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The lap-dance industry and persistent blind eyes

by Ilham Rawoot

It’s quite something for a young lady to visit a strip club. I’d always thought of myself as rather liberal, but I found myself averting my gaze from anything round for quite a while. And when I finally got a bit more comfortable, I wish I’d remained coy.

You see, men don’t understand — for them it’s eye candy, pure pleasure, but for a woman, or for me at least, it became somewhat of a self-reflection exercise. Such skinny legs, no cellulite, perfect breasts, booze at the snap of a finger, and men swooning over you.

But I soon learned, after a few chats with the dancers — some employed and others now resigned — that there is a great deal of unhappiness that comes with the job, not because they feel degraded in any way, but because they often feel like mere pawns for industry bosses who are cheating both dancers and the authorities out of money and dignity, and getting away with it.

Dancers at many clubs are fined tens of thousands of rands for inhumane reasons, ranging from not finishing their plates of food to being out of work due to pneumonia. This is to keep them eternally indebted to their bosses — debt bondage as it is sometimes called.

Foreign women are brought to South Africa under false pretences of a better life, only to be forced to work as prostitutes while their bosses find ever-more unbelievable reasons for taking their passports away.

Prostitution is another issue. Regardless of your view of whether or not prostitution should be decriminalised, the fact that it is currently illegal means that strip bosses who allow or sometimes indirectly force their dancers to have sex do so behind closed cubicle doors. This means there is no regulation, and diseases and unwanted pregnancies run rife. The cash payments in clubs mean that tax fraud and money laundering will be a problem. And there always appears to be a willing policeman or government official to accept some hush money.

With the World Cup merely weeks away, concerns about prostitution and human trafficking from both NGO’s and the government have been systematically raised and subdued. But the obvious problem is not foreigners coming here to create illegal prostitution and trafficking rings, but that South Africans have been committing these crimes for a long time.

While some are calling for a regulator for the industry, it seems only obvious that this regulator would be next in the chain of corruption. South Africa has the resources to regulate this industry — they’re just not doing their job.

Over the next few weeks, the Mail & Guardian will run a series of articles on the strip-club industry: which bosses are getting away with what, who’s letting them do it, and what the dancers and employees have to say about this. This industry has gone untouched for far too long, and sometimes the obvious boundaries of the industry are clouded by the desire to be open-minded.

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  • amaBhungane are the investigators of the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit, public interest initiative to produce better investigative stories and plough back through internships and advocacy. On this blog, amaBhungane -- seasoned and award-winning journalists -- will penetrate the world of smoke and mirrors to bring you the story behind the story. www.amabhungane.co.za