This article was published on Times Select on the 10th June 2019.
Zola Ncapayi, who now lives near Delft in Cape Town, grew up in the Eastern Cape, attending school first in Grahamstown and then Port Elizabeth. He grew up with his parents and two brothers (one older, one younger), and had always dreamed of being a teacher. After matric, he attended the University of the Western Cape where he finished his degree and then worked as a teacher for several years. It seemed as if his life was mapped out for him – although keeping his homosexuality under wraps wasn’t easy, he had a stable job, a loving family, and got much satisfaction from working as an educator.
Ncapayi taught in township schools in Cape Town and eventually settled in the suburb of Observatory and taught at a school in Salt River. But, when his father died, the emotional impact on him was so severe that he began drinking.
“In 2009, my father died. I was so traumatised, I starting drinking heavily and eventually lost my job as an educator,” he says.
In 2011, with no money to pay his rent in Observatory, he moved back to the townships and, although he didn’t touch cigarettes or drugs, he “couldn’t control” himself with alcohol.
Falling apart emotionally, and under major financial stress, he turned to a very close female friend.
“I trusted her the most and shared everything that was happening to me. She knew about my financial status because I told her, and then one day she asked me a very strange question: ‘Zola, do you need easy quick cash without working hard?’ I looked at her and said: ‘My friend, which drug are you using? How is it possible to get money out of nowhere?’”
This was the beginning of a horrific journey that would take Zola’s life completely off course. His friend kept quiet, and took him to a place where she said she made easy money.
“I still remember it was January 25 2010. I became so curious and interested to know how she is making these miracles. She said we would leave at 6pm and I must dress like a woman.”
She gave him the props: tight pants, high heels and a wig.
“She even showed me how to wear makeup,” he recalls, adding that it was the first time he had cross-dressed and it made him very uncomfortable.
They boarded a taxi to Epping.
“Bear in mind that time I knew nothing about prostitution. I only heard people talking about it but I was not interested to know the details about it because it did not concern me,” he says. “When we arrived at the Epping truck stop, she introduced me to a man who was in a huge truck.”
This was how she introduced him: “This is Zola, the one I promised you.”
He says: “Then I took two steps back and asked her: ‘Is this real, my friend, are you selling me to this man to kill me?’”
She told him to jump in a truck with the man and not ‘ask stupid questions’. The man drove the truck into the truck stop and offered Zola a drink. With his nerves shattered, he asked for a brandy.
“The way I was so nervous, I wanted to be drunk so that whatever happened I cannot actually feel.”
He knew something strange was going on but still did not realise he had been “sold” by his friend as a prostitute.
When the man began discussing “the price”, Zola told him he didn’t understand. Eventually, the man said he would “do whatever” Zola needed financially as long as he “satisfied” him sexually.
“Because I was very desperate that time for money I gave him a very big yes. After all that conversation, he said let’s go back to the truck.”
Zola says: “He started touching me. I stopped him and asked if he knew I wasn’t a woman. He said he does men and women and that was why he had asked my friend to bring me.”
Zola was repulsed by the man’s large body, but pretended to like him. They spent the night together, with Zola satisfying the man’s needs. In the morning, the man proposed being Zola’s regular client, which insinuated some type of ownership, and handed over R900.
Relieved at having earned “quick” money, Zola then entered a life of prostitution with this man, but “I still didn’t call myself a prostitute – in my mind I had finally found a man who is willing to provide and make me happy.
“The first week everything went well with my first client. In that week I had more than R3,800 because that guy was giving money every morning until he left to Johannesburg where he came from.”
Zola’s friends promised to find new clients for him, but “other prostituted women started getting jealous of me and started fighting with my friend, telling her to keep ‘that moffie’ (me) away or they will deal with her”.
Next he was introduced to a man who showed him another underworld of “indoor selling”.
“That man took me to a hothouse in Green Point where he was making business. Things were not the same as the truck stop where I started prostituting. I had to dress like a man.”
He now began performing sex acts that made him feel extremely uncomfortable – like rimming and fisting, threesomes, and being forced under threat to have sex without a condom.
“It was difficult to adapt but I had no choice because I was desperate for money, and I got used to it. I also sold sexual acts to more than three or four different men per night.”
Having risked his life with unprotected sex, his “pimp” then demanded more money than agreed upon and forced him to pay for drinks at a local pub. Zola felt like he had compromised himself on so many levels out of desperation for the money, and was now being fleeced by the man who had pimped him. After a fallout, he left the pimp, and thus began another dark chapter in his life.
Working on the street
With no pimp, Zola now worked for himself and became what he calls “a street-based prostitute in Sea Point on Beach Road”.
“Things were hectic. There was a lot of competition and jealousy – we had to run for ‘clients’, four or five of us running for one client. Things were a little bit better in my first three days because I was a new face so I had many ‘clients’ … There were days where I stood and walked up and down the whole night and went home without making a cent.”
One night, things took a turn for the worse, bringing Zola face to face with the true fear of the world he now found himself in.
One night, a man in a fancy X3 stopped and took Zola and a few others with him. He was being so polite and kind that it unnerved Zola who wondered what the man was getting up to. He, the client, said he was going to take them to his house but would stop somewhere en route for drinks.
In the car, he asked: “How many of us are doing drugs and how many are drinking?”
The other three were all users of injectable drugs. Zola wasn’t.
“Then he took us to the nearest pub to buy few beers for him and me,” Zola says, adding that the man then gave the other three money for drugs, before zooming along to the Sea Point police station. Zola, assuming he was not from Cape Town and was lost, said to him: “Sir, this is not a pub.”
Then the man took out his badge and shouted: “You bastards are now all under arrest for loitering.”
“I started crying and begged him and I even said I am willing to do whatever he tell me to do to not go to jail,” Zola recalls. The undercover policeman drove back to Beach Road and told the three other men to get out of the car. Zola tried to run but the policeman threatened him with a gun and said: “If you try run I will blow your head off.”
The policeman drove him to a dark and secluded place, where he forced Zola to take his pants off.
“I was so nervous and shaking that I took more than five minutes to take off my pants. Then he kicked me and I fell. He dragged me to the back of his car and undressed me. After that he forced me to suck his dick. Then he raped me several times without a condom right up until the morning.”
Devastated by the experience, Zola stayed off the street for a month, even knowing his livelihood would come to a halt. During that phase, he began to feel sick and went to the clinic. There he received news that landed on him like a ton of bricks: he had contracted syphilis and also needed an HIV test.
It came back positive.
“That was the worst traumatic time of my life. I felt suicidal, but because of the support I had from Health4men and Desmond Tutu HIV Research Foundation I accepted my status and life became normal and I started treatment as much as I am still on it right now,” he says.
Over the next while, Zola put all his energy into exiting the world of prostitution, a journey he says was difficult but which he wants to encourage every prostitute to make.
At first, he took on the ideology that prostitution should be called sex work, and should be legitimised as a way to earn a living. But, this felt wrong to him: he then formed a movement for male prostitutes called Brave Heroes which is supported by Embrace Dignity, an organisation that calls a spade a spade and says that prostitution is nothing more than a form of sexual exploitation and abuse, and should be abolished.
“My life is now back on track,” he says. “How can we call something ‘work’ when there is the possibility you will be assaulted, or won’t come home, or will contract an illness, or get killed, and not even be taken seriously by the police if you report what happened to you while you were ‘at work’?”
Zola Ncapayi is a survivor of prostitution and founder of Brave Heroes – a movement for LBGTIAQ+ men and womxn who want to abolish the violent system of prostitution.