At the peak of the song's popularity, I danced to Kanye West's Gold Digger, rapping and singing along to the lyrics – not once thinking I'd ever meet a real digger. Then I moved to Jo'burg and through my long-time friend was introduced to a group of girls, who soon became good friends.
One girl struck me as different. Like the average
23-year-old, she had an entry-level job, working as a personal assistant at an investment bank. But, unlike us, she always looked a million dollars, impeccably dressed in boutique brands from head to toe.
For this girl, garb for breakfast was her True Religion jeans with a sexy tank top and a lamb wool sweater thrown over her shoulders, spiky heels from Palazzo Pitti, bling that could blind you in a minute, a big Jo Borkett bag, and Gucci sunglasses. At any given moment, her outfit was worth more than R6 000, the equivalent of her pre-tax salary. How did she manage to look this expensive?
One Friday night, we both ended up at an exclusive party at a penthouse suite in one of Jozi's plushest hotels. Whereas I'd used my media contacts to wangle my way in, her boss had given her his tickets. The crowd was typical of the Jo'burg elite: the Dom Pérignon-sipping, Havana-puffing, tailored-Italian-suit-wearing kind. Those men who droned on about the R10 million deals they'd just signed, while ogling young girls with expensive weaves and tight dresses.
This girl seemed to know this circle very well: she could tell me what each guy drove, which labels he was wearing, whether he was paying by cash or credit card – and from all that deduce almost exactly how much he was worth. Not for the first time, I wondered how this girl related to men, what enigmatic 'power' she seemed to have over them.
Soon enough, one of these brothers came up to chat to her and minutes later she had him wrapped around her little finger, flattering him and flirting until they headed towards the bar to get a drink. Bored, tired and a little intoxicated, I called it a night, a million questions racing through my mind.
"I like the good things in life and I want a man who can give me that," Lerato 'Larry' Dlamini* tells me over breakfast the next day. After I left, the party heated up... at least for her and her man. "We went to his penthouse, and drank Dom Pérignon in the jacuzzi until the morning." Any hanky-panky? "Never on the first night," she says. "It keeps them coming back for more."
When Lerato arrived in Jo'burg, she found it
hard to contend with the expectations of the brightly
lit city. "Everyone seemed to have it all. Wherever I was,
there were girls wearing designer clothes, fresh weaves, driving posh cars. It seemed like everyone was cashing in but me.
"Then I met Sindi (25). She'd been going out with an American businessman who split his time between New York and Jo'burg, leaving her with his house and cars when he was abroad. Every three months, he'd pay for her to go on a shopping spree overseas, coinciding with one of his business trips. In his absence, she was free to date other men, discreetly, of course. From the moment I met her, I wanted the life she had and set about becoming friends with her."
Playing the game
"Sindi taught me everything I know: how to dress the
part, where to meet rich men, and how to catch them. It
may look like these hook-ups are coincidental, but there
is a science to it," Lerato assures me. I ask her what pointers she'd give aspiring gold-diggers. "You have to look stinking rich," she says, her eyes twinkling when she says the last word. "Rich men only go for women who look like they have money to spare. They can smell desperation from afar.
"From the first hello, you pretty much know what he has – from the way he's dressed, what he's drinking and how he conducts himself. If it's not enough for you, move on... don't waste your time. Know his story. Find out what he does, where he lives, what he drives – you don't want any nasty surprises! You have to learn to discern between those faking it and those who are not."
The more I speak to Lerato, the more I realise how intelligent she is, something she tends to play down with these men. When I ask her about this, she nods fervently. "These men aren't interested in whether you can hold up a conversation about politics. They just want a
trophy – someone whose looks they can boast about to their friends. My next pointer: don't try to be a genius; show that you recognise his genius."
To an outsider, this transactional relationship sounds a
lot like prostitution, but Lerato disagrees. "With
prostitution, there are only two currencies: sex and
money. With 'gold-digging'," she emphasises the
inverted commas in the air, "there are many currencies.
