Diamond diggers in South Africa’s abandoned mines break the legislation — and threat their lives

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Diamond diggers in South Africa's deserted mines break the law — and risk their lives


Bracing towards the vibrations of the jackhammer, illicit diamond miner Jefferson Ncube bores steadily into the rock face earlier than him, sending chunks of dry stone clattering to the bottom and filling the air with a cloud of pale grey mud. He is 30 toes under the floor of the desert within the Namaqualand area of South Africa in a tunnel barely tall sufficient to crawl by means of.

“I do not take pleasure in this in any respect, however I would like the cash,” says Ncube, who holds a level in agricultural science from the College of Pretoria however says he has been unable to seek out work elsewhere. “I’ve a household to assist, a spouse and a 1-year-old baby.”

The Nuttabooi mine, close to the coastal city of Kleinzee, was as soon as mined by the diamond big, De Beers, the most important of dozens of commercial mining operators who, for one of the best a part of a century, shaped the spine of the area’s financial system.

/ Tommy Trenchard for NPR

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Tommy Trenchard for NPR

A diamond miner hauls up a bucket of gravel at an unlawful mining web site in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province.

However over the previous 20 years, rising operational prices and a dwindling provide of diamonds have made large-scale industrial mining more and more unviable. The sector’s regular decline has left a legacy of continual unemployment in Namaqualand however has additionally created alternatives for a rising variety of determined younger women and men prepared to tolerate hardships and risks as they eke out a dwelling in deserted mines.

Recognized domestically as “zama-zamas” — loosely, “ones who attempt their luck” in isiZulu — unlicensed miners like Ncube are thought-about unlawful by the federal government. But right here on South Africa’s wild and diamond-rich Atlantic coast, residents say the variety of zama-zamas has burgeoned in recent times, fueled by the dearth of jobs, the financial affect of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rising value of dwelling, in addition to by political and financial crises in neighboring international locations.

An ilegal diamond miner breaks up rocks at the Nuttabooi mine near Kleinzee, South Africa.

/ Tommy Trenchard for NPR

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Tommy Trenchard for NPR

An ilegal diamond miner breaks up rocks on the Nuttabooi mine close to Kleinzee, South Africa.

Earlier this yr, South Africa’s minister of Mineral Assets and Vitality, Gwede Mantashe, described unlawful mining as a “plague” amid stories of rampant corruption, extortion and violence linked to zama-zama exercise throughout the nation, not solely in relation to diamonds but in addition coal, and different minerals similar to gold and chromite. As soon as confined largely to the nation’s estimated 6,100 deserted or ownerless mines, officers say unlawful mining is more and more spilling over into operational mines too.

Ncube is a part of a 12-man workforce, all of them migrants from Zimbabwe, the place hyperinflation and unemployment have made all of it however unimaginable to construct a steady life for his or her households. Out within the desert, dwelling situations are bleak and dealing situations even worse, however with some primary instruments and slightly information of geology, they handle to make ends meet. The lads, virtually all of whom have arrived previously two years, share the work and break up no matter earnings they make.

Members of an illegal diamond mining collective look down a mineshaft at the Nuttabooi mine.

/ Tommy Trenchard for NPR

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Tommy Trenchard for NPR

Members of an unlawful diamond mining collective look down a mineshaft on the Nuttabooi mine.

“We dig down till we hit the bedrock, then we go sideways by means of this belt,” says Ncube, pointing at a band of rock and gravel on the facet wall of the tunnel. “That is the place we discover the diamonds. Prior to now, they used hammers and chisels. However if you happen to use a jackhammer, you may take out extra rock after which there are extra diamonds for you.”

Hazard within the tunnels

A zama-zama uses a jackhammer to break up rock in an abandoned De Beers mine.

/ Tommy Trenchard for NPR

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Tommy Trenchard for NPR

A zama-zama makes use of a jackhammer to interrupt up rock in an deserted De Beers mine.

The miners have little in the best way of security gear, and their tunnels are susceptible to collapsing. A bit greater than half a mile from right here, on the neighboring Bontekoe mine, a easy granite plaque within the desert commemorates the miners who misplaced their lives in a very lethal collapse in 2012. Smaller accidents happen steadily and infrequently go unreported. Group leaders say that at the very least six folks have died at Nuttabooi alone previously few months.

