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A large chunk of our reporting focuses on HIV. Since the launch of Bhekisisa in 2013, we’ve covered HIV in-depth — from the impact of the virus on former president Nelson Mandela’s family to the advances in antiretroviral treatment and anti-HIV pills and injections. We’ve also looked at the impact of inequality and discrimination on the spread of HIV, the link between gender-based violence and HIV — and ways to fix it.

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Sex workers say police destroyed HIV meds and withheld medical care after raids

Activists say police actions in Emalahleni, Mpumalanga are increasingly frequent and may be retaliation for recent civil society actions.

Sex workers have accused Emalahleni police of destroying their HIV treatment and denying them access to medical attention in jail. The accusations follow the latest in what women and activists allege are increasingly frequent and violent raids on sex workers in the Mpumalanga town. Cynthia Moyo* was one of 17 people arrested on charges related to immigration and sex work on 31 August. As part of the police action, officers allegedly entered four suspected brothels, striking one woman and damaging property. Cell phone footage reportedly taken after the raid by the women shows broken furniture, overturned mattresses and food thrown on the floor.

Moyo, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of further victimisation, told Bhekisisa that police destroyed her antiretrovirals. “They poured water into my medicine, and I don’t know why they did that,” says Moyo.

Desperate to continue taking HIV treatment, Moyo is now taking a friend’s antiretroviral medication, even though the two women have not been prescribed the same drugs.

Sharon White is the director of Re-Action, an organisation that provides HIV treatment to more than a thousand sex workers in Mpumalanga.

“It is crucial that patients take their treatment daily, and it is more important that they take the treatment that is prescribed to them. These women are so desperate to keep track of their treatment that they have resorted to exchanging treatment, which is very dangerous,” White explains.

Interrupting HIV treatment can lead to the development of drug resistance, meaning that patients will have to be switched to different – sometimes more expensive – drug combinations.

Lerato Mofokeng* was also arrested and is still being held at the police station. She claims officers have ignored her complaints of persistent stomach pains for more than a week.

“They are mistreating us – since my arrest I have been complaining about severe abdominal pain, but I am yet to see a doctor or nurse,” Mofokeng explains.

Moyo and Mofokeng are among the six people arrested during the raid that remain behind bars at the station. While other prisoners have already appeared before the Witbank Magistrate’s Court, Mofokeng is scheduled for 14 September.

Investigation into officers’ actions ongoing

Sally Shackleton of the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) says she believes the increasing police hostility to sex workers is a response to recent efforts by nongovernmental organisations to draw attention to police brutality in the area.

“Often, when we draw attention to the abuse of power by police, we see a backlash and increased police action – these events are a clear example of this,” says Shackleton in a statement issued late last week.

In the statement, Sweat and the Women’s Legal Resource Centre say one woman has also alleged officers forced her to parade naked around a taxi rank while others allegedly pepper sprayed the children of another woman.

“As an attorney, I was shocked at the violence we are hearing about,” says Women Legal Resource Centre attorney Mosima Kekana in the press release, which also accuses Witbank officers of carrying out unwarranted raids and unlawful arrests.

Witbank station commander Brigadier Delisiwe Motha has denied allegations of wrongdoing, including that women have been denied access to antiretrovirals or medical care.

“The raids that we conduct are lawful, I don’t understand what is meant when they are called unlawful. Stopping crime is part of our job and we will continue to do so,” she says.

But Women’s Legal Centre advisor Teboho Mashota says that police can do their job without violating sex workers’ rights.

“We are not denying that sex work is, in fact, illegal. We understand that the police have to do their job which is to enforce the law, however they can do this without violating the human rights of sex workers,” Mashota says.

Station commander Motha admits that the South African Police Service’s provincial office has opened the investigation into her conduct and that of officers. She adds that the inquiry is expected to conclude by 16 September.

The allegations against police come less than six months after the country launched its national plan to address high HIV rates among sex workers. At the launch, high-level officials including South African National Aids Council head Fareed Abdullah noted the irony that as the health department issued sex workers with antiretrovirals and condoms, the South African Police Service was often accused of taking them away.

*Not her real name

Pontsho Pilane is the communications manager at Soul City Institute for Social Justice. Pilane was a health journalist at Bhekisisa from 2017 until 2019.