Room for Prostitution Under S. Africa's Liberal Constitution?

By Nicole Itano | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Johannesburg ( - The owner of a Johannesburg brothel is challenging the constitutionality of South Africa's laws against prostitution, in what could be landmark case on the status of "sex workers" in South Africa.

On December 21, police arrested Andrew Phillips, the owner of a well-known brothel called the Ranch, on charges of running a brothel and employing illegal aliens as prostitutes. A day later the government seized Phillips' estimated $5 million in assets on the grounds the wealth was illegally acquired.

Phillips is now in court, fighting the criminal charges and seizure of his assets. But he's taking an unusual approach to his defense, arguing that prostitution, and profiting from prostitution, should be legal under South Africa's liberal constitution.

Phillips does not deny that he owned and operated the Ranch. Instead, he argues the operation was clean and non-exploitative, one that should be a model for the sex industry. He says laws against prostitution unfairly discriminate against women.

Willie Hofmeyr, head of an elite police unit that has spearheaded the investigation against Phillips, said the prosecution is confident in its case.

"[Phillips], on his own admission, runs the biggest brothel in the southern hemisphere," Hofmeyr said. "There are some very serious charges against [him], such as that he is involved in the international trafficking of women."

Nonetheless, some women's groups say that there is legitimate concern about the constitutionality of South Africa's laws against prostitution and that, internationally, the trend is towards decriminalization.

"The criminalization of prostitution denies sex workers' right to equality," said Coriaan de Villiers, acting director of the Women's Legal Advisory Bureau, which plans to file a court brief on behalf of prostitutes.

"It denies them freedom from violence, access to fair labor practices, the right to have a profession or occupation, and access to health care services, all of which are protected."

De Villiers also said the Sexual Offenses Act unfairly discriminates against women because it limits the definition of prostitution to women and does not criminalize the solicitation of sex.

Phillips' attorneys said they plan to file an official constitutional challenge later this month.

The Johannesburg High Court heard arguments last week on the legality of the asset seizure, but that case and the criminal case scheduled for later this year, could both be put on hold while the constitutional challenge winds its way through the courts.