World Cup 2010 and the Legalisation of Sex Work: Postulations and Expostulations

sex work politics rights hiv/aids WC2010
Wednesday, 21 April, 2010 - 09:59

South Africa should move fast to legalise sex work before the 2010 FIFA World Cup starts. Legalising sex work will go a long way in helping the country generate additional tax that could be spend on improving service delivery. Alternatively, the country should promulgate ‘interim legislation’ aimed at legalising prostitution for the duration of the soccer showpiece, rather than leaving the industry uncontrolled. Decriminalisation will also enable the government to register sex workers, put them through mandatory HIV testing and allow only those who are HIV-negative to enter the industry. In addition, decriminalisation will also help to empower sex workers to report human rights violations such as child prostitution and human trafficking and create conditions in which sex workers feel safe

With up to half a million football aficionados and tourists expected to visit South Africa for the 2010 World Cup, and up to half of South Africa’s sex workers carrying the HIV virus, there have been calls for the country to decriminalise sex work to help tackle the spread of HIV. But is this a warranted call? Can the World Cup ever be a justification for the legalisation of sex work? This CAI brief explores the rationale that underscores the proposal of legalising sex work during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. It also takes into account some counter arguments apropos of the legalisation of the sex trade.

Proposals to Legalise Sex Work

The idea of legalising sex work was first broached in March 2007 (2) by South Africa’s police commissioner Jackie Selebi (3). Selebi caused widespread dismay when he proposed legalising or at least tolerating sex work and public drinking for the duration of the World Cup, arguing that the police force lacked the manpower to enforce the law in these areas. He added that legalising sex work would free his officers to deal with more pressing security issues. “I want you to apply your minds to my dilemma of what to do with the thousands of soccer hooligans expected to imbibe in public spaces and those who would feel the urge to try out other more exotic pastimes both currently illegal in South Africa,” he told a parliamentary safety and security committee. “You as a committee,” Selebi said, “Must be sitting and thinking of how we are going to get around this. If a visiting fan is out on the street having a bottle of beer, must I arrest him, because it is illegal?” The issue of the sex trade is even more contentious than that of public drinking, namely because it is regarded in South Africa as immoral and a faux pas.

During the Arts and Culture Department meeting (4) on its plans for social cohesion for 2010, Selebi’s proposal was reiterated by South African parliamentarian George Lekgetho of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party. Lekgetho suggested that South Africa legalise sex work for the duration of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in order to preclude instances of rape, as well as to bring in, perhaps, revenue which the government could put towards funding assistance for the unemployed. Theoretically, so long as it is legal, sex work would be easy to license, regulate and tax. It would provide money for the country, spur the establishment of more guidelines and safety precautions for the workers and their patrons, and generally allow the sex workers more organisational capabilities, providing more safety and empowerment. Advancing a rationale based upon supply and demand, Lekgotho argues that legalising sex work would be “One of the things that would make [the World Cup] a success because we hear of many rapes, because people don’t have access to them [women].” Backing up his case on socio-economic grounds, Lekgotho commented that, “If sex working is legalised people would not do things in the dark. That would bring us tax and would improve the lives of those who are not working,” reports the South African Press Association. There is also the issue of HIV. Legalising sex work could pave the way for regulations on mandatory testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), making it possible for behavioural changes and treatment to follow.

Proposals Appraised: The Pros and Cons Debate

South Africa is the centre of the global HIV epidemic, with more than five million adults infected. An estimated one in two sex workers is living with the virus and the lack of medication led to a quarter of a million people dying of AIDS-related illnesses in 2008 (5). The antiretroviral (ARV) treatment that helps prevent HIV developing into full-blown AIDS is being taken by fewer than 30 percent of those infected (6). Infection rates among women aged 15 to 20 declined slightly from 22.1 percent in 2007 to 21.7 percent in 2008, but among women in the 30 to 34 age group, the infection rate was 40.4 percent in 2008.

