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Warning: Killer on the Road

Her face is blank, almost babyish in its featurelessness; in her eyes there is no tomorrow. Like thousands of other young rural women, she moves from hand to hand in the dangerous intersection between two industries: sex work and road freight-trucking.

Original publication: Marie Claire, 1999.

1. Road Hunters

He drops to his knees and raises his shirt for me to see. ‘Do you see, master?’ he taunts. ‘I was in jail, in a gang.’ Under the streetlights his back shimmers with prison tattoos. Hieroglyphs, icons and faded words teem upwards from his trouser-line over his spine and across the shoulders and arms, enmeshing him like fish scales. One legend reads, ‘I’m the Son of Satan.’ Another says, ‘A woman is a devil. Like a silver dollar, she goes from hand to hand, and man to man.’ It’s not exactly Germaine Greer, suggesting as it does that women are prostitutes by nature. Yet this underworld artwork – with its frustration, its sullen yearning to control women – highlights the irony of prostitution that every man senses and every prostitute-killer resents.

killer on the road2

Reduced to a sexual commodity, an object exchangeable for money, a woman (or man, or child) enters a treadwheel in which she goes from hand to hand but stays curiously unpossessable. She gives her body, not her soul; services for clients don’t bear the seal of love, and her interior being keeps out of reach and elusively mobile. 

I, too, understand this paradox. Tonight, and in the weeks ahead, I’m a hunter questing after my story. I’ll drive my car into disrepair searching for Silver Dollar, for an interviewable subject. Heat ripples will lure me on through the scorching breeze; the radio will sing: Didn’t know I was looking for love until I found you. It will sing: There’s a killer on the road. But when I find her, others will have visited before me. Their damage will have driven her deeper into herself, and the look in her young eyes will say: It’s all over – only the strong endure.

For now, I’m in the company of the tattooed man and his sidekicks, savouring the Friday night action in Laingsburg, a Karoo town on the N1, which is one of the many transport routes carrying the brunt of commerce between metropolitan centres in South Africa and their counterparts in other African states. If prostitution places a woman inside a treadwheel of self-depleting transactions, the road freight industry’s itself a thunderously turning machine that spins to similar rhythms: load, unload, dispatch, collect, from road to road, hand to hand.

My job tonight is to explore the intersection, the symbiosis, between the two industries. In short, I’m cruising for trucker prostitutes, specifically teenagers, the most vulnerable, and sought-after, members of this national and pan-African sorority.

But I’ll confess that I’m having difficulties finding them. Maybe I’m wearing the wrong after-shave; maybe I’m trying the wrong places, though it’s rumoured that these women parade in open view of motorists. There’s certainly no lack of custom tonight. Thursdays and Fridays are peak times in the trucking industry, the days when the majority of goods are ready for long-haul transport, and the later it gets, the more trucks outnumber cars.

By midnight, they dominate the N1 completely. The 2,100 companies registered with the Road Freight Association employ 54,000 employees and their 330,000 vehicles transport an annual payload of 432 million tons. One would swear every last truck is on the N1 tonight. Cavalcades of these sea-monsters hurtle past under the frosty Karoo starfields, glowing crustaceans with Darth Vader faces and headlights eating up the sleepless miles. Where are the women?

In an itinerary that grows monotonously familiar, I’ve shadowed this trucking route as far as Laingsburg, starting in Cape Town and passing the Huguenot Tunnel toll plaza, a haunt for prostitutes but (of course) deserted of them. Alongside the winelands of Worcester, a truck has pulled up for two female hitch-hikers. They’re looking up at the driver’s cabin, talking animatedly.

Further up, at De Doorns, a grape-seller near an informal settlement suggests I look elsewhere. Does he think I’m a cop? In Touwsrivier, a petrol attendant admits that ‘a team’ of women operate from the station at night, but on a midnight visit, the place proves to be as quiet as Moon Base Alpha. In Laingsburg, a barman looks up from the novel he’s reading and advises me to try Beaufort West – a Utopia for sex-starved truckers, he claims, but I’ve heard this line before. I’m labouring in my own treadwheel.

The bar’s a gloomy darts-and-brandy vault, and as I start wondering if trucker prostitution’s an exaggerated myth, a rural legend, I notice a sign above a doorway. ‘Due to the behaviour of certain patrons,’ it reads, ‘rules must be enforced. No women allowed in alone or escorted by truck drivers.’

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and a trip to the local truck stop yields fruit in the form of hearsay confirmation. Lines of trucks are berthed on the gravel expanse, making clicking noises as their steel cools off. Nearby buildings offer drivers the facility of showering, sleeping over, or attending to other needs by smuggling in the sex workers who usually wait for them down the road. There’s also a roadhouse café. Inside it sits Kallie*, who’s dark-rimmed eyes and b.o. speak tellingly of his four days on the road – it will be another four before he’s home.

Other truckers brag that on drives lasting days, even weeks, they’re amply equipped with ‘jackets’ (condoms). ‘A man isn’t made of stone,’ they say, but Kallie, a married man, doesn’t share their views. Aside from being loyal to his wife, he’s also loyal to his employer. He believes that as soon as prostitutes board a truck, alcohol’s sure to be involved, and drivers might wake up to discover petty theft of their cargo if they’ve stopped somewhere for the night.

‘The women start from 15 years old to 50, but I tell them to get lost. In town, prostitutes go for R150 to R200; on the road they cost R20 to R50.’

Why are truckers a favoured market? ‘They’re easy money,’ Kallie says. ‘Anyway, there aren’t many customers living in the Karoo – but there are a lotta trucks, so local girls have an opportunity to make money. Three or four girls and two guys sit drinking brandy, and things happen. Half-an-hour later it’s another truck. Same story. The women hitch-hike. They get in a truck, move off, do business, and get out. They do it three or four times, then hitch-hike back where they started. It’s up and down like that.’

Kallie suggests I visit the informal truck stop at the Laingsburg exit, and here things look more promising. On one side of the N1, adjacent to an all-night superette, is an off-ramp on which trucks can park. On the other side is a fill-up complex, itself the size of a small town. The road’s swarming with people; it’s riotous with laughter and swearing, with shoppers and drunks and an endless tide of minibus taxis.

Two locals, Theo and Oliphant, confirm that the town has its share of trucking sex workers, many as young as 15 and 16. Several have perished of AIDS; one woman died after being flung from a moving truck. Like most of their peers on the street, Theo and Oliphant are unemployed, and speak with resentment of sex workers.

Local men depend on building projects for jobs, Theo says, but ‘for womenfolk it’s not necessary for them to prostitute themselves since there’s work available for them in hotels and supermarkets. They don’t care what people say. It’s easy money, so there’s no stopping them. For young guys, nothing’s happening.’

The men promise to bring me a teenage sex worker. Hours pass, but they don’t return. In that time, the street energies in downtown Laingsburg intensify, throbbing to disco anthems and the rhythm of the traffic. The sex workers are tantalisingly close, everywhere but nowhere. As one truck after the other shoots past, snub-nosed and jut-jawed, I can see women inside the cabins, fleetingly lit up by the ghostly streetlights before vanishing again.

Later, at a truck stop at Epping market in Cape Town, I watch them climbing aboard trucks in the refuelling yard, and here I come the closest I’ve been. I’ve noticed an adolescent prostitute huddled among a group of older women. I’m told she’s 17, but when I approach she refuses to speak to me, and I’m accosted by an old man who’s swaying drunk. I doubt if he’s her pimp or ‘manager’, but this patriarch seems to be intervening on behalf of all sex workers, particularly the men who play such a controlling role in the trade.

‘Now listen, sir,’ he says into my face, ‘not all of us have jobs. What must people do? What if your daughter, your son, had fuckall and you were doing business [pimping]? If they work with you, at least you know they’re not jintus [whores]. What’ll you do, sir? If you’ve got a daughter, what the fuck you gonna do about it? Your own daughter … and you’re struggling?’

The fluorescent lights seem to chill the air, not warm it. Time to back down.

2. Trucking against AIDS

If the evidence so far is circumstantial, there’s sufficient concern in official and non-governmental sectors to suggest that trucking sex work is regarded as an alarming reality. The Medical Research Council in KwaZulu-Natal is developing a spermicide for use among sex workers on trucking routes, and the Department of Health has initiated its HTA (High Transmission Area) Project. The project identifies groups that have a high risk of contracting, and transmitting, HIV/AIDS and STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), and it hopes to implement suitable intervention strategies. One group is receiving special attention: sex workers who consort with truckers.

As Glynnis Rhodes of SWEAT (Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce) explains, ‘If a driver’s HIV-positive, he could infect numerous women on his route. However, the project goes beyond truckers, because the infected person stays on in the community and continues to transmit the disease.’ Infected sex workers could also move further afield.

‘They’re a mobile group of people,’ Glynnis says, and trucking routes are crucial to this mobility. ‘Truckers offer a way out when women want to leave small towns but don’t have the financial means. They can hitch rides with truckers and be their women in exchange for the lift. There’s also the issue of young children who walk long distances to school. A trucker comes past and says, Do a handjob and I’ll give you a lift. This becomes a regular occurrence and introduces them to the idea making a living from sex work.’

