A Durban night. Five black men are crammed into an Uber. At their destination, craft beer, burgers and a multiracial advance company. Still to come, multiracial stragglers.
The Uber is rocking. The two South Africans are on fire. Land symbolizes everything, they say. The Uber driver agrees. “White people came in 1818, took our lands and made us slaves in our own country, the land of birth.” The steely Zimbabwean is quiet; he’ll pipe up several frames later. The excitable Namibian is pensive tonight, mirroring, uncharacteristically, the black Namibian’s incredible capacity for repressing the unpleasantness of Namibian history.
The roots of this modern anger run deep. Profit, the Chamber of Mines, a cartel of mine owners in South Africa, surmised in 1894, was a question of surplus labour supply and depressed wages. The propaganda film, it was suggested, would get the natives running to the mines—demonstrating, once again, the malign crusades to which film has historically been conscripted. By 1903, the government realized seduction would go only so far: the Africans couldn’t be bothered; they had had land in spades.
Lose the land, and the resulting desperation would render them more amenable to the subterranean overtures of the mines. Dying for Gold is the story of all the Southern Africans who still perish below ground as gold dust streams upstairs to make white men rich and powerful. Dying for Gold is fighting talk.
Where the film excels is in zooming out and retracing erasures. It takes the family, not the individual, as its smallest unit of society. The logical end of an individual exposed to the conditions in the mine is a crumbling husk. Pull out from the close-up and clarity. The husk is someone’s husband, father, and child.
The pain of untimely loss is palpable on the faces of the wives in Dying for Gold. The old man in Mine Boy pays back his debt but Dying for Gold fills in the missing details. He will become useless to himself. She will carry him to the toilet and back. She will sleep beside him, despite the stench of his rotting. Perhaps she will find a different outlet for her pent-up libido. Perhaps she will not. When he dies a drawn-out death, she will bury him with money she does not have; physical, psychological and emotional toil for which if anyone is aware no one will pay. If they have an old enough boy, the mad logic of mine contracts will insist he replaces his father. The god of profit will be sated, abetted by a complicit state.
South Africa, like much of the world today, is a contradiction. Great suffering is spotted by splendour. You look upon the work of expendable bodies and despair. The early 1990s came, with it the euphoria of new beginnings. But a veneer of black decorates a sturdy white base, freezing in place apartheid-era logic. “Things have changed (but fewer are the blacks in the fine restaurants on Long Street, two blocks over; things are unchanged).” Back in the Uber, discontent; disillusion. Mandela is a white muthafucka (a sacrilege to Nigerian ears) as is Ramaphosa. “The fucking capitalist comes wearing a white fucking robe forgiving everyone; who asked him for forgiveness?”
Like South Africa, Dying for Gold is a terrible beauty. The ugliness, the monstrosity of the suffering catalogued in it stands in counterpoint to its exquisite (sometimes eerie) mise en scene.
Dying for Gold is showing at the 2019 AFRIFF is scheduled to screen on Wednesday, 13th November 2019.
Filmhouse Landmark, Screen 4