Against this backdrop, Professor Ian Sanne, head of the Clinical HIV research unit at Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University, stated that not only would the visitors (7) be at risk, but so would South Africans and the sex workers too, opening the way for the virus to spread at a dramatically increased rate. “HIV and AIDS is a problem globally and there is a great need to encourage and enforce better health and responsibility, especially to the young South Africans who could be at risk during the World Cup,” he said. Professor Sanne called for legal frameworks to regulate the practice of sex workers rather than discriminate against them. “Interim legalisation of sex work would be best for the country, rather than leaving it uncontrolled,” he said. “Sex workers need to register with a board that will regulate their practice and give certification to practise, but they have to go through a mandatory HIV testing process first, and only those who test negative will be allowed to practise.” (8)

Speaking to CNN, Director of the Cape Town-based Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), Eric Harper (9), contends that the World Cup would inevitably precipitate a demand for sex workers. He argues that “Where there’s demand there will be supply.” This could be a “Potential recipe for disaster both for the clients and the sex workers,” he added. Harper reckoned that criminalisation drives sex work underground.

Removing the threat of prosecution, he says, would make it easier to provide sex workers with condoms and make it easier for sex workers to turn down clients who refuse to use condoms. But would this really be easier? Who would ensure it? Police it? Protect the sex workers?

Julian Seedat of the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC), which advises the government on HIV and AIDS, is also expecting a rise in sex work during the World Cup, but he is more optimistic about the health implications. “I don’t think the work Cup will necessarily bring an increased risk of the spread of HIV,” he told CNN. “Over the years there has been an incredible amount of education and awareness work done among sex workers. Years ago the high-risk groups were thought to be homosexuals and sex workers, but there has been such a focus on education for these groups that their behaviour has really changed. It’s quite the norm for a commercial sex worker to have a bag full of condoms.” Seedat holds that all public health centres in South Africa offer free voluntary counselling and HIV testing, and that organisations like SWEAT had helped educate sex workers about the importance of using condoms and being tested if they had practiced unsafe sex. “People in the sex work sector make sure they’re protected, that they’re tested and that they know their [HIV] status,” he further added.

Harper, however, aptly observes that many clients do not want to use a condom. Ipso facto, the health of the sex worker is usually jeopardised. He added that as long as sex work remains illegal, protecting sex workers and their clients during the World Cup would be problematic. In his words, “We have to make condoms freely available and we have to make it possible for sex workers to report human rights violations like child prostitution and people trafficking.” But any possible change to the legal status of sex work remains some way off, with South Africa’s Law Reform Commission expected to make its recommendations to the Minister of Justice in 2011. Meanwhile, Harper would like to see sex work decriminalised at least for the duration of the World Cup.

For some South Africans, Selebi’s proposal seems reasonable. He links these proposals to the unique circumstances of the World Cup, which suggests that these laws might be temporary. Moreover, he advocates legalisation instead of decriminalisation (10), allowing the government to become ‘regulators’-rather than bystanders of - the vice industry. But the bulk of the South African public has been unresponsive to the calls for legalisation of sex work during the World Cup. A survey carried out by African Response in June 2007 shows that 79 percent of South Africans are not in favour of the idea. This adamant rejection of the legalisation of sex work has been echoed by many public health and sex workers’ rights organisations, which decry the emphasis being placed upon potential clients – soccer hooligans and potential rapists according to Selebi and Lekgotho respectively – rather than on the sex workers themselves. Many believe that offering alternatives for sex workers rather than the legalisation of the trade is the only workable panacea.

South African newspaper, The Times, denounced the logic of Lekgotho’s argument, which appears to endorse the opinion that rape is generally a case of releasing sexual frustration rather than an act of violence based upon deeper underlying psychological issues. Moreover, the fiscal justification for his suggestion was criticised on ethical grounds by the Democratic Alliance (DA) Party MP Sydney Opperman who stated that “You cannot attach a price to the deepest union between a man and a woman and link it to our tax base,” as quoted in the South African Press Association. The BBC reports that Lekgotho’s idea verged on the farcical, and that it drew groans of protest in the South African Parliament when presented to a Parliamentary arts and culture committee. But his plan was not jettisoned outright by the committee, with the Director General of the Arts and Culture Department agreeing with committee member Christopher Gololo that the matter should be “thrown to the public to debate.” And from the foregoing, we know that the public has, indeed, debated vigorously on this rather controversial issue.