From Glynnis’s explanation it’s apparent that trucking sex work has different facets. There’s a category of women, whether city- or rural-based, who use truckers mainly as a means to income, and yo-yo up and down the highways, either for short trips or long hauls between cities. A second group relies on truckers primarily for escape to big-city destinations, but they’re soon absorbed into the first category when they fail to find employment and have to revert to prostitution for subsistence or the return-trip home.

What follows from this is that trucking sex work can’t be regarded as a purely rural phenomenon. Its mobility dissolves boundaries between cities and country towns, between states, and even continents. Glynnis has found sex workers in Sea Point who’ve been smuggled across border posts along trucking routes from as far as the Ivory Coast and Cameroons, and some of these wayfarers specially target port cities like Cape Town with a view to stowing away on ships bound for Australia and South America.

Anneke Pienaar of the Child Protection Unit confirms this growing incidence of cross-border smuggling of sex workers, particularly under-age ones. Speaking in Parliament at an international conference of the Network Against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Children, Pienaar cited instances where girls on trucks had been taken illegally into Namibia and abandoned there, forcing them to prostitute themselves again to return to South Africa.

But the cross-border movement of sex workers is predominantly from neighbouring states, suggests Bernadette Van Vuuren of Molo Songolo, the children’s right organisation that facilitated this conference.

‘Children from Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe are ending up in Cape Town via trucking routes and the same system that’s used to bring illegal labourers across the borders, where officials are paid off not to check in the truck …We know that some truckers have links to pimps in cities. Children will be dropped off with the pimp or gang as a matter of course.

‘There are pimps who sell women and children until there’s nothing left of them and throw them away like dirt. Every time the children go with clients, they could be murdered or savaged. So it’s not just the horror of sexual abuse day in, day out – every minute they’re on the street, they’re in danger.’

AIDS and STDs are further menaces, and under-18s are possibly in more danger than others. As Sophia Louw of the AIDS Action Group hints, it’s precisely because clients perceive younger girls as likely to be free of AIDS that they’re in demand, and hence at greater risk of contracting the disease. But Sophia indicates that the chain of infection doesn’t only pass from trucker to sex worker to community; it also moves from truckers to sexual partners at home.

‘I’ve counselled many women who’ve tested HIV-positive and whose backgrounds revealed that they have boyfriends or husbands who’re long-distance truck drivers …It’s a very serious problem.’

So serious that in April [1999] major freight operators and transport unions, in conjunction with the Department of Transport, joined forces to launch ‘Trucking Against AIDS’, a campaign relying on a nation-wide system of peer-group educators to stem the disease. Statistics are hard to determine, admit the Learning Clinic, the campaign co-ordinators; what is known, though, for instance, is that life insurance premiums quadrupled in two years due to AIDS fatalities. Co-ordinators plan to limit the epidemic and manage its effects within the industry; they don’t pretend to be able to stop it.

But who can? There’s a killer on the road, and like a silver dollar, it’s travelling from hand to hand, person to person.

3. Ghost in the Machine

She’s gazing into the camera, entranced. As the framed photographs in the family home will attest, modeling’s her hobby. Perhaps it’s more than that. Perhaps she’s thinking: This is my way out. Who knows? Her face is blank, almost babyish in its featurelessness; in her eyes there’s no tomorrow, but deep in the emptiness one senses something else looking out, something that will never buckle.

She steps back and puts her hands on her rump, slowly grinding her hips. Her legs are long and coltish, seemingly elongated by her high-heeled shoes; she tugs at the belly-level knot in her blouse. This isn’t the same kind of photo-shoot she evidently did with a local porno magazine, but the man-pleasing clichés of posture, so different to the poses in the photos at home, are coming back to her.

A tattoo on her arm signals that these moves are a façade: the initials of a girlfriend, one of many. For her, girls are for pleasure, men for money, and behind her is the tree-lined off-road where she waits three days a week, the road that joins the N7 – the road that links her story to ever-spreading gridworks of national and international traffic.

This is Candice Prinsloo*, one of a multitude of sex workers along the countryside byways off the N7 outside Cape Town. Like her lonesome peers dotted along these roads, including her 34-year-old sister Lizette, Candice takes advantage of the fact that the area’s situated at the interface between suburbia and farmlands, and so offers two types of clients. On the one hand there are reps, teachers, ministers and so on, mainly white, who trawl about in cars; on the other, there are the truckers, predominantly black.

Like her colleagues, Candice wades knee-deep in condoms provided by SWEAT; wary of AIDS after her last STD, she has check-ups to see if she’s still ‘clean’. And like many others, she spends her five-minute sessions with her dozen-a-week clients under the vigilance of a ‘manager’ hidden in the bushes – hers is Alfred*, her neighbour in Atlantis. He professes to love her like a sister, and says that two years ago, when his sentence for armed robbery was over, Candice invited him (a claim she endorses) to escort her for protection and the safekeeping of her daily R400, which he maintains he doesn’t touch.

But Candice also differs from the others. Like them, she’ll hitchhike to her regular turf in the mornings, but she isn’t resigned to waiting it out there and there alone, come summer heat or winter rain. She’s as mobile as her clients, and she and Alfred regularly take journeys lasting several days up the N7 to Piketburg, Upington, and once even to Namibia, travelling with passing clients, some in cars, others in trucks. This quiet pair – she the spindly glamour-girl, he a scarecrow in Bermudas and a Kaiser Chiefs cap – climb aboard and ride off. If the trucker overnights in a hotel room, Alfred wanders about, looking in shop windows, sleeping in the streets.

‘Once I went to Kimberley with a lorry driver,’ Candice says. ‘He’d paid for me for a whole weekend, and dropped me in Upington afterwards. We stayed in a hotel and lay and watched videos and went to bars. Another girl was also there with a driver. We played pool. She was 18; she’d been in business a long time; we saw her on the road later.’

In that time, did anything resembling a relationship develop between her and the customer? ‘Nothing … I don’t get any pleasure from it. The first time I started, it felt very otherwise. I was scared.’

Unlike most of her colleagues in and around the N7, Candice is self-assertively mobile. But she enjoys another distinction, though it’s one she’s sharing with a growing number of local prostitutes: she’s only 17, and the ‘first time’ occurred when she was 13. ‘I left school in Standard 6,’ she says. ‘That’s when I started walking the roads and saw how the girls were doing business. I didn’t want to tell my mother. For a long time she didn’t know.’

The discovery came when Candice was 15, and Mrs Prinsloo recalls it with emotion. ‘I was angry,’ she says. ‘I scolded her and told her to stop. I’d go out looking for her with the police, but I couldn’t keep her off the roads. She kept lying to me that she’d been to school. Eventually I let her be. I’m not happy about it, but every night she sleeps in my bed and I hold her tight in my arms.’

Attired in her Sunday best for the interview, Mrs Prinsloo’s putting on a brave face. But her frock is threadbare, there’s a tremor in her wattled neck, moisture in her eyes. Outside is the lost apartheid city of Atlantis, with its sandy streets, high-rise tenements and scores of unemployed inhabitants; inside her free-standing dwelling, little bigger than a caravan, it seems just as crowded. Mrs Prinsloo has long divorced her violent husband and shares the home with her eldest daughter, two grandchildren, and Candice, who’s the sole breadwinner.

‘I never ask her for money,’ says Mrs Prinsloo, ‘otherwise it’ll be as if I’m sending her out there myself. She gives it to me of her own will, but it’s a funny feeling when I take it.’

Candice’s face is impassive as always, yet her mother’s words haven’t left her unaffected. As before, she cites economic hardship as the motivation for her actions. Yes, there are ‘luxuries’ (sweets, cooldrinks, drugs – ‘drugs warm you inside’), but the lion’s share goes to her family. ‘No one here has jobs and no one’s looking after us. There’s no other way.’

Money, hard times, silver dollars: always the same story everywhere. But I also want silver dollars. I want her story, her inner being. She speaks in a mumble, answering questions only to the letter, giving nothing more of herself than necessary. She’s fragile yet untouchable, impenetrable by my masculine drive to open her up. My questions lose their restraint. Come on, darling, I’m paying for this.

All at once it emerges – the story hidden in her eyes. ‘I was 12 when I raped by three men in their thirties and I couldn’t concentrate at school so I started walking the roads because of this bother in my head all the time. I’d put on my school uniform in the morning and go to the bush and dress in other clothes and watch the people. Those men threatened me if I went to the police. They’re still driving around. They point fingers at me and shout: She’s a fucker!’ – Hulle wys vinger en skreeu: Sy’s ‘n naaier!

‘I’ve been used by many men,’ she says.

Hand to hand, man to man: it’s a cycle of abuse, one that reproduces itself. At the time of writing, it’s reported that Candice has replaced Alfred with a new manager: herself. She’s even found a new Candice. The 17-year-old is mentoring a 15-year-old in the ways of the road. Soon, perhaps, it will be the initiate’s turn to do the same.

 

* Names have been changed.

 

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