A big hole with zero to shine their lives

2010-10-10 15:18

The old man sighs angrily, waving his hard, wrinkled hands over the stretch of land that was once covered in grass on which livestock and game fed.

But where there was once grass, gaping holes now face the sky and heaps of grey sand and stones dot the landscape – ­evidence of the new kind of grazing taking place here now.

Diamonds – matikiri, as the local Batlhaping people say – are being mined here.

When mining started 10 years ago, the people of Schmidtsdrift thought their suffering would finally come to an end.

But instead of enjoying the wealth from the minerals beneath the land of their birth, both the Batlhaping and Griqua people have instead been engaged in court battles.

Olerile Hendry Seleka (69) says: “Sometimes I wonder if things would not have been better if these diamonds had been left alone ­because the clan is not benefiting from them.

“They have brought us nothing but pain. We can no longer graze our cattle here because of this ­mining which is not benefiting us even though it is happening right on our land.”

Schimdtsdrift is a dusty, ­depressed shantytown settlement 65km west of the diamond mining capital of Kimberley, Northern Cape.

The gigantic machinery that stands out from the flat landscape like out-of-place skyscrapers and the huge yellow trucks with wheels probably bigger than any of the settlement’s shanties are the only sign of the area’s mineral wealth.

The poverty is apparent the minute you leave the tarred road from Kimberley to Douglas and turn onto the gravel road leading to the settlement.

It is home to at least 400 families of the Batlhaping clan and the ­Griqua people.

Community leaders put the unemployment rate at more than 90%.

The few who are fortunate enough to hold down jobs are employed at various diamond mines across the Kimberley area. Most families survive on government social grants.

A mobile clinic visits the area twice a week.

The only grand building in the area is the facebrick ­primary school.

Learners have to daily endure a 100km-round journey by bus to the nearest high school in Douglas.

The monotony of the zinc shacks is broken by a few brick RDP ­houses that are only now being constructed.

The community was resettled here in 1997 after a successful land claim following their forced removal back in 1968.

Seleka is still haunted by memories of that fateful day.

“Army trucks arrived carrying soldiers with frightening guns. They broke down our beautiful houses which our parents had worked hard to build with their bare hands and then dumped us in tents in Kuruman (250km away).

“It felt like life was just not worth living any more. It was very bad,” he says.

“For a long time we forgot what it was like to laugh because everything had been taken from us. But eventually we got used to Kuruman and rebuilt our lives.

“But our hearts were always here, our home.”

When apartheid was finally buried in 1994 members of the clan lodged a land claim.

“We fought battles. Each family contributed R30 so we could get good lawyers who could help us,” he says.

Then one day in 2001 villagers woke up to the sound of trucks and graders working in the lands – the New Diamond Corporation had ­arrived unannounced to begin mining operations.

After court battles, the clan successfully managed to acquire a shareholding and a percentage of the profits.

But both the Tswana Batlhaping Trust (Batlhaping clan) and the Fonteintjie Community Trust (Griqua clan) have yet to benefit from their share. The matter is ­currently pending in court.

And in the meantime, the suffering continues.

Farmers claim the failure to ­rehabilitate areas that were mined have destroyed valuable grazing land and more than 200 head of livestock have drowned in mining slime dams.

The community claim the cost of rehabilitating the land stands at an estimated R30 million.

“I am unemployed. My goats and cattle are my money. They are my bank,” says Mokgethi Lengane (64), a commercial farmer who has lost more than 11 goats.

“Because of the mining, the animals can no longer get through to the river where they used to drink so they smell this water in the slime dam and the next thing, they are gone,” he says.

The clan says the failure to rehabilitate thousands of hectares of land has led to extensive damage to the environment, which includes contamination of water.

“We used to have grazing camps where we took our cattle during the dry season. But this mining has ­really spoiled our homecoming ­because instead of making life ­better for us, it’s creating ­problems,” says Seleka.

“I would love to see development in this area: schools, water and housing for our children.

“I am an old man now and it is very stressful for me to wake up every day and sit here watching all this suffering.

“But I will not give up this fight because that would be like saying these people who come here to mine and ruin our area can do as they like with our children’s ­future,” says Seleka.

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