Grizelda Grootboom knows how to survive. She’s been doing it since she and her father lost their home during the apartheid of South Africa. That was when she was eight. They lived on the streets and in shelters until her father was able to find her mom and convince her to let Grizelda stay. This move meant more surviving. After having lived a life working in clubs and brothels as a prostitute, her mom had settled down and married a man who didn’t know about her past or that she’d had a child out of wedlock. It brought shame, and her mother didn’t want her around. In fact, she didn’t even call her daughter, but niece. Not long after moving in with her mom, Grizelda was gang raped by four guys. She was nine. Her mom blamed her, so she ran back to the streets where she lived and survived the rest of her childhood and adolescence going back and forth between the streets and shelters.
With no parental involvement, it was easy to start using drugs, anything she could find, glue being the gateway. Drugs were easily at hand and eventually she started selling for gangs. During this time, Grizelda became friends with a girl from an upper class family. This girl would come to buy drugs and part of the gang culture required those who were in gangs to protect those who were not. Grizelda was a protector for this girl and they became good friends.
When Grizelda turned 18, she realized that her life was not going to end well if she didn’t make some changes. For the past year, she had been fortunate to live in a shelter and attend school, but because of her age she would be kicked out. If she stayed where she was, she’d end up on the streets with little education and little chance for success. Most young women on the streets turn to prostitution, something she had avoided thus far because of the protective nature of the gangs. Grizelda thought of her options. Her friend from the upper class family was moving to Johannesburg to go to college. This looked like an opportunity to step away from the eventually of a life in prostitution and continual drug use. She asked her friend if she could come stay with her, and getting an ok, made her way to Johannesburg. It was a decision that would mark her future for the next fourteen years, and require a level of survival that most people don’t understand. On arrival, she was introduced into a bare apartment. It seemed strange that her friend had no furniture, but she was reassured that they would furnish the place together. Grizelda was tired and wanted a nap so her friend left her alone. That was the last she would see of her.
At this point in the story, Grizelda paused, telling me, “It doesn’t get any better. Telling the story. I relive it each time.”
The next thing she remembers is being woken up surrounded by three guys and being kicked in the stomach. Her first thought was that they were being robbed, before remembering there was nothing to take. And then she was raped. Again and again. She realized she had been sold as a human sex slave. Two weeks went by, and she did what she had to to survive. She was continuously drugged and raped, and passed out for most of the time.
When she was no longer considered ‘valuable,’ they threw her to the streets in exchange for another girl. She was alone. Alone in a city she had never been to before. Alone with no friends, no family.
“I went into instinct survival,” she says, “I knew I was still breathing. I tried to retrace my steps back to the truck stop where I had entered the city.” Knowing nothing else to do, she hired her first client. There was no one to turn to. She knew of no one that would help her. She was, simply, surviving. Before long, Grizelda was grabbed by pimps being taken from one brothel to another and forced to work for them.
Sucked in by the industry, the glamour, the drugs, she found a way to survive. She lived another eight years working in gentlemen’s clubs in Port Elizabeth. Eventually she became pregnant. Attached to the life growing inside her, she named the little girl Summer. The brothel madam forced her to keep working through the pregnancy, but at six months, the pregnancy became too obvious. “The baby has to go,” she was told. “Pregnancy wasn’t part of the deal.” The abortion happened in house. Grizelda was told to go back to work 3 hours later. “But how can I when I’m still bleeding from the abortion?” she asked. They didn’t care. She was told to stuff sponges up to stop the bleeding and continue working.
That’s when it became too much for her. “You just took life from me. You can take my life.”
She refused to work so they beat her up. She woke up a month later, and spent a year in rehab. It was the first time she became conscious. The first time she faced her emotions. She had been numb to pain and reality for years because of the drugs. She had survived on anger at her friend’s betrayal and a hope for revenge. That year in rehab was the first time she had to deal with the reality of what had happened to her.
By 28 she was clean. She was living in a shelter. Then the pimps found her again. At that time, there were no systems in place to help with rehab, no support for recovering addicts or prostitutes. Living at the shelter was not easy. Men and women shared the same space. It had a cost. So when the pimps found her, she agreed to go back a work for them, but this time only to cook and sell drugs. It was a compromise.
She was free of prostitution and slavery, but she still didn’t like the life she was living. She wanted a way out, but how? After a couple of years, the opportunity came. She was asked to make a delivery to Cape Town. When asked if she knew the city, she lied and said no. This could be her way out. If they knew she was from Cape Town they wouldn’t let her go. Taking her chances, she made the delivery, collected the cash, and then disappeared into the township. She found her mom and gave her the money in return for helping her hide. “Look,” she told her, “I know we don’t have a mother-daughter relationship, but I need help.”
No more drugs. No more pimps. It was time to start life over. She reflected a lot on why she had been able to escape. Why had she survived? It was a time of contemplation and a search for healing. Grizelda shared that during this time of recovery, she tried to look for faith and hope, but found that most preachers only focused on the mind, not the heart. And besides, they were part of the drug and prostitution problem, buying into it themselves. She believed in God, and kept looking for a place she belonged. Nearby her mother’s home in Capetown was a clinic she would visit, not to reveal her story, not yet, but it was a place of safety. There were groups that would come in to inform. One of these groups decided to create a film about sex-trafficking. She was asked to play the part of a prostitute. “That’s a first,” she thought to herself. “I’m acting like one without getting paid.” After shooting the movie in Capetown they launched it at the first ever trafficking conference in South Africa. Grizelda was in attendance, “all glam’d up.” A star of the show. As she surveyed the room, she realized there were no survivors there. There was a sense that something was missing. It was time people knew.
When she was invited to speak before the audience, she announced, “I have so much faith in my God but what faith do you have in what you do? There is not one survivor here. I am one.”
She was finally ready to tell her story. Organizations started to approach, some out of fascination, others out of genuine interest. Then Embrace Dignity, an organization that seeks to bring dignity back to women who’ve left prostitution or escaped slavery, approached and asked her, “What do you want to do?” Her answer? “Put my story in writing.”
Over the next year and a half, Grizelda worked with Embrace Dignity to write her story and bringing awareness to the trafficking situation in South Africa. People didn’t know. She titled it, “Exit.” It was a best seller in 2015. It brought about opportunities to speak, sit on panels, and open the eyes of South Africans. The title represents all those women lined up in a club waiting for their next client. While waiting, they are looking at the exit sign. But they are told they can’t exit. Grizelda did. And now she’s helping other women do the same.
Grizelda’s story started as one of survival. Surviving a childhood on the streets. Surviving without parental help. Surviving years of drug use, slavery, and prostitution. Lots of women who endure these atrocities don’t make it out. Many others do become survivors. Grizelda has taken it one step further. She now works to raise awareness, educate school children and influence law in her country. This takes a special character. She allows herself to become vulnerable to the public by revealing her story. Each time she does, she relives the horrors. To me, this makes her a hero.
Grizelda’s book is available for purchase here.
Written by Dana Goodrich Robb