DIY mining gogo gets licence to mine: 'The earth and its minerals belong to us black people'

2018-06-07 15:14
Clara Maitse, 77, a former illegal miner, prays ahead of digging into the soil. (Mujahid Safodien/AFP)

Clara Maitse, 77, a former illegal miner, prays ahead of digging into the soil. (Mujahid Safodien/AFP)

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Kimberley – Grandmother Clara Maitse, 77, has been arrested seven times over the past decade for illegally mining precious stones in diamond-mining hub Kimberley.

Despite the steep legal penalties for DIY mining, the mother of 11 was not "scared of being arrested because the earth and its minerals belong to us black people".

Unlike formal mining operations, small-scale miners pan for precious minerals around the edge of established quarries in the hope of coming up lucky.

"We voted for Mandela and now there is no more fear," added Maitse.

Her defiant patience has paid off and small-scale mining, an industry that employs many thousands of people, has been decriminalised for the first time under a permit system.

In April, Maitse and 800 other illicit miners received licences to operate on a vast tract of land near Kimberley.

'Beautiful money'

The landmark deal was aimed at curbing the rapid growth of illegal mining which has been spurred on by rising unemployment.

"The most effective way of combating illegal mining is legalising it," said deputy mining minister Godfrey Oliphant.

"Once you formalise it, it solves many problems."

Armed with rudimentary hand tools, workers set off from their shacks at sunrise to work the soil.

Dotted across a vast plain, they shovel gravel into recycled plastic buckets before sieving it for hidden treasures.

"I feel very relieved now that we have licences," said Maitse, a former domestic worker, as she crushed clