Ride or die — a popular saying derived from "ride it out or die trying" — typically describes a deep and powerful kind of love for someone that you would do anything for, even if it kills you.
But stripped down to its literal meaning for women in the sex trade, it means ride your clients or die and leave your children as orphans. This was the reality for Charlene Johnson*, a 33-year-old former sex worker and stripper, and a mother of a little girl whom she describes as "her only joy".
"I want my story to get out there so that women in the industry can know that the they can do it, they can get out... There is hope."
You can't just leave [the sex industry]. I've seen girls shot and killed right in front of me... That's your punishment if you step out of line... If you don't put your body out there and get sold, you get taken out. That is how brothels work".
Johnson finished matric and went to university where she started studying accounting. But in her second year she experienced her third gang rape, and her father died of cancer soon after. She consequently dropped out of university and applied for a job as a masseuse when she saw an advert in the newspaper, which she said looked like a normal advert for a massage parlour.
He got a million rand for me because I was skinny and blonde.
"I didn't know that it was a massage story with a 'happy ending'. I went in for the interview and they said I could stay on the property and I did. I arrived on the first day and I was locked in... I did the massage with the 'happy ending' and I didn't even get paid for it. The owners that ran the brothel took all the money. They fed me and they gave me drugs and that was where my drug addiction started. I was schmaffing cocaine. I managed to escape seven months later," she explained.
After Johnson escaped, she was captured and sold to a brothel that was run underground at a warehouse.
"She sold me for R50,000 worth of drugs. I was kidnapped and taken to a warehouse and I was locked up and caged... tied like a dog. I had a leash around my neck. My hands were chained. I was whipped constantly. I was burnt with cigarettes on my back. They started injecting me with heroine, and I became addicted to it — I was a slave to it," Johnson recalled.
I lived a double life. I lived a lie my whole life. Just so that I wouldn't hurt them.
"You can't just leave [the sex industry]. I've seen girls shot and killed right in front of me... That's your punishment if you step out of line... These brothels are not a joke. I worked at a brothel where they [the clients] ring the bell... Your brain gets programmed for this bell. You drop everything, you take your clothes off, you go out with your bra and panty, you stand in a line and a guy picks you. And if you don't get enough picks, they [the brothel owners] get rid of you. They kill you. If you don't put your body out there and get sold, you get taken out. That is how brothels work."
"They were about to kill me because they didn't know what to do with me, but then they sold me to N*".
N* is the name of a well-known South African man — an owner of one of the most popular strip club franchises [hereafter referred to as X] and lucrative businesses in the country.
"He [N*] got a million rand for me because I was skinny and blonde...One of the guys who worked behind the scenes at X came and had a look at me to see if I was worth buying. My life depended on that guy, because if N hadn't bought me, I was gonna die... When I was working at X my drug habit escalated. I was on cat, crack cocaine, heroine, crystal, every single drug you can think of. At night I worked at X as a stripper under different alias names and during the day I worked as a prostitute for a guy named Bruce*, who worked closely with N... I hardly slept".
Her second chance at escaping then came.
"When I wanted to leave N asked if I could stay on and I said no. It looked like they were going to kill me but I escaped. One of the clients booked me for an all-nighter at a hotel, and I managed to escape while he was taking a shower. And I ran. I ran back to my mom," she futhered.
Johnson's parents had no knowledge of her life in the sex industry or the abuses she experienced.
Her mother fell ill, and she started prostituting again, this time working for herself. But soon after her mother died, Johnson reached tipping point. She booked herself into a recovery centre where she stayed for three months.
"My mom thought I was a masseuse and that I had my own little place. They let me go home once a week. I was escorted by a driver to make sure I wouldn't say anything. I lived a double life. I lived a lie my whole life. Just so that I wouldn't hurt them," she explained.
Johnson came out of rehab in August 2016 and was referred to Urban Campout, a faith-based NGO outreach initiative for women in the sex industry. Johnson developed a relationship with one of the Urban Campout volunteers, who she describes as a "mother". Urban Campout referred her to Hope For Women, another faith-based NGO with resources. It partners with local and international bodies to help rescue and restore human trafficking victims and women who want to leave the sex trade.
Johnson is currently in the care of Hope For Women, where she is taking part in their restoration programme.
She says "God has cleaned me..He's this awesome father who love you and holds you when nobody else wants to. He doesn't reject you. He doesn't hurt you. He has protected me and has helped me let go of all that has happened to me.I'm working hard and getting back my life. I feel like I'm five years old again.. I feel like a little child. I'm a fighter.I'm a survivor".*Not her real name