, young women stood at the gates, soliciting men.
Explaining why police had instigated the raids, Hlathi said they were sparked by a woman who alleged she was lured from her Krugersdorp home with the promise of a lucrative job in the area.
The 39-year-old escaped the clutches of a group of men who had kept her hostage, raping her and pumping her with drugs.
After being found on the streets, she reportedly refused to open a case, asking police to simply drop her at a taxi rank.
The next morning she was still there. She allegedly begged taxi drivers to take her back to Johannesburg. She was unable to pay the fare and forced to tell the taxi drivers her story.
Mob justice and attempted murder
The woman's story didn't end here. The taxi drivers allegedly took action and went to the house at which she was allegedly held hostage. They burnt it to the ground after assaulting a Nigerian, who claimed to be running a spaza shop from the premises. He does not live there.
“I was here in my shop. I don’t know what happened. What I saw is [that] people parked their cars, buses ... [They] came inside my shop, started beating me and said they don’t want Nigerians any more. They didn’t give me a chance to explain,” Samuel Okonlewo told TimesLIVE from outside his shop.
Silver staples glittered on his head, showing where he was injured.
“I tried to explain and ask them what is happening. They were just beating me, taking my things. I ran away. They nearly killed me. They were after me. I don’t know what is happening. I tried to ask, but I don’t have that opportunity to ask. So they went to my shop, looted my shop, took everything that I have, my money,” he said.
“The next thing I see, they went inside this house and [set it alight]” Okonlewo said.
“It is later that I find out that there is a fight between one Nigerian guy and his girlfriend,” Okonlewo said, contradicting claims that the woman had been kept against her will.
The house, he said, belonged to a South African. TimesLIVE reached out to the homeowner, who didn't want to talk.
On the same day as the home was torched, the mob targeted other houses, which they alleged were drug dens and brothels operated by foreigners. They also destroyed a bottle store belonging to a foreigner.
Hlathi stressed that the police were on the trail of homeowners who left their properties in the hands of those who used them as prostitution dens.
TimesLIVE headed to the taxi rank, wanting to speak to taxi drivers who had allegedly gone on the rampage, torching the suspected brothel. A group of drivers said they knew nothing about the attack, adding that they had simply transported people to the site.
The police were called in after the violence.
During the raids, police came across some prostitutes who indicated their desire to go home. Hlathi said the majority of these women were not from Witbank, but came from other provinces and neighbouring countries.
Sending the women back to their hometowns, however, was not an easy task.
“Some of the incidents we came across were that some of the families did not want to accept them. They indicated that they cannot accept them because they are operating as prostitutes, even at home ... They are afraid they will continue doing their business at the homes,” Hlathi said.
In some instances, he said, girls found in the brothels had been reported missing by their families.
Hlathi called on families whose relatives had returned home to return to police stations and close missing person dockets.
A prostitute who was among those detained and later released during the raids, told TimesLIVE she was back on the streets.
Zandi Nyathi said her business had been affected by the police operations.
“Since the raids, the clients are afraid to come to us. They tell us they are no longer safe. Some are married and they are worried they will end up on camera and that will jeopardise their marriages. Business is slow,” she said.
The Zimbabwean-born woman said she had turned to life on the streets after failing to secure employment.
She admitted to the dangers of the job, but stressed that drug use was a choice among those in the trade.
“Most of the girls who are here get to Witbank and organise their own accommodation. If anyone wants this life of smoking drugs, only then do they link up with Nigerians. It is not forced on you to work for the Nigerians, but some do ... because of the situation,” she said, in apparent reference to their need to feed their drug habits.
Nyathi said it was safer to operate from brothels, as it was dangerous to leave with clients.
“There’s been an instance where one girl disappeared after going with a client. This girl left a child at aftercare and she hasn’t been found,” she said.
Nyathi also shared how the job made her a victim of crime.
“I was once threatened at knifepoint by a client who had promised to pay me in dollars. He slept with me and then refused to pay. He then ran away. I know that what I am doing is illegal. It scares me,” she added.
Nyathi said she paid between R100 and R200 rent a week at the brothel she worked from.
“We don’t know the owners. We pay rent to a ‘sister’ who knows the owner and takes care of the girls. We pay twice a week, especially if you have worked during the week,” she said.
The “sister” lived with them in the house.
According to Hlathi, some of the homeowners made exorbitant amounts of money from prostitution. He said in one house they raided they found five women occupying a single room, divided with sheets and boxes.
He said the women were paying up to R200 a day for the room. With five bedrooms in the house, the owner was making about R5,000 a day.
“We are collaborating with the municipality to identify the house owners. We were able to trace one and he has indicated that he wants [to] destroy it so he can alleviate the problems there,” Hlathi said.
“We will surely follow [the other house owners] and bring them to book on the activities that are happening in their yards. They will come and claim that they don’t know what is happening there. It is quite impossible,” he said.
Hlathi issued a stern warning that the police would not allow prostitution to thrive in the city.
Meanwhile, Maureen Scheepers of the SA Community Crime Watch Group, which operates in the Witbank area, told TimesLIVE why she pushed for a baby safe deposit box in the city.
“There was one incident I responded to in Jellicoe Street, where a woman had left her baby in the grass. It seemed like she had given birth and left the child there overnight. The child died from the cold,” she said.
The street is known for prostitution and drug dealing.
Scheepers wants to establish safety boxes in other areas.
`“Our aim is to have a box in the CBD, where at least three babies have been found dumped,” she said.