The Strangers of Braamfontein is one of those crime novels that hits you in the gut and before you can recover another powerful blow is delivered. It’s a story of corruption, gangland violence, sex trafficking, modern slavery and murder. All of this is seen from the perspective of the people brutalised, abused and discarded and those profiting and perpetuating their misery.
More so because this is an empathetic novel, a devastating indictment of immigrant life in modern South Africa, from multi award-winning Nigerian filmmaker and writer Onyeka Nwelue. The picture he presents is devastating. This is a fractured society blighted by its colonial legacy, corruption, poverty and crime seen through the experience of the residents of Braamfontein, an enclave of Johannesburg.
Braamfontein is a concrete hell, it stands in defiance of beauty, a place where people survive not thrive. It’s where many of the newcomers to South Africa, those without contacts, wind up. Ruth watches the street as the men and boys pass by, those with a purpose, going somewhere, a job perhaps, while others lurk, smalltime dealers, sex workers and conmen.
An Indian prostitute leaves the man she has spent the night with. Ruth always warns her girls about over familiarity with the clients, it always leads to trouble, she would never tolerate this. Especially after that murder uptown. The dark-skinned girl, an immigrant, had been one her own some time back. It makes her angry to think about it. Business is business, but falling for a Caucasian, his money and drugs, believing in romance and white knights, is dangerous. She will talk to her girls again to make sure they understand.
Now the police are looking for a pink man, well dressed, ordinary, who left the girl’s brains spattered up the wall of her tiny flat. No hope. Joburg is a big city and no one even heard the gun shot.
Ruth’s Emerald Escorts is housed in a run down textile factory. Three of the girls, April, Esther and Ese, are chatting when she arrives. Madame Ruth, cares for her girls and they respect her, she thinks. They wouldn’t gossip behind her back. After all, she raised them from the gutter and groomed them into treasures. She is an ‘actuator of the abandoned’. Ruth has been through it too, earned her place, moulded by ‘flames that licked her soul, melted it, forged her into Madam Ruth’. Ruth is deluded, she pays protection but trouble is coming.
Osas has dreams. He is young, hungry and has ambitions to become a painter. He is also a Nigerian migrant. The police hassle him for that. They abuse him and he can’t afford to pay the bribes to make them go away. Then they accuse him of being involved with the dead girl, she was Nigerian too. Osas denies it, they are fishing, he is close to one of Ruth’s girls though, April, and she knew the dead girl. He would never tell them about Emerald Escorts.
Osas works the kitchens in De Bliss Grub restaurant where the manager has grabby hands. One night he catches a South African thief stealing the wallet of a customer. A young, rich Nigerian called Chike. Chike promises Osas a job and he’s as good as his word, but now Osas is part of the city’s underworld. The death of the girl is stirring things up. Top of the pile in this gang is Papi, who fled to South Africa with a price on his head after beating a man to death. The local gangs are unstable – the Francophiles, the Angolans, Papi’s crew, it’s a powder keg. There are strange cults and vicious gangs, and equally vile are the detectives investigating the girl’s murder, Jiba and Booysen. Of course, there are dirty politicians and the ordinary people are sadly caught in the middle of it all.
The Strangers of Braamfontein offers real insight into the sordid end of the migrant experience, which has echoes in the current situation in Europe. The dialogue is mostly pidgin English, but the dialect quickly becomes clear. The linguistic style is all part of the vivid setting and the main characters are truly memorable – from the hypocritical Machiavellian to the deluded, manipulated or broken and, yet, some still have hope. This is a pacy thriller, gritty and realistic. The Strangers of Braamfontein is like an A to Z of crime, a convincing snapshot of a chaotic world.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars