The Gold Diggers

In The Gold Diggers Nyathi tracks the lives of each of the nine passengers in Melusi’s quantum. Chenai, Chuma, Dumisani, Gugulethu, Thandisiwe, Malume and Portia and her son Lindani as they undertake the uncertain and dangerous journey to Johannesburg, in search of a better life.

As they drive out and through the streets of Bulawayo, Melusi reminisces about the past glory of the city’s landmarks that are now dilapidated, like Leopard Takawira Avenue (previously Selbourne Avenue) and the Centenary Park. In a sense the hopes that the country had at independence have essentially come to naught, and hence these passengers are now fleeing. The tragedy is that it is the same hopes that they now carry with them as they journey to Johannesburg. The minute they enter the quantum though they become cargo, and when they reach Johannesburg they become amakwerekwere.

The Gold Digger is a story of the daily struggles of ordinary people deeply impacted by the failed economies of their respective countries. It shows how the rot at the top penetrates all the way down to an innocent twelve-year-old girl child, Gugulethu, who ends up being sold to a Chinese brothel in the centre of Johannesburg as a sex slave. A father, Malume, is swallowed by crocodiles as Givemore (Melusi’s assistant) leads his cargo to cross the great Limpopo river. An empathetic young man, Chuma, is set alight in a xenophobic attack in the streets of Alex. It is a story of desperation and hope, greed and compassion, love and hatred – a story of ordinary people being simply human in deeply inhuman circumstances.

By tracing each passenger’s story, Nyathi puts a human face to thousands of immigrants irking a living in the streets of Johannesburg. She forces us to look beyond the statistics. She shows that these are human beings who don’t just carry their own hopes, but also the hopes of the families they have left behind. Most importantly for me, Nyathi actually validates that it is the harsh and dehumanising push factors, rather than the glittering pull factors, that bring people to converge in Johannesburg.

Poignantly, it is how in these socio-economic and political struggles women are the ones most vulnerable. The struggles are invariably fought on and over women’s bodies. The toxicity of masculinity deepens as men feel the heat of being unable to provide for their families. This manifests in domestic violence, rape, human trafficking and sex slavery. The same applies also to men in positions of power, (like Kayin and Chenai’s boss) who take advantage of the desperate situation these women are trapped in.

Nyathi is a nuanced writer. Unlike a number of books that I have read, the message in The Gold Digger is not immediately obvious. You can easily get engulfed in Lindani, Gugulethu, Chenai, Givemore’s horror stories and miss the underlying message. An important backdrop to this storyline is the layered prejudices of tribalism, sexism, racism, and xenophobia, through which we view others and their intentions.

The Gold Digger is a fast paced read. Nyathi’s skill is evident in how she successfully narrates several stories in this book simultaneously, and yet nowhere did I feel left behind. I never had to page back and forth. She also has a very effective way of using analogies to draw the reader into a situation, like saying “expelled from his mother’s interior” when referring to one’s birth.

I recommend the book to all South Africans, really. Hopefully we will come closer to appreciating that very few people voluntarily leave their place of birth.