Grizelda Grootboom is at the forefront of the fight against sex trafficking. Whether it is speaking to young women and girls as she signs copies of her book “EXIT!” after a conference or addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York, her commitment to combating sex trafficking is undeniable. It comes from her own experience as a young woman trapped in sex slavery for eight years.
Her chilling account sheds light on just how perverted and cruel the world can be. She has lived through unimaginable trauma that began at an age when most girls her age were playing with their dolls.
“My story is very exhausting and traumatizing,” Grizelda told The Weight She Carries. “Sometimes I forget that I need to take care of myself. Then I have to learn the hard way why I should put myself first.”
While there was a lot of pain in her childhood, Grizelda remembers her fondest memory as a child.
“I was about six and I loved going to church because I would get a toffee apple afterwards. I always had on this bubble dress with long socks,” she said. “My grandfather would send me to church on my own because it was right around the corner, and people in the neighbourhood would wonder, ‘where is the rest of your family?’ I loved eating my toffee apple after church. That was my happy place. I go to that place whenever I wonder where I would have been if nothing had happened to me.”
Grizelda was raised by her father, uncle and grandfather and says her childhood was very colourful, but all that changed when she was 8 years old. Her grandfather was hit by a bus and died. Shortly after, her grandmother died. To cope, her father began to drink heavily.
“Things became very political because the government was removing a lot of black people out of the community, and some people were becoming homeless,” she said. “And because of all the things that were happening, my dad ended up drinking and not really following housing procedures for the development we were staying in within the community. That’s how I became homeless.”
For the next few years, her father would drop her off at a shelter and tell her he would be back for her. Sometimes he would, sometimes he wouldn’t.
“At times I would go to the harbour and wait for him there. And that’s when the street life of being homeless started to kick in. I met other street kids under the bridge in Cape Town. We lived at a shelter. A lot of us had boyfriends that were in gangsterism. And that was sort of a safety for us.”
Street life was rough and gangs became even more prevalent. Many black people were removed from their homes to make way for new housing developments the government was constructing. The displaced people were ending up on the streets, fending for themselves.
“Being gangsters became a lifestyle for many black people. We were losing our culture and our homes, so we became gangsters. If we went to the shelters, we were fighting and bullying,” she said.
Living at the shelter did have its perks, Grizelda said. She got to attend Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston concerts.
“We were the charity in our own land, so we had great privileges,” she added.
Such momentous occasions were few and far between, but the realities of everyday life were far more morbid.
“Most of the time we were high on glue and thinners. We would put it in a plastic bottle and suck it in and out and it would make us high. It would keep us awake. As a street kid you wanted to stay high and awake because when you fall asleep, you could get raped, robbed or stabbed.”
For the most part, Grizelda’s mother was not in the picture. She had left Grizelda’s father to raise their child when she went to get married into the Xhosa tribe, which, Grizelda explained, frowned heavily on children born out of wedlock.
“She would visit me every now and then at the shelter, and she would tell me she could not bring me back home with her because of her marriage. To me, that was a sign of rejection. I felt like it was my fault that she gave birth to me and I had no right to destroy her life. So, we didn’t have much of a relationship,” she said.
There was a time when Grizelda sought out her mother. Her uncle took her to her mother’s house, but it wasn’t a pleasant welcome.
“I remember for the first two weeks, I wasn’t allowed to go to school. My hair got cut and I was given a hiding because I was 11 or 12 and didn’t know how to cook,” she recalled. “I just was not welcome.”
It was during those two weeks that Grizelda experienced her first encounter with sexual exploitation.
“Four community boys gangraped me. That happened all day, and when I got home, it was my fault and I was in trouble because I wasn’t home when my mom got home. That was just another sign of being unwelcome, so I left,” she said.
“People often say we [homeless people] don’t try, and I get very frustrated because they don’t understand the trying part and the rejection that often comes with it. People often throw stigma without understanding the context of your situation.”