To attempt to keep protected, Ncube and his colleagues make a degree of leaving “pillars” at 6-foot intervals as they tunnel by means of the bottom. But it surely’s an imperfect system, made tougher by the truth that tunnels dug by totally different teams of miners typically collide.

An illegal diamond miner looks out from the top of a De Beers mine that has since been taken over by zama-zamas.

/ Tommy Trenchard for NPR

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Tommy Trenchard for NPR

An unlawful diamond miner appears out from the highest of a De Beers mine that has since been taken over by zama-zamas.

“If the outlet is ‘paying,’ folks get grasping they usually eat away on the pillars till the entire thing is simply hanging,” says Ncube. “That is how some guys died simply two holes away from right here. Should you get grasping you may die down right here, after which your loved ones will endure much more.”

After handing over to a colleague, Ncube climbs fastidiously again up the vertical mine shaft and hauls himself over the sting. On the floor, in a stark, lunar panorama of craters and piles of rubble, zama-zamas cluster collectively round their holes, sifting by means of gravel and chatting over the low hum of diesel turbines. A number of hundred yards away, the previous De Beers mine lies deserted, a large scar on the face of the desert, hemmed in by towering mine dumps.

“De Beers has taken all of the diamonds out of Namaqualand and now we’re again in poverty,” says Andrew Cloete, a longtime illicit miner who lives in a small tent of black and pink plastic sheeting within the ever-expanding squatter camp under the Nuttabooi mine. “The businesses left us like they discovered us — with nothing. But when we simply sit there interested by it, our children will die. So we, the diggers, are available right here and take the scraps.”

Andrew Cloete, a diamond miner and activist for mining rights, photographed in his shack in a squatter camp at the Nuttabooi mine in Namaqualand, South Africa. The government considers the activity at Nuttabooi illegal because the miners do not possess permits.

/ Tommy Trenchard for NPR

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Tommy Trenchard for NPR

Andrew Cloete, a diamond miner and activist for mining rights, photographed in his shack in a squatter camp on the Nuttabooi mine in Namaqualand, South Africa. The federal government considers the exercise at Nuttabooi unlawful as a result of the miners don’t possess permits.

The plight of the zama-zamas

There’s a palpable sense of anger, significantly among the many miners who grew up in Namaqualand, over how little of the area’s diamond wealth has stayed within the native space. Over a number of many years, huge portions of diamonds have been exported abroad, but a lot of the space’s roads are nonetheless unpaved, service provision is haphazard at greatest and poverty and alcoholism are endemic. Unemployment within the province stands at over 46%.

“Africa’s f***ed up. We do not have jobs, all we’ve is minerals — however they’re being looted by the West,” stated one miner, an unemployed mechanical engineer who did not need to be named, citing considerations that he could also be focused by the authorities. “That is our Africa. That is our land. These are our minerals.”

Zama-zamas have little bargaining power and are forced to sell their finds to black-market buyers for a fraction of their true value.

/ Tommy Trenchard for NPR

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Tommy Trenchard for NPR

Zama-zamas have little bargaining energy and are compelled to promote their finds to black-market patrons for a fraction of their true worth.

Exterior Cloete’s tent, males wander by means of a small metropolis of plastic lean-tos that has sprung up within the desert over the previous two years. The camp has enveloped a handful of derelict buildings left behind by the mining firms, the place zama-zamas now sleep facet by facet on filthy mattresses on the ground. The camp, dwelling to round 1,500 folks, has no electrical energy, working water, clinics or sanitation however a surplus of bars and taverns that do a gradual round the clock commerce.

“No person would stay in situations like this if there wasn’t a necessity,” says Cloete, gesturing towards the scene outdoors. “We’re right here due to poverty, starvation and joblessness.”

They are not getting wealthy off their diamonds

Diamond miners at an illegal dig site in Namaqualand, South Africa.

/ Tommy Trenchard for NPR

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Tommy Trenchard for NPR

Diamond miners at an unlawful dig web site in Namaqualand, South Africa.

After lighting a cigarette, Cloete reaches for a small glass jar and takes out a plastic packet from inside. Fastidiously, he empties its contents into his palm. A few dozen small, tough diamonds tumble out. On worldwide markets they may fetch a considerable sum, he says, however as a result of unlawful nature of their work, the zama-zamas have little bargaining energy and are compelled to promote their finds to black-market patrons for a fraction of their true worth.

