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During a rural famine in South Africa in 1959, farmer Zacharia Mgabi leaves his wife Vinah and children in Zululand to find work in Johannesburg. He is recruited to work in the gold mines, and although he has been promised that this will allow him to find higher paying work in Johannesburg, in truth his working permit allows him only to work in the mines before returning home. Desperate to earn more than the paltry pay at the mines, Zacharia nonetheless labors intensely along with hundreds of other impoverished blacks. Finally, he is able to procure a working pass and a job in Johannesburg as a cook for a white family. The cruel, racist wife calls Zacharia "Jack" and berates him constantly, complaining about his laziness and stupidity. Zacharia, who is overwhelmed by the luxuries and curiosities of the city and feels degraded by his job, commiserates with new friends Eddy and Steven. One day, after sipping some of the couple's scotch, Zacharia is fired and turns to Eddy for help in finding a new job before his work permit runs out. Eddy brings Zacharia to a bar, where the men laughingly suggest that he become a beggar. A woman tries to seduce Zacharia, but he resists, missing Vinah. After moving in with Steven, he gets a job washing cars, but is forced to kowtow to the white owner. When Zacharia and Eddy take a customer's fancy car for a joy ride, they are chastised, and soon after, both are fired after Eddy skips a day of work to attend a meeting of the insurgent African National Congress. When Vinah and the children come to Johannesbrug, Zacharia is thrilled to see them but worries that he will not be able to provide for them. They visit an aunt in nearby Sophiatown, a rural suburb in which black people live in poverty. Despite the unpaved streets and ramshackle homes, the people of Sophiatown enjoy a vibrant cultural life, and singing and dancing abound in the streets. The aunt allows the family to stay in her house, and soon Zacharia secures a job as a waiter in a hotel. Within days, however, a white guest falsely accuses him of attacking her, and he is fired once again. Vinah refuses to leave Sophiatown and instead suggests that she get a job as a domestic worker, but Zacharia forbids her to because she will have to live at her employer's house. One day, Vinah catches their son in a fight with other local boys, and later, Zacharia fights with Marumu, not realizing that he is the leader of a dangerous gang. At the bar, a man named Ken explains Marumu's background and mourns the fact that even among their own people there is lack of communication and inclusion. Ken believes that if people throughout South Africa could talk to one another, they could heal some of the political rift. The other men, however, scorn this optimism, believing that the white man will never stop patronizing the blacks. The men drink all day, and as they become drunk, one European-African man confesses that he feels out of place everywhere, while another states that only art has no national borders. At home, Zacharia, with only seventy-two hours left to find work, is forced to allow Vinah to take a job. He soon finds a position at a mine, but that night, he is arrested for sleeping with Vinah in her employer's home without permission. One officer threatens to rape Vinah, but another officer stops him. Vinah is terrified of what will happen to Zacharia, but her aunt assures her he will serve only a few days in jail. Just before Zacharia is released, Marumu comes to the house seeking revenge, and upon finding Vinah alone, kills her. When Zacharia returns home, he discovers her body, and explodes in grief.