There's hanging out with him and his friends and making
him look good in front of them, in return for him taking
you on a shopping spree. There's actually having a
relationship with him and being his kept woman. There
are many angles you can take, just make sure you choose
what works best for you."
"What about love?" I ask, sounding a bit naive. "Some want love, others want money," she says matter-of-factly. But as content as Lerato seems to be with her life, it's clear that she's had to pay a high price for her lifestyle choice. For one, she doesn't have any friends. "It's hard for me to make friends with women because I'm afraid they'll judge me. Once, my man wanted to throw a birthday party for me and wanted me to give him all of my girlfriends' numbers. I realised then that I didn't have anyone that I could call a friend, and that I'd lost touch with my old friends because of our different lifestyles," Lerato says. "Most of the women I know now are the girls I meet in my man's social circles, and those relationships are mainly competitive – who's wearing the most expensive clothes, who's got the latest phone, what car he lets you drive."
Lerato is also constantly covering her tracks when it comes to her family. "When I go home, I have to downplay my life enormously. I can't wear my expensive labels or look fancy. To my parents, I'm still just their little girl who's working hard to make her dreams come true in Jo'burg. Little do they know."
A lesson in love
Lindiwe Mtimkhulu*, now 25, arrived in Jo'burg seven
years ago to study for a BCom degree. "I don't come from
a poor family but we're not rich either. My parents sent
me to a private school, where I saw what being rich is
really like. To look and sound the part, I taught myself
the Model A accent and 'rich-people manners'."
Ironically, this BCom student didn't have the patience
or perseverance to work hard to become rich. Like many
young girls, she fell into the trap of instant gratification.
"When I first met Nathi*, I was looking for a man who
could fund my lifestyle. He was the perfect target: a guy
with lots of money and no-one to spend it with. He knew
what I wanted and was willing to give it to me in return
for companionship. We dated for a while, doing the usual: I accompanied him on business trips around the continent, went on overseas shopping trips, and generally lived lavishly.
"Although we both knew the terms of our relationship, Nathi and I got along well; I enjoyed his company and he made me laugh. The more time I spent with him, the more attracted I became to him – and I fell in love. He had such a caring and sensitive nature and encouraged me to finish my studies. He also cared a lot about other people; I saw it in the way he treated his mother. I also liked the way he didn't wear his wealth on his sleeve – he was luxurious in very subtle ways.
"He had his flaws, though. He had a short temper and would sometimes get so angry, I'd think he'd hit me. But he never did. I also realised that as giving as he was, the only way he was able to give was materially. The more I fell for him, the less I wanted from him materially and the more I needed him emotionally – but he just accused me of being needy. He would go on business trips for weeks on end, leaving me all alone in his massive mansion. I soon felt like a prisoner in his world. When we went out, we went out with his friends. When we spent money, we were spending his money. I'd entered into his world completely, while he knew very little about mine and wasn't interested in knowing more.
"I guess that's what attracted me to Tshepo*. Like
me, he was a student and because we were in the same
life stage, it was easier to be in each other's company.
I'd become so caught up in living the life that I forgot
what it was like to be young and to have simple fun – like going to a house party with people my age or sharing a takeaway meal."
Was going out with Tshepo Lindiwe's way of getting
out of a tough situation? "When I met Tshepo I liked him
as a friend; I wasn't looking for anything more. Getting
together with him just happened and it felt natural.
I dated both guys for a while, but in the end I had to choose. I realised that Nathi could give me everything I wanted, but not what I needed. At 34, marriage and kids were just not part of his plans; he still wanted to travel and see the world. We simply wanted different things."
These days, Lerato is more focused on building her life than on which man has a big enough wallet. "Tshepo, though his bank account is somewhat skimpy, is the man I want
to be with and, more importantly, he's making his dreams come true. Through that I'm also learning to make my own
dreams happen rather than relying on someone else
to hand them to me on a silver platter."