“They purchase diamonds like they’re shopping for sweets,” complained one zama-zama. “You get folks shopping for diamonds for 100 Rand [about $5.50].”

Cloete, who based an off-the-cuff group of mineral rights activists generally known as the “Mining Fighters,” has spent years petitioning the South African authorities to discover a productive option to formalize zama-zama mining, a transfer that he says would result in safer working situations and a fairer market for native diamonds, in addition to bringing in appreciable income for the federal government. Related techniques are in place in lots of different African international locations, the place so-called artisanal mining, carried out by people or small teams utilizing conventional strategies and primary gear, is now a significant employer and income generator.

A swimming pool lies empty in the town of Kleinzee in the Namaqualand region of South Africa. The town was once the property of the De Beers diamond company. In its heyday, it was a thriving settlement of 4,000 people with about 30 recreational clubs. After closing down its mines in the region, De Beers sold off the town, which is now largely empty.

/ Tommy Trenchard for NPR

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Tommy Trenchard for NPR

A swimming pool lies empty within the city of Kleinzee within the Namaqualand area of South Africa. The city was as soon as the property of the De Beers diamond firm. In its heyday, it was a thriving settlement of 4,000 folks with about 30 leisure golf equipment. After closing down its mines within the area, De Beers bought off the city, which is now largely empty.

However Cloete says he has but to obtain a response. “They deal with us like we’re criminals,” he says.

Many within the formal diamond sector would additionally prefer to see the legalization and regulation of casual mining, which they are saying hampers their authorized operations and fuels a parallel black market in unlawful diamonds.

“On the finish of the day, it is a scenario that is completely insufferable for us,” stated Gert Van Niekerk, chairman of the South African Diamond Producers Organisation, an trade physique representing authorized diamond miners. “This isn’t the Wild West.”

Kim Cupito, who lives with her husband in a derelict building left behind by De Beers, lost her job during the pandemic. "We need to survive, and this is God's ground. It's for everybody," she says.

/ Tommy Trenchard for NPR

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Tommy Trenchard for NPR

Kim Cupito, who lives along with her husband in a derelict constructing left behind by De Beers, misplaced her job through the pandemic. “We have to survive, and that is God’s floor. It is for everyone,” she says.

In Kleinzee, a light mining city as soon as owned by De Beers, the place most houses now lie empty, residents say the inflow of unlawful miners from round South Africa and neighboring international locations has led to an increase in crime.

The unsure future confronted by zama-zamas

“Zama-zamas aren’t welcome right here,” stated one Kleinzee restaurateur. “They’ve knives, they’ve weapons, they’re gangsters. They will come and purchase issues right here, however afterward they have to go away. We do not need them right here.”

Illegal diamond miners try to get phone reception at a mining site in Namaqualand, South Africa.

/ Tommy Trenchard for NPR

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Tommy Trenchard for NPR

Unlawful diamond miners attempt to get telephone reception at a mining web site in Namaqualand, South Africa.

Police raids are frequent. In a single main operation in July, a mixed pressure of police and different legislation enforcement our bodies backed by two helicopters and a spotter aircraft raided the Nuttabooi web site, arresting over 100 folks and confiscating 130 turbines and 121 jackhammers, together with different gear. However inside days, mining exercise had resumed.

In a coverage doc launched in March, South Africa’s Division of Mineral Assets and Vitality introduced its intention to create a brand new police unit devoted to combating unlawful mining. It additionally laid out plans to make it simpler for artisanal and small-scale miners to legally purchase mining rights by streamlining the costly and time-consuming strategy of making use of for a allow.

However creating new laws to assist the insurance policies might take time. And critics say it is unrealistic to hope that many zama-zamas will voluntarily stop their actions, endure coaching, adjust to laws and begin paying taxes and royalties to the federal government, particularly on condition that many are within the nation illegally and wouldn’t be eligible for mining permits.

Within the meantime, Namaqualand’s zama-zamas do not intend to attend round.

“There’s nothing for us on the market,” stated Kim Cupito, a former fruit dealer who misplaced her job through the pandemic and now lives along with her husband in a derelict De Beers constructing with gravel piled up within the hallways and gaping holes within the roof. “We have to survive, and that is God’s floor. It is for everyone.”

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see extra, go to https://www.npr.org.



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