JOHANNESBURG, South Africa—Slender legs in sparkling stilettos stretch seductively across the billboard in the heart of Johannesburg’s business district, trying to lure South Africans to a smart strip club chain.
Down the road, an entire fake Tuscan village draws thousands of people every day to pour coins into slot machines and slap down wads of cash at its plush casinos.
Strip clubs and gambling—banned until a decade ago under apartheid—are now big business here, thanks to a booming economy and the more liberal attitudes that came with the dawn of democracy and an end to international isolation.
And decadence is the name of the game as companies battle to entice a nouveau riche clientele swollen by the growing ranks of the black middle class.
“The old Dutchmen in power had very narrow minds,” said Lolly Jackson, chief executive and founder of South Africa’s most famous chain of strip clubs, Teazers. “When we got democracy, people realized this is what they want to do.”
Under stringent apartheid-era censorship laws, magazines were forced to cover breasts with stars, bare legs on a packet of stockings were branded pornographic, and casinos were banned by a government dominated by conservative Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch and French settlers.
Hard figures are difficult to come by, but anecdotal evidence shows that the number of strip clubs and amount of pornography is growing fast.
The biggest boom appears to be at the top end of the market, as the once-illicit trade formerly confined to the seedy underground joins the mainstream economy and businessmen seek to capitalize on surging consumer spending.
Jackson rebuffs as “nonsense” criticism that the rise of the strip club is fuelling rampant rape levels and says that HIV/AIDS—which affects one in nine South Africans, the highest single caseload in the world—is not a problem in upmarket clubs since clients are not allowed to touch dancers.