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A productive tension in the messages from Nelspruit, and from Makhado

In March of 2017 Elsa Oliveira and I facilitated the first workshop in a new project with participants who were involved with some of our past workshops. This new project is called the Sex Worker Poster Project, and it is a MoVE Project (MoVE) in partnership with Sisonke. Elsa and I were assisted in the facilitation of this project by Katlego Rasebitse, the Media Liaison Officer for Sisonke in Gauteng. This blog entry provides some thoughts on the partnership that underpins the research and social activism of the Sex Worker Poster Project, makes a note of that project’s linkages with a past project in the same MoVE-Sisonke partnership, and reflects on what can be a productive tension between activism, and research.

Duladula & My Baby (2017) A selection of posters from the first workshop, The Sex Worker Poster Project, Nelspruit. | The participants who were involved in this workshop are Doe Doe, Duladula, Freedom, Kagee, KG Loo, Less31, My Baby, and Zazazi.

The nature of the partnership
MoVE is a project based at the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) at the University of the Witwatersrand. The aim of MoVE is to involve migrants in the co-production of knowledge and affect using socially involved, participatory arts-based methodologies that integrate social action with research in ways that are unrestrained by traditional notions of research and dissemination. MoVE sometimes partners with Sisonke, the only sex worker movement in South Africa that is run by sex workers, for sex workers. Sisonke aims to unite sex workers, improve living and working conditions, fight for equal access to rights, and advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa. In this partnership between MoVE and Sisonke, the Sex Worker Poster Project continues the general research interests of the ACMS: the attempt, through research undertaking, to challenge, build upon and expand representational forms, and procedural mechanisms used in working with, and portraying the lived realities of migrant groups such as sex workers.

Finding a foothold in the Sex Worker Zine Project
A key aspect of the long-term partnership between MoVE and Sisonke is in building on the experiences gained in past projects. This continuity and expansion in projects occurs in terms of project conceptualisation and planning regarding the visual-narrative drive of projects, and in terms of the facilitation methods employed and workshop activities undertaken.

The Sex Worker Poster Project follows up on the Sex Worker Zine Project which Elsa, Katlego, and I facilitated just about two years ago. The zine project was based on the desire by Elsa Oliveira to challenge the notion of a single story in the conception of what sex work entails. Oliveira’s drive in this project was influenced by the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2017), who argues that although a single story may not be entirely fictitious, it remains a rather partial representation, and entails the danger of dispelling another story, when it becomes the only story.

The polemics on sex work often assume highly patronising and moralising tones. As Elsa Oliveira and Jo Vearey (2017) noted in their introduction to the Sex Worker Zine Project publication, the danger in following the single story regarding sex work is that people such as migrants become negatively stereotyped as burdens and criminals. Even though research has shown that the criminalisation of sex work leads to issues around health and safety for sex workers, there is a pervasiveness of negative stereotypes around sex work. Oliveira and Vearey argue that these negative stereotypes bolster the arguments that lead to detrimental policy decisions by increasingly conservative and restrictive neoliberal political leaders who chose to criminalise sex work, because negative stereotypes create a climate in which prejudiced positions gain social acceptance. The most recent example of bad policy decisions that are not grounded in good research is the highly inappropriate report released on 26 May 2017 by the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) titled Sexual Offences: Adult Prostitution (South African Law Reform Commission, 2017). The following extract from the report makes clear the commission’s general position towards sex work:

33. The Commission further believes that any effort to integrate prostitution into formal employment laws and structures would encounter inherent difficulties. It is particularly mindful of the challenges experienced in comparative jurisdictions in this regard. The Commission recommends that prostitution should not be recognised as a reasonable means to secure a person‘s living in South Africa, and from a formal labour perspective should not be considered to be work or decent work. This stance aligns with the partial criminalisation model found in the Nordic countries and Canada and the total criminalisation model currently in place in South Africa (para 2.452).

Although this report was published in 2017, it was written by the SALRC in 2015, and was based on much older research (Urgent: Alert to All Sex Work Allies 26 May 2017, 2017). In a Sweat position paper, published the same year as which the SALRC report was written, Ishtar Lakhani (2015) makes a strong case for the decriminalisation of sex work. Lakhani ends this paper with the following statement:

We conclude that the current legal system criminalising of sex work in its entirety is impractical and ineffective. The law needs to be reformed to make it consistent with South Africa’s constitutional obligations from a human rights perspective. The decriminalisation of sex work can reduce sex workers vulnerability to violence at the hands of police, clients and intimate partners and contribute to eliminating stigma that is a barrier to service delivery.

The pointed damnation of the SALRC report from activists within the sex worker community, as well as from social researchers, lawmakers and politicians who are sensitive to the complexities of the field, is creating message that the report’s adaptation of a Swedish Model for the criminalisation of activities surrounding sex work is not appropriate for a South African context. The report is also inappropriate in the sense that while presenting an unjust and harmful policy direction for sex workers, it is being framed by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development as its response to the concerning regularity of gender-based violence and the loss of life to women in South Africa (Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, 2017). This violence seems to be woven into parts of the fabric that makes South Africa, and has been making the headlines again over the last few weeks. Gender-based violence, however, will not be ended by moralising policies that attempt to curtain the business of selling sex.

