In nation that supplies much of the world’s gold and precious metals, men put their lives at risk to eke out a living.
Namaqualand, South Africa – For more than 80 years, large mines operated across Namaqualand, a remote, rocky expanse of land high up South Africa’s west coast. Today, most of these mines are closed, but millions of diamonds remain in the ground, providing bounty for illicit diggers who say they have no other means of survival.
“To make money you can either steal, sell drugs, or look for diamonds,” said one digger, Paul, crouching beside a shallow crevice he had excavated inside an abandoned mining area. Hundreds of similar holes surrounded him, spreading in an arc from the base of an old tailings dump. “There are no jobs. It doesn’t feel good to break the law, but this is all I can get.”
He had been digging since dawn with two accomplices, working by hand in 40C heat. As the evening approached, it was still hot enough to sweat. He lifted another sack of gravel and poured it through a rectangular sieve, shutting his eyes against the dust. Later the men would rinse the gravel in plastic drums to determine their luck.
“We’ve been sleeping in the bushes here for six weeks, working like this every day,” said Paul. “We haven’t found any diamonds yet.”
Christmas was a week away. He wanted to buy presents for his wife and three children, to sit with them around a table laden with food.
“Perhaps God will bless us this year. If not, I’ll carry on,” he said, hoisting the sack to walk back to his camp.
With the richest diamond seams depleted, large-scale mining is seldom viable any more in Namaqualand. The expense of stripping away tonnes of sediment to reach the bedrock, where alluvial diamonds accumulated millions of years ago, is no longer offset by adequate yields.
But in a region of scarce work and chronic poverty – conditions largely attributable to mine closures in the early 2000s – digging with picks and shovels can still be profitable, even though it is against the law.
The South African Chamber of Mines estimates that there are currently some 14,000 illegal miners in the country, targeting gold and other precious minerals in addition to diamonds. At least 350 of these miners have died while working in the past five years, with thousands more arrested.
“There can be up to 100 diggers working at a time,” said Captain William Diergaardt, a local police chief responsible for curbing illicit mining. “We don’t have the manpower to stop them.”
Formalising the sector and allowing diggers to legally pursue residual diamonds would, in theory, make Diergaardt’s job simpler, diminishing the appeal of illicit activity and adding value to local mining operations.
But despite policy provisions to the contrary, South Africa has no systems in place to support artisanal mining, leaving diggers with no recourse beyond the black market.
“Current mining legislation effectively forces artisanal miners to work illegally,” said Ingrid Watson, a researcher at the Centre for Sustainability in Mining and Industry (CSMI) at the University of the Witwatersrand.
“Government attempts to enable and enhance small-scale mining, while effective in some instances, have not yet achieved enough.”
The Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act, the overarching legal framework for all mining activities in South Africa, recognises artisanal and small-scale mining as a legitimate industry subsector. According to the Chamber of Mines, illicit mining is currently worth some $440m a year.
The national Department of Mineral Resources has an entire directorate, or organisational wing, dedicated to small-scale mining.
“It is essential that small-scale miners in South Africa become integrated into the greater South African mining community,” states a notice on the directorate’s website .
Artisinal v large-scale mining
Despite these stated government intentions, artisanal miners – the technical term for miners who work with basic tools and low levels of mechanisation – remain excluded from participating in the industry, with no practical means of legally accessing resources.
“Artisanal miners don’t have the resources to comply with mining regulations,” said Watson. “There are too many hurdles.”
To obtain operating permits, artisanal miners would have to meet many of the same conditions as larger mining companies, including submitting environmental impact assessments, making financial provisions for mine closure and rehabilitation, and drafting health and safety plans. Existing laws make no clear distinction between artisanal miners and small mining firms.
“Small-scale mining has been defined as a capital-intensive process,” said Christopher Rutledge, from ActionAid South Africa, a human rights organisation focusing on artisanal mining. “Our laws don’t recognise the rights of these diggers to work.”
These laws are currently being challenged in Kimberley, a small town 750km inland from Namaqualand, where South Africa’s mining industry began. The diamond rush of the late 18th century transformed South Africa into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and led, in 1881, to the formation of the De Beers cartel.