Concerns over Trafficking

Debbi Toughey, a former prostitute now working for the public health charity, Doctors for Life, believes that past experience shows that toleration of sex work will act as a magnet for traffickers. She further opines that the legalisation of sex work opens up a ‘can of worms’ which could mean “rolling out the welcome mat for organised crime syndicates who trade in human lives, exploiting the poor and desperate, and forcing them into the sex trade,” she said in a statement after Selebi’s suggestion to Parliament. “Approximately 40 000 women and children were trafficked into Germany to accommodate the demand for sex during the World Cup Games. The same can be expected for South Africa.”

However, Professor Vasu Reddy of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) believes that legalisation or toleration may be the best way to prevent trafficking before the World Cup kicks-off due to the clandestine nature of trafficking. “Statistics [on trafficking] are anecdotal evidence because cases of human trafficking are rarely reported and the victims who have been trafficked don’t report it to the authorities. There is still a need for evidence-based research,” Reddy told delegates at a seminar on the issue of trafficking in December 2007. By giving sex workers the carte blanch to operate, Reddy believes it will become harder to force the victims of trafficking into sex work as greater government regulation of the industry will make it harder to hide away evidence of trafficking from the authorities. Be that as it may, given Selebi’s belief that there would not be enough officers to police sex work and public alcohol consumption during the tournament, the ability of the government to oversee a regulated sex work industry during the World Cup seems improbable.

The issue of human trafficking and abuse cannot be ignored or explained away as football fans across the globe flock to the “rainbow nation” (11) for the football spectacle and all the other accessories that go with the game. Sex would seem to be as big a part of many fans’ experience as watching the matches itself. Legalising sex work may make fans safer, but South Africa realises that its country’s long-term identity will not be defined solely by 2010, and needs to carefully weigh the detriments compared to the benefits of such a drastic policy shift that may spell disaster for the country in the long run, if the country is not ready for it. South Africa then has duties both as the World Cup host, but also as – and to – its country.

(1) Daniel Agbiboa is an external consultant for Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s HIV & AIDS Unit.
(2) Cape Times, 7 March 2007.
(3) Selebi was suspended on corruption allegations. In his absence, Bheki Cele is the acting police commissioner and will be during the World Cup.
(4) This meeting took place on 29 January 2008.
(5) Tracy Mcveigh and Savious Kwinika, for The Observer Sunday 11 October 2009.
(6) Ibid.
(7) The number of visitors expected during the World Cup makes this issue exceptional. Around 3.2 million tickets will be sold for the World Cup matches. A million will go to South Africa residents, with the rest split between international fans and sponsors.
(8) Tracy Mcveigh and Savious Kwinika, for The Observer Sunday 11 October 2009.
(9) See Mark Tutton, for CNN 7 January 2010, CNN© 2010 Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc.
(10) “Legalisation would mean the regulation of prostitution with laws regarding where, when, and how prostitution could take place. Decriminalisation eliminates all laws and prohibits the state and law-enforcement officials from intervening in any prostitution-related activities or transactions, unless other laws apply,” (cited in National Review article by Dona, M. Hughes. October 20, 2004).
(11) A term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe post-apartheid South Africa, after South Africa’s first full-democratic election in 1994. The term was intended to encapsulate the unity of multi-culturalism and the coming together of people of many different nations in a country once identified with the strict division of white and black.

- Daniel Agbiboa, external consultant for Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s HIV & AIDS Unit ( The April edition of the CAI HIV/AIDS Issues Newsletter is republished here with permission from Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI), a South African-based research and strategy firm with a focus on social, health, political and economic trends and developments in Africa. For more information, see or Alternatively, click here to take advantage of CAI’s free, no obligation, 1-month trial to the company’s Standard Report Series.

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