Living on the streets compounded the rejection Grizelda felt. Her attempt to live a normal life had been met with hostility, and the only sense of identity was with the other street kids.
“Being on the street everyday…begging for money and using it to buy glue. We would go into shops and steal bread because we were hungry, and sometimes we would get locked up for a day or two,” she said. “The police were a joke because we would get caught so many times and the policemen would take advantage and expect you to give them oral sex for them to transfer you to a shelter or a place of care. We were taught that everything that happened to us was always our fault. We were the outcasts.”
Sometime later, Grizelda’s father passed away on the street. He was found stabbed to death in a park under a tree.
“I remember a group of girls holding me and giving me money for all sorts of things to buy that day. They were trying to shield me from the fact that they could see my dad’s body right across the street,” she said.
The pain erupted within her and Grizelda found it difficult to contain the flood of emotions.
“I became violent in the shelter. I was so angry. I became abusive. The social worker took me to my dad’s mom for the funeral, hoping that they would take me in. But my grandmother said there were other kids in the house and she didn’t have room for me,” Grizelda said. “I remember after the funeral, I went to the bus stop and spent the night there. It was a life of continued rejection.”
It was around this time when Grizelda met a girl whom she became close to. Grizelda walked around with all kinds of drugs on her, and kids from affluent schools would meet up with street kids to buy drugs.
“I was very tomboyish. It was a way of survival and I had to prove it sometimes in front of my gang leaders. I pushed for the friendship and made sure she had drugs,” Grizelda said. “She would smoke with us under the bridge and it was a growing relationship. I gave her my loyalty in my territory.”
Life on the street became increasingly dangerous. One of the girls Grizelda shared a bed with at the shelter left because she turned 18 and was no longer eligible for services. She was later found dead after being raped and then stoned to death.
Later that year, the shelter advised Grizelda that they could no longer keep her because she had turned 18. Fearing she would meet the same fate as the girl who was murdered, Grizelda asked her wealthy friend for a favour.
“My rich friend was moving to Johannesburg with her parents. She told me she was going to have her own place, so I asked her if I could go with her,” she said.
The only condition was that Grizelda would have to find her way to Johannesburg. To raise the money, she took a risk and turned to prostitution. The gang she belonged to didn’t permit its members to engage in acts involving sexual exploitation, so she had to be particularly discrete so her gang members wouldn’t find out.
After about two weeks, Grizelda had enough money to buy a one-way train ticket to Johannesburg.
“I contacted my friend once I got there and she came to pick me up. It was extremely exciting. I felt like I was getting a new life. She took me to the apartment she said was hers and it was beautiful. She showed me to my room. It was very bare, but she told me we would go shopping for furniture later. She said she was going to get me some food and that was the last time I saw her.”
Tired from being up all night on the train, Grizelda decided to take a nap and woke to three men entering the bedroom and attacking her.
“They started undressing me and slapping me around. Then I got a kick in the stomach, and I just felt the pinch of the injection behind my knees and that’s when I knew I was dead.”
The substance they injected into Grizelda was a combination of crystal meth and morphine that instantly immobilized her lower body.
“With no time wasted, the buyers and clients began to come and perform sexual acts on my numb body. The anger in me was piling up and I was thinking, ‘I don’t know what is happening.’ The first person commented saying that I was so fresh, and my skin was so soft. I drifted in and out and that continued for the next two weeks. Customers were coming…one or two would come in the morning. If it was busy, it would be like from Friday afternoon until the next morning. My eyes were mostly covered with duct tape and I was tied up. [My captors] would come in every now and then to check if I was still alive. They put cocaine on my teeth and shoved ecstasy down my throat.”
During the duration of the repeated sexual assault, Grizelda’s captors refused to let her have any food. They splashed water on her periodically to see if she was still breathing.
“Every time someone came in the morning and I could smell their scent on me, I would think, ‘why don’t you just choke me?’” she said. “Sometimes I was begging to be cleaned up and crying. There was no day that I did not wish for death.”
Grizelda was eventually thrown out of the apartment in the middle of the night because the men who held her captive found a younger girl.
“I wasn’t moving much. My gums were bleeding and now too messy for the clients,” she said. “From the moment I breathed in the outside air, I knew this was going to be the same life I had in Cape Town. I knew I was going to have to sell my body on the street.”
She headed for Park Station, the central railway station in Johannesburg. Once there, she saw many truck drivers, prostitutes and pimps.
“I was dressed like a prostitute; I was scratching, and my eyes were wide open…looking like somebody who needed a fix. One truck driver called me over. I went inside and gave him what he needed and then I looked for someone who I could buy drugs from. And from there, I went into a cycle of just being swapped around from one hand to another,” she said.
Eventually, Grizelda ended up working at a brothel and provided some insight on just how prevalent commercial sex is.
“Every big event in a country or in the world, the biggest market at that particular time is for women and girls at brothels, strip clubs and escort agencies. I got into that level at the age of 19. I was only working for high-class brothels. We were dealing with very wealthy clients, but behind the scenes it was very dangerous.”
“There were times where we would be in the club and it would be filled with cocaine. And when the police knew they needed to raid the club, we would be the ones that would get locked up. The truth is that celebratory occasions for men usually involve a brothel,” she said.
In 2013, South Africa hosted the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) and as the only black woman working for that particular brothel, Grizelda was especially busy.
That year, Grizelda became pregnant. She knew she would not be permitted to keep the baby she named Summer. Usually, abortions were performed within the first two months of pregnancy, but the Madam of the brothel Grizelda worked for refused.
“The Madam said her clients enjoyed it more because of the pressure of the pregnancy on the vagina. I was going into my sixth month when she eventually said I should have an abortion. They gave me a tablet in a shot of Jack Daniels,” Grizelda said. “I didn’t know it, and that’s when I felt the pains of Summer leaving my body. Three hours later, I was told to put sponges in my vagina so I could get back to work as soon as possible. You are not allowed to say no to clients when they are booked for you because you belong to them.”
When she refused, Grizelda said the Madam’s husband physically assaulted her and told one of the bouncers to drive her all the way from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg (over 1,000 km) and dump her on the street.
Grizelda took the chance at freedom and managed to escape the world of sexual slavery that kept her in bondage for eight years. She sought treatment at a rehabilitation centre and is now sober. She is now focused on helping young women trapped in the vicious cycle of sex trafficking and prostitution find freedom.
“I’ve experienced the human race at its worst. The best way for me to help others is to shine a light on the horrors I have lived through in an open and transparent way, which I have done in my book, Exit!”
Exit!, her autobiography, can be purchased on Amazon and is also available in select bookstores and libraries in South Africa. Grizelda said the impact of her book has had on young women and girls is humbling.
“What drives me is when I see a young black child in the most unprivileged community sending me a message on social media saying, ‘I got your book from the library and I’m not returning it because it’s the first ever book that I can relate to.’ That was the purpose of it. For me, that is rewarding because I know I got that one girl,” Grizelda said.
The future looks bright for Grizelda. As more and more people hear about her story, the opportunities to raise awareness and engage political leaders in the fight against sex trafficking continue to arise. But there is still plenty of work to be done, Grizelda said.
“That’s not to say I don’t break down, cry or get frustrated. It’s about finding ways to cope,” she said.
Her greatest need at the moment is to funding to help her continue the work she does and to be able to take care of her own personal needs.
If you feel moved to support her cause, please reach out to her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on her social media platforms:
Facebook & Twitter: Grizelda Grootboom
Vimbai E. is a writer, journalist, ghostwriter and the founder of The Weight She Carries. With hundreds of articles publishing online, in print and for broadcast, her love of language and storytelling shines through every piece of writing that bears her name.