For decades the Kimberley area produced the most diamonds in the world, threatening the stability of the diamond price. The economic boom triggered by mining disproportionately benefited South Africa’s white minority, laying foundations for subsequent apartheid laws.
Scraping the floors
Today, as at the coast, teams of illicit diggers target diamonds that were left behind.
The diamonds occur in thin gravel layers known as “floors”. The floors remained when De Beers removed old mine dumps, created over a period of 130 years, for further processing.
Improved technology has made it possible for companies to recover diamonds that formerly escaped detection, but diggers in Kimberley discovered that they could go one step further, scraping marginal extra yields from these reworked sites.
“This is basically wasteland, discarded by mining companies,” said Rutledge, who has been helping diggers organise their resistance. “These miners aren’t infringing on productive property. Ignoring their potential to spread wealth and reduce unemployment is a shame.”
In 2015, De Beers sold its Kimberley operations to a joint venture called Ekapa Minerals. By then more than 1,000 diggers had gathered on the floors, living in temporary informal settlements.
Last September, Ekapa filed a court application to prevent these diggers from further mining on the land. The diggers challenged the interdict, represented by human rights attorney Richard Spoor.
“[Mining laws] operate as a barrier to artisanal mining,” the court papers presented by the miners stated. “They therefore unjustifiably infringe upon artisanal miners’ right to freedom of trade.”
The miners also accused Ekapa of operating illegally. The company has begun mining the floors without a licence, claiming that they do not require authorisation to proceed.
Ekapa Minerals categorically denied this accusation and told Al Jazeera that they would ” under no circumstances conduct any mining operations that are illegal.”
On January 13, the Kimberley High Court ruled in favour of Ekapa, granting an eviction order. The legal team representing the miners appealed against the ruling on January 23.
A source of employment
Artisanal mining proponents see the case as an opportunity to bring broader change to the sector.
“We’d like to take steps towards decriminalising digging,” said Spoor, the attorney, in an interview last December. “There could be a constitutional argument that preventing these people from working lawfully infringes on their basic rights.”
South Africa’s constitution enshrines the right to freely choose a trade, occupation or profession. According to Spoor, laws that serve as barriers to trade – the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act, in this instance – may not withstand scrutiny in the Constitutional Court. But taking a case that far is tremendously expensive, and this is pro-bono work.
“We’re focusing on the eviction order and trying to raise funds for future litigation,” said Spoor. “There has to be a more sensible way to regulate artisanal mining. We can’t keep chasing people off the land.”
Responding to questions, the Department of Mineral Resources wrote that there were formal processes for unlicensed diamond diggers to become legal operators. “What they need to do is to apply for a mining permit … Any mining operation that is not supported by a legal document … is considered illegal.”
Just as ancient rivers transported diamonds from the Kimberley area to Namaqualand, so has the struggle for more equitable mining rights spread west. Last January, residents from old mineworker towns protested outside the gates of West Coast Resources, the company that bought De Beers’ local mines in 2011.
“They have broken promises about employing our people,” said one protest leader, who asked to remain anonymous. “We’re sitting here without work. Eventually we need ownership of these resources ourselves.”
West Coast Resources told Al Jazeera that the company was “proud to be creating new employment opportunities” and had created more than 250 jobs since 2015, with 75 percent of their employees hailing from local communities. De Beers employed more than 1,700 Namaqualand residents in the 1990s.
For diggers in the area, working without legal or strategic support, there remains little option but to keep hoping for good fortune, searching for diamonds in the vast landscape while evading capture by private security guards or the police.
Paul sat beneath a thorn tree shortly after sunset, inspecting a washed mound of gravel. A fellow digger handed him a cigarette rolled in newspaper. With a blunt knife, he picked through the stones, bent low in the fading light.
“You stay hopeful you’ll get something,” he said, brushing the gravel aside. They had reached their final sack but recovered no diamonds yet. One of the men shook the sieve inside a drum of muddied water. He swirled the sieve upside down and dumped fresh gravel onto the earth.
All three diggers leaned forwards, balancing on their forearms. Their eyes darted keenly over the wet sediment. White quartz pebbles shone dully, but there were no diamonds. Tomorrow, beneath the same beating sun, the men will try again.
“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” one of them sang quietly, bunching up the empty sacks. Paul said nothing and passed him the cigarette.