The SALRC report should be understood as a continuation of a broader discriminatory context in South Africa towards people who sell sex for a living. It is within this discriminatory context, and with the will to resist this injustice, that The Sex Worker Zine Project from two years ago intended to create complex portrayals of migrants who sell sex. While in no way a panacea, the challenging of stereotypes could be argued to be an important aspect of activism which fights for the decriminalisation of sex work, and of research that supports this type of activism. The Sex Worker Zine Project attempted to challenge stereotypes by generating multiple stories, through a participatory arts-based workshop process, about the lived realities of migrants who sell sex. The visual-narrative stories contained by the zines include many types of stories: personal accounts of home life; supporting families through sex work; the codes and procedures of working as a sex worker; the dangers faced by sex workers from police and from clients; the implications of stigmas and conservative cultural traditions on sex workers; the need to decriminalise sex work; the practice of searching for healthcare as a sex worker. Some stories are inspirational, others are informative, there are some filled with anguish, and then there are others filled with joy. These stories do not make one story, but together, they make clear a collective strength of people working to find ways to survive. These stories, furthermore, did not emerge quickly. Elsa and I facilitated a two-week making-reflecting process with the participants. While this workshop could have continued into more weeks had there been scope in the project, the period we had was sufficient to allow the participants’ chosen stories to emerge slowly, and gradually shift into their current public forms.

The Sex Worker Zine Project had 24 participants, and was undertaken in South Africa, in a small city named Nelspruit, which is in the Mpumalanga province, and in a large town named Makhado, which is in the Limpopo province. It is in these locations, and with mostly the same participants, that we continue with the Sex Worker Poster Project.

Making posters that collectively tell multiple stories
The Sex Worker Poster Project took the multiple stories generated through the zine project as the starting point to create advocacy messages in the form of posters. The zine stories provided an entry point to guide the conceptualisation of advocacy messages related to aspects of participants’ lives. Posters, however, are very different communication mechanisms to zines. While zines offer page sequences through which nuanced messages can emerge in a relationship of image and text, posters need to be a bit more direct in getting their messages across. The choices around design, and the relationship between image and text are crucially important for posters. This is because posters need to be visually appealing to be able to catch the eye of the people they are meant to inform, and they need to be clear in the visual-narrative message that is being presented. Similar to the zine project, however, we intended the Sex Worker Poster Project to produce multiple messages that challenge any notion of a single story about the practice of selling sex. In the Sex Worker Poster Project, therefore, the challenge was to create messages that were shorter than those of the zines, but were still directed at specific issues that are relevant to, and pertinent in the complex lived experiences of migrants who sell sex as work.

The Sex Worker Poster Project is still in production phase. As mentioned, the first workshop was conducted in March, in Nelspruit. We are still to go to Makhado. When we started the workshop, Elsa and I were not entirely sure where the posters would end up. We also did not commence this project with any specific protest action, or activist message in mind. How the posters are used in activism would likely be directed by Sisonke’s ongoing efforts towards the decriminalisation of sex work. Given the current policy making climate, and the need to voice against injustices, these details may reveal themselves soon. It should be clear, then, that the posters were made on the assumption that they could become a future resource in a yet unplanned march for the decriminalisation of sex work, or any other event or location where the messages they carry can be noticed. Since the project was not undertaken with any specific protest action in mind, we had to design a workshop structure which would allow for several types of posters to take shape, ranging from informative posters, to confrontational posters.

Some of the posters that were made were focussed on the decriminalisation of sex work, and some were focussed on representing sex workers as having multifaceted identities. Although Elsa and I wanted to create posters which could be useful for Sisonke in their activism efforts, it should be noted that the conversations in the Nelspruit workshop around issues faced by migrant sex workers were facilitated in a way that opened a space for any idea to come forward and be explored regarding migration, health and safety. To this end, we asked each participant to come up with three or four different posters for different audiences, and with different messages.

Messages from Nelspruit, and from Makhado
Nelspruit and Makhado have structural similarities. Both the locations are nodal points on migration routes towards the central parts of South Africa, and towards neighbouring countries, and both these locations are produced through the complexities that arise in urban-rural assemblages.

Of Nelspruit and Makhado, however, I would venture to write, in a more poetic sense perhaps, that the one has a greater sense of the urban, and the other a greater sense of the rural. Nelspruit feels like a small city in Mpumalanga, but relatively close to Johannesburg. Makhado feels like a large town in Limpopo, and quite far from Johannesburg. What was clear out of the Sex Worker Zine Project, however, was that the stories from these two distinct spaces, while diverse in the details of how issues play themselves out in the lived experience of the participants, were addressing a similar range of issues: some about struggles with police, the law, family, and cultures; some about the abuse and brutality that sex workers experience; some about the pride which comes with being able to support a family, or of being self-sufficient.

A similar range of issues can be seen in the first posters coming out of the Sex Worker Poster Project: some of them carry a general message to decriminalise sex work; some confront brutality and stigmatisation; some carry message about the multifaceted identities of people who sell sex; some make clear the point that sex work pays the bills, and ensures the survival of individuals and families. The workshop in Makhado, no doubt, will produce very particular messages that resonate with the complexities of that part of the Limpopo province, but the issues that will be addressed will likely resonate, in part, with many of those that came forward in Nelspruit.

A participant’s reflection on the messages created in the workshop
KG Loo, who is of the participants of the Sex Worker Poster Project, reported in the thirteenth issue of Izwi Lethu on the experience of making messages that resist the idea of a single story (KG Loo, 2017). The article reflects on the topics that participants worked with, offers an insight into KG Loo’s primary poster topic, and proposes that the posters that were made in the workshop have a role to play in communicating with local communities.

KG Loo (2017) The Poster Project: My Posters, Izwi Lethu Issue 13, p.12 & p.13 | The full Izwi Lethu Issue 13 can be downloaded at Issuu.

Thinking about the messaging in the Sex Worker Poster Project
Framing counts for much in the creation of meaning. The framing of projects, therefore, should be a considered activity, rather than an incidental occurrence. The Sex Worker Poster Project is framed as a poster-making project with sex workers, in a partnership between MoVE and Sisonke. There is something salient in the mixture of researchers and activists which is neither neutral, nor uncomplicated.

While there may be some overlaps in the objectives and interests of Sisonke and MoVE, there are significant dissimilarities too. Both Sisonke and MoVE work in a policy making environment where the criminalisation of sex work consistently remains within a polemic with moralistic overtones, where policy decisions are made without reference to research being conducted at a grassroots level, and where the criminalisation of sex work leads to increased risk to sex workers. Sisonke, however, is an activist organisation which promotes the decriminalisation of sex work, and which works with members and potential members who routinely face discrimination and abuse. MoVe, which is part of the ACMS at the University of the Witwatersrand, has a focus on researching issues relating to migration, mobility and society in Southern Africa, through arts-based methods.

Although Sisonke is the channel through which the project gains participants, Sisonke offers much more to researchers than participants. I believe that MoVE’s relationship with Sisonke as an organisation that is focussed on the practice of sex work provides researchers access to nuanced details which become visible when people within a defined practice and community gather together. Although the decriminalisation messages of Sisonke has the potential of overpower any other story within a workshop, this danger is successfully mitigated in the workshops through the criticality and rigour of a material-thinking process driven by narrative facilitation, storytelling, art making, and discussion. This type of workshop, and art-based research-making process, furthermore, may also be valuable for Sisonke: The posters created in the Sex Worker Poster Project will not make one story, they are a collection of other stories that confront and complicate hegemonic narratives.

In a previous blog entry I described how a workshop assemblage becomes an entity in itself. This formulation was made in reference to Manuel DeLanda’s (2007) conception of an ephemeral assemblage which occurs in relation to, but also somewhat independently of larger scaled assemblages. The relationship between a research body, and an activist organisation, can entail a productive tension between activism, and research, and I would argue that the workshop is the locus of this productive tension. Ephemeral assemblages, as encounters in which people work together, influence each other, and are influenced by others, are filled with uncertainties, but offer vibrant moments for the production of aspects of the world.

While it is unlikely that the posters created in the Sex Worker Poster Project would ever make huge shifts in any policy decisions, the project is part of an assemblage of organisations and diverse members of society which grapple with these issues, and with connecting issues, on multiple fronts and in varied ways. The Sex Worker Poster Project is a small part in ongoing efforts by researchers to understand contexts, and by sex workers in fighting for recognition of their rights, and for the decriminalisation of their work.


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DeLanda, M. (2006). A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. Great Britian: Continuum.

Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (2017). Media Briefing: Report On Sexual Offences: Adult Prostitution. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].

Lakhani, I. (2015). Position Paper on Sex Work in South Africa. [ebook] Sweat, pp.1-9. Available at: [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].

Merten, M. (2017). Statistics SA: One in five SA women experience physical violence, young women hard-hit by HIV/Aids | Daily Maverick. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].

Nicolson, G. (2017). Analysis: Tackling violence against women needs support, not just outrage | Daily Maverick. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].

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Oliveira, E. and Vearey, J. (2017). Setting the Scene. In: E. Oliveira and J. Vearey, ed., The Sex Worker Zine Project. [online] Johannesburg: The MoVE Project, pp.11-14. Available at: [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].

KG Loo (2017). The Poster Project: My Posters. Izwi Lethu, [online] pp.12-13. Available at: [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].

Sex Work: The swedish model The partial criminalisation of sex work. (2017). [ebook] Sweat, pp.1-2. Available at: [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].

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Urgent: Alert to All Sex Work Allies 26 May 2017. (2017). [ebook] Sweat & Sisonke, pp.1-3. Available at: [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].

Williams, Q.E. (2017). The Workshop as an Ephemeral Assemblage. [Blog] Available at: [Accessed 23 Jun. 2017].

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