‘God has given us these diamonds’

2011-10-29 15:35

It hasn’t been a good week for the diamond diggers of Komaggas.

In a house in the Northern Cape village, two young men, a middle-aged man and a woman discuss whether to venture out to work in the pouring rain.

As the clouds clear towards noon, a decision is made and they pile into a bakkie driven by a local man.

We follow and head north-west to a mine they call Buffelshoek.

We find Simon* (53) and his son Sam* (23) hard at work at the bottom of one of the sky-high sand dunes.

They have been digging since very early, clearing a tunnel blocked by sand swept there by rainwater.

It’s back-breaking toil, with only a shovel and limited space to work in. The diggers greet Simon fondly and ask about the conditions underground.

Too bad, he tells them. He will work through the night if he can, and perhaps they could come back later to help.

Simon says despite the setback as a result of the rain, it’s been a relatively good year. He has found and sold 52 diamonds since January. But he won’t say how much he has earned as a result.

He is one of several diggers who live in makeshift shacks on the outskirts of the village. Digging for diamonds is their life.

Stella* (47), the woman in the party, says sometimes diggers go for weeks, or even months, without striking it lucky.

“Diamonds are like fish in the sea,” she says. “They disappear and for a while the diggers don’t get anything. And then .?.?.” she says, whistling and widening her eyes.

She has been digging for diamonds since the mine she was working at closed down a few years ago. She uses the money to support three children.

“This ring,” she says, pointing at the glittering gold and diamond ring on her finger, “I bought with money from a diamond I found at Buffelshoek, so I call this ring Buffelshoek.”

Stella doesn’t get into the tunnels like the men and doesn’t do night shifts either. Some diggers prefer working at night to minimise being detected by the police.

But she does her fair share of hard labour, helping to dig holes, crush rocks and sift through the sand to search for diamonds.

“These diamonds are like the fish – they belong to everybody. God gave them to us. We cannot go hungry when God has given us these diamonds,” she says.

Her face lights up when she describes that moment when she spots a diamond.

“It’s the same as when a child gets its first toy,” she says, beaming.

But it’s not an easy life.

The diggers mine with one eye on the work area and another on the lookout for security guards and police who regularly raid the mines.

There is a spirit of comradeship among the diggers, which ensures that when police do pounce, they help each other disappear into the familiar world of sand dunes and tunnels. There are other rules.

“We never leave a digger behind,” Stella says.

“If he’s injured, then we must help him. If you can’t help him then you must find others to help. We help each other because we all want the same thing. We just want to eat.”

The diggers create holes from which they fashion underground tunnels. They usually work in pairs, digging and throwing the rubble into mealie sacks which they carry away for sifting and washing in water.

But how do they know where to dig to find the diamonds?

“You must know the ground. We know, but it is hard to explain this thing,” Stella says.

There is a network of diamond dealers who buy from the diggers.

“If you get a stone then you just phone a dealer. They don’t waste time. They check your stone, give you a price and if you agree, you get your money right there. Five minutes and you have your money,” Stella says.

That day we move from one mine to another, but the rain has not been good to the miners. In the late afternoon we set off to a mine the diggers call Brazil, some 80km away.

When we arrive, we spot men running up the white dunes to take cover. One of the diggers in our party whistles to assure them the coast is clear.

They emerge from their hiding places to chat briefly with our party, discussing the day’s work.

Then they gather their mealie bags filled with sand from which they hope to find diamonds and walk away.

The diggers pay drivers amounts ranging from R200 to R400 for transport.

Stella and the men walk around inspecting tunnels and holes before starting work.

Seun*, one of the young men in our party, slides into a tunnel, crawling on his elbows and stomach while the others dig in different spots.

Later they discuss the possibility of returning to work through the night.

A contact will charge them R200 for the long trip back and pick them up at a prearranged rendezvous the next morning.

That evening our drive back to Komaggas is a sombre one.

But the next morning, we find an exhausted Seun looking more positive. He disappears into a room and brings back a little stone.

“It’s a 0.44 (carat). About R300,” he says.

The stones diggers usually find fetch up to R5 000. There are reports of finds of up to R35 000, but this is rare.
Seun plans to do the night shift again. Perhaps his luck has changed.

We stop at the home of Natasha Boyce, the sister of Marco Milford (26), one of two diggers who died four months ago when a mountain of soil and rock caved in and buried them alive. The pain of losing her only brother hasn’t eased.

“I spoke to him many times about this, warning him not to become involved. He never discussed what he was doing with me. He never disclosed anything because he knew I would never allow him to be involved in this,” says Boyce.

Like many of the youths here, Milford was unemployed and with only a Grade 11 education, his chances of getting a job were slim – particularly in a place where the only formal jobs are at the local social develop-ment office, post office, police station or the village’s only school.

“He was a responsible person. I think he was doing this because he felt he should support our mother. He was the last-born and maybe he felt he needed to carry some responsi-bility. But now we are all so hurt,” she says.

As we leave Komaggas, I remember Stella’s delight when she described finding a precious stone. But it is the thought of Milford’s fate that remains long after our departure.

*?Names have been changed

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