Mpho, who lives in Alex, tells me how “sugar daddies” hit the townships on weekends in their smart cars. They cruise the streets looking for young flesh. One thing the sugar daddies rely on is the teenage hunger for bling-bling. They know that teenagers crave to feel they are part of the world of glamour and beauty and parties and are influenced by the consumerism they are exposed to in soapies and adverts. In cash-strapped township homes one way for young girls to access bling is through sugar daddies.
“Even girls who are not from poor homes sometimes take on the sugar daddies because they want more bling,” says Mpho. “And of course there are many girls who do not go for sugar daddies too … but it is scary how many do. It is expensive to be fashionable.”
Sugar daddies know all of this. They go to ATMs before they cruise the townships. They tell their wives they have meetings. They kiss their own teenage daughters goodbye and then they go to their teenage lovers. They buy them clothes, they give them money for hair weaves. They buy them the latest cellphones.
All she has to do is open her legs.
She can be anything from 13 to 16 years old and sometimes even below the age of 13. In this world your 17th birthday can mean you are traded in for someone younger.
“I watch them on weekends. They cruise the streets looking for young girls. They call us over to their cars and flash their money at us. They offer us drinks and call us sweetie. They give us lifts, buy us KFC — then they want a kiss. From there it just gets more and more — sex for cellphones and clothes and lip gloss and hair weaves. When a man cruises by and calls me sweetie I swear at him. I ask him if his wife knows where he is. I ask him if he would sleep with his own daughters or granddaughters. That usually sees him driving away or calling me a rubbish.”
“I also don’t have money for clothes and cellphones … but I would rather go without. I don’t want these dirty old men anywhere near me. But I am lucky — I am a feminist. I know my worth. There are so many girls who do not and I spend my time talking to these girls and even following sugar daddies — taking their number plates. I’m a sugar daddy vigilante,” she laughs.
Just recently the minister of health released the statistics of HIV prevalence in schoolgirls. It’s a whopping 12.7% compared to 4% of schoolboys. Some of these girls are as young as 10.
According to the minister this means young girls are not sleeping with young boys — they are sleeping with older men. He went as far as to say that “we must take a stand against sugar daddies because they are destroying our children”.
He also revealed that 94 000 schoolgirls fell pregnant in South Africa in 2011, with about 77 000 having abortions at public facilities.
“Sugar daddies do not use condoms,” says Mpho. “A girl of 11 or even 14 cannot negotiate with him. He has all the power. Some sugar daddies will slap and punch young girls who challenge them. These are the stories I hear from girls around Alex.”
“Also, many mothers turn a blind eye to their daughters getting stuff. Sugar daddies bring in that little bit of extra money. We are suffering in Alex. Some of my friends live only on grants — they need that little extra.”
Mpho tells me of one young girl that she heard about who hung out at taverns. She was passed around a group of sugar daddies. “That was pornography if you know what I mean. They used her like a child sex slave.”
As I listen to Mpho I remember when I was a young teenager how many older men had preyed on my friends and me. From the managers in the supermarket I worked at after school, to men at gyms or friends of the family to men just driving past. Teenagers are irresistible to a certain type of man. We called them perverts, though one or two of my friends did succumb to seduction and called them sugar daddies.
It occurs to me just how problematic the term ”sugar daddy” is. It conjures up glamorised, old style movie images. It has a sweet ring to it. What we are talking about is paedophiles. We are talking about statutory rape. We are talking about child sex rings and sexual perverts.
”Sugar daddy” just does not cut it as a description for what these young girls are really exposed to.
If the minister of health is serious about stopping the sugar daddies preying on our children then he must call it what it is and these men must be jailed for sleeping with underage girls. These men must be charged for sleeping with underage girls.
That so many young girls are vulnerable to sexual exploitation is also a societal problem and it needs to be tackled as such. Let’s start with television programmes such as Generations, which show unrealistic glamorous lifestyles that are incongruous with the average low-income homes. This builds consumerist aspirations in children. They want what they are sold in advertising and soapie culture and many are unable to access that.
Let’s also look to a government that is not creating jobs, that is not keeping social grants on a par with price hikes — the list could go on.
It does not matter how much moralising we do about behaviour or parenting — until this issue is dealt with in the context of socioeconomic justice and the judicial system we will continue to see a rise in teenage HIV rates and child pregnancies in South Africa.
In the meantime we need more anti-sugar daddy activists like Mpho. We need to deconstruct the sugar daddy in school programmes so that young girls can understand the potential destruction of their lives through these exploitative relationships with men old enough to be their father or grandfather.
“Townships cannot continue to be used by sugar daddy paedophiles as bargain supermarkets for young flesh,” says Mpho.