An interesting coincidence is that I read Sue Nyathi’s The Gold Diggers during the same days when I had Bheki Mseleku’s new album, Beyond The Stars, on heavy rotation in my playlist. The common thread that runs between the jazz album and the work of fiction is not immediately obvious but a closer examination makes the similarity evident. Beyond The Stars comprises previously unreleased solo piano compositions that Bheki Mseleku wrote and performed after he returned back to the UK in 2005 after his brief return from Exile to South Africa and releasing his only South African album, the 2003’s Home At Last. He became incredibly disillusioned and unappreciated as opportunities were scarce and he returned back to the UK in 2005. He had built a reputation as a renowned jazz maestro in Europe while in exile for decades, so he had a solid reputation to fall back on when home seemed to appreciate his immense talent.
Listening to Beyond The Stars, I wondered how his idea of him had been altered by the reception he received back home in South Africa that led to him seeking solace for the second time in a foreign land that had become more accepting and how it all crystallized in the sound in that album. The relevance of the above in the light of The Gold Diggers is that the book also examines similar fundamental themes from a completely different angle. The themes of leaving home, achieving hopes and visions in a strange land, dashed expectations, rejection, the perils of migration and what constitutes a home in a world where migration is now a fluid concept.
It all starts in a Toyota Quantum. It is the vehicle where the fate and future of diverse Zimbabwean strangers are united and conveyed as they seek a better future in the land of gold – Johannesburg. None of them is going for a short visit. None is making a holiday trip. For all of them, they were leaving the home they knew to build a new home in South Africa. Dumisani, wrecked by the ruinous government of Mugabe is hoping to get a good job and get his wife Christine and children to join him. Portia and her son Nkosi were going to join her husband who had migrated earlier but unwilling to send for them. All seven passengers were hopeful of a better life in South Africa hence the migration and the willingness to take the risks that the journey in the Toyota Quantum entailed. In the global world that we live in today (and even in 2008 when The Gold Diggers is set), the concept of home is no longer static. It is fluid and its fluidity is fuelled by not just war and apartheid (as was the case in Bheki Mseleku’s initial exile) but also fuelled by economic collapse, an innate desire for better prospects, escape from domestic violence and longing for fulfilment in family life. The Gold Diggers shows that this longing and need for relocation is not the exclusive preserve of the highly talented and publicly lauded but an option that is also explored by ordinary citizens seeking reunion with their migrant spouses as in the case of Portia, Chamu and Chenai escaping the memory of a damaged childhood and an incestuous father and Dumisani who is seeking a way out of a ruined economy. The intentions are as humane as you can imagine but the journey is more heartbreaking than can be imagined.
It is soul-wrenching that none of the migrants in The Gold Diggers achieved their vision or goal for migrating. In diverse manners, Johannesburg swallowed each of them whole. Ironically, those that migrated to better the economic fortunes of their families lost their families in the process. Those that migrated to escape danger fell into the evil hands of xenophobia and drug addiction. Whatever the past of these migrants, the fact that it was disfigured enough for them to seek solace in a foreign land rendered them permanently vulnerable to the point that the handicap of their past was a marker to their final destiny.
Sue Nyathi’s prose is brutally honest, vivid and uncomplicated. There are no complex layers of meaning in her prose. It is simple and unadorned – easy to read and the pages turn effortlessly. While it may not be my cup of tea, I could not help but notice that the author’s erotic descriptions are expertly done with a ting of mischief. The only minor complaints I had with The Gold Diggers were the thinness of the Gugu narrative and the callousness of all the male characters in the book. They were all evil and seemed to have no redeeming character. The only one who was up to some good died a brutal death in the hands of a xenophobic mob. As for the Gugu narrative, it fizzled out too quickly and felt rushed in the end.
The Gold Diggers is a very good work of fiction that calls for empathy for the migrant community. Much more than that, it questions how much sacrifice is worth the perils of migration. It is a very good read.