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The jewel of Poole Street

By Alex Searle

At first glance, Poole Street is nothing special. It’s a slightly better area than some of the other dreary avenues in Ysterplaat, but not by much. There are no lampposts so walking around at night is not easy. Only the ugly power cables hang in the air alongside the pavements like giant washing lines. The face-brick houses and double-storey flat blocks are separated by short vibracrete walls, all grey. There isn’t much noise aside from the cars on Koeberg Road and few distant dog barks. But should you spend more than five minutes on Poole Street, you’ll realise that an entirely self-sufficient planet exists far away from the rest of the suburb. It seems to bustle with a kind of subdued activity, like mice speeding in and out of their orifices. Faces flicker in and out of the humid night, each with their own unique lives.

As bohemian as this may sound, Poole Street is actually a business centre, open both day as well as night. Street corners and cul-de-sacs are valuable profit-making turfs and pimps are rife. At night, this dark, secret city lights up when a pair of brake lights stops to pick up a pair of legs. But those are the lucky girls; they may even have a future. As you go deeper into the Poole Street maelstrom, you will find the ones who don’t often get to see these city lights.

I stop at the curb and she produces a warm smile. Before introducing herself, she takes a few seconds to inform me of her rates. It’s R50 for a blowjob, and R80 for “everything” as she calls it. I tell her I just want to talk. As she walks over to the passenger’s side, I can see her face light up in the headlights. I drive back up the street and park in front of a gate in Arvana Close.

Her name is Anna. Her angular features are outlined in the faint interior light of my car. She looks straight ahead as I carefully examine her. Despite a few bruises around her neck, Aquila’s full lips and large eyes are strikingly beautiful. She has a dirty white doek on her head and a few Choice condoms sticking out of the pocket of her purple hoodie. Her hands rest comfortably on each thigh.

“So you want to talk?” she asks. She must have heard that line a thousand times.

I tell her I want to know about her and her life. Immediately, Anna’s face visibly tightens. Even after I tell her that I am willing to pay her for her time, she maintains a defensive taciturnity. Tonight, Anna is dealing with a different kind of customer.

“I was born in Brooklyn. I went to school at Buren until Grade 8.” Buren High School, less than 500m away down Poole Street, is notorious for drug use and violence among its learners. I ask where she lives.

“I live in the bush, the vlei at the back,” Anna gestures. Intersecting the last quarter of Brooklyn and the start of Paarden Eiland are massively overgrown grasslands with a fetid stream of water running through it. She lives against one of the vibracrete walls along the grassland facing a horde of industrial containers. Recently separated from a boyfriend, Anna lives with her two-year-old son, Aafiq.

Having been a sex worker since her teens, her job has become entangled with her identity. “I work the road. I don’t have a job so I am here in the day too.” Every time she offers me one of her curt answers I feel as if I am stripping more of Anna’s hardened dignity than if I had asked her to strip her clothes. My guest is having to trade with a different sort of currency by uncovering a few details of her life. She wrings her hands, bewildered by her client’s choice to spend his 10 minutes chatting.

We talk about customers. “I get business two or three times a week. I have a few guys that come back.” In the middle of asking where the deed takes place, she interrupts “we do it in his car, or at the back,” pointing once again in the direction of her home at the vlei. “I will also do housework if he wants,” a service she renders for the same price as sex. She insists on wearing protection, even if a customer offers her double. “I’ve been there, done that,” she says with a stare out the window.

And she certainly has been there. One of her worst experiences resulted in her being dropped off against her will somewhere in Bloemfontein. “I got a few lifts but I hiked most of the way home.” Anna’s journey back to Cape Town took nearly two months. A stray cat’s faraway meow provides an eerie soundtrack to her recollection.

Prostitution has been illegal in South Africa since 1957 but places like Ysterplaat, Salt River and Green Point in Cape Town feature hives of girls patrolling the pavements, every night. The underground nature of the industry and its links to drug trafficking make it very difficult to effectively police. Most of these sex workers come from extremely poor backgrounds and have often been the target of blame for spreading STDs and even Aids, but there are lifelines out there. Organisations like Sweat (Sex Workers’ Education and Advocacy Taskforce) are working through various community programmes and networks to protect the rights of sex workers, lessen violence and provide basic access to healthcare. Their ultimate goal is to have prostitution decriminalised in South Africa.

While Sweat’s activism is making some progress, girls like Anna unfortunately do not even show up on their radar. Their outreach efforts only reach a select few and do not account for sex workers living in townships or other squalid areas. Even if she was aware of Sweat’s presence, it is doubtful whether she’d have the time or inclination to campaign for better working conditions in between caring for her son and grabbing any business she can find.

Biting my lip, I ask her what she does when days are dark and customers are few. “If I don’t have, I don’t have. I don’t go out of my way.” Anna has no living relatives or pimp to rely on; she is as tough as she sounds. When money is low she says she borrows some from her “friends”, but insists that she can fend for herself.

Despite her struggles, Anna still believes the right man is out there and hopes to get married one day. “I’m still looking. I don’t want someone rich, just someone who will care for me.” The conversation inevitably leads to the most important thing in her life: “Aafiq is everything to me. I want him to be a working boy.” She takes her weary look away from me and stares out of the car once again. “I’m doing this for him,” she says in a thin, whispery voice.

With a lump in my throat, I thank Anna for her time. Her eyes light up when I open my wallet and finger the banknotes. She opens the passenger door after I pay her and jumps down from the kombi seat. My headlights trace her emaciated legs as they walk down Poole Street. I don’t turn the ignition immediately. I wait for her to look back or perhaps wave at me, but she doesn’t. It takes a few moments to absorb the story of her 21 years, something which 15 minutes cannot possibly encompass. As I wait for the car to warm up, she is almost completely enveloped by darkness.

I think I see her fading figure steal one last look back when I realise it’s just a car turning into Kings Road. The jewel of Poole Street has gone home for the night.

Alex Searle is a second-year journalism student at the University of Cape Town.

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