When they board the “gleaming white Toyota Quantum with black-tinted windows pulled into a vacant parking space opposite Max’s Garage” in Bulawayo, the characters in Sue Nyathi’s second novel, The GoldDiggers (unusual spelling intended), know that they are embarking on a precarious trip. But none of them is truly prepared for the rough ride which lies ahead. Before they even leave the parking lot, Melusi, the driver and owner of the vehicle, is ready to throw out the young Shona couple at the back because they insist on conversing in their mother tongue. As a Ndebele, Melusi “had been raised to hate them…but his desire for their money surpassed his intolerance. All the passengers in his car were going to be ferried across the border illegally.”
The couple Melusi hates are siblings who “shared a womb” and are now – after the suspicious, violent death of their father – hoping to join their mother who had abandoned them when they were small. The other passengers are a woman from the rural area with her little son, a man in his late twenties, and a young girl travelling alone: “An old woman had dropped her off earlier. How she had cried when the matronly woman had turned to leave. If anything he has been annoyed by her noisy lamentations. Children were the worst cargo to carry.” And cargo, not human beings, they all are to Melusi, who can only think of himself and the rewards his passengers might bring him.
On this particular trip Melusi is accompanied by his latest girlfriend, Lindani, and his friend and co-driver, Givemore who brings along a teenage girl, Thulisiwe, and announces: “She’s coming with us…You think you’re the only one who can pull a hot chick?” He is as selfish and ruthless as Melusi, but he is needed to bring the illegal “cargo” across the border on foot while his partner drives the car through the official crossing: “Givemore prided himself on the fact that he had a lower mortality rate for his goods than most. The last thing they wanted was to ‘lose’ cargo because essentially that meant no payment.”
In Gwanda, they stop to refuel and pick up one more passenger, Malume, a middle-aged man who had just lost his job with a cement company. The twins Chamu and Chenai are leaving behind years of abuse and hoping for a new start. The young man Dumisani, well-educated and recently released from a high-profile job, is also dreaming of an opportunity to rebuilt his successful life and provide anew for his family. Gugulethu, the little, weeping girl, is on her way to be reunited with her mother – a woman she cannot recall, having been brought up by her grandmother. Portia and her son want to find Vusani, who years earlier had left the family to seek a fortune in South Africa. Lindani is escaping a life of prostitution and horror.
Their destination is Johannesburg, the City of Gold, “the promised land; supposedly flowing with milk, honey and other countless opportunities.” All over the world, countless dreams of a “promised land” turn to nightmares and in the case of Melusi’s passengers the nightmares are particularly horrific. Some of them don’t even make it across the border. At the end of this novel, one could even perhaps argue that drowning while crossing the Limpopo River might be a better way to go than being taken as hostage by vicious bandits or facing the horrors Johannesburg has to offer for its “gold-diggers”. The city where “the gold is paved with streets”, as somebody once referred to it in the South African Airlines inflight magazine, is not exactly waiting with open arms for its undocumented visitors. “But whatever you wanted to call her”, writes Nyathi, “Johannesburg was undeniably one of Africa’s economic powerhouses and it is for this reason that she was able to lure people from all over the continent. All of them were gold-diggers seeking fame or fortune. Or both.”
Nyathi, herself born and raised in Bulawayo, is merciless in exposing the kind of circumstances illegal immigrants encounter on the border to South Africa and then in Joburg. She takes her characters to places of unimaginable hardship: “There is nothing for mahala here.” And even if some of them seem to strike it lucky and are allowed to work hard and achieve their goals, somewhere in the shadows of the city, their pasts are lurking and are ready to pounce, rendering them permanently vulnerable.
Thulisiwe’s and Malume’s fates are sealed well before their time. When Gugulethu’s mother does not turn up to claim her upon arrival in Joburg, Melusi decides to take the girl’s lot into his own conscienceless hands. Portia is shocked to reconnect with her husband and has to make some drastic decisions to survive. The twins find it very difficult to find a way into their mother’s life. Briefly, Chenai sees the light at the end of the tunnel, but success comes at a high price. Her brother’s destiny is equally disastrous. Living with distant relatives, one day, Dumisani ends up in a compromising position that nearly costs him his life. Lindani thinks she has struck gold, but it quickly turns to dust.
“No one man could experience Johannesburg in the same way.” The stories Nyathi tells about the city from the perspective of her characters’ lives are heart-wrenching and do not provide a comfortable read. But The GoldDiggers, though fiction, is relentless at capturing these essential tales of what our reality is like at its harshest, what dark deeds we are capable of, how there are some things no one can survive and thrive beyond. Nyathi does not preach for a second, but she exposes how much remains to be done to regain a sense of dignity among us and the people who seek refuge in our society. The GoldDiggers is tough to take, but it makes for a remarkable read and Nyathi is a writer to watch.
by Sue Nyathi
An edited version of this review was first published in the Cape Times on 6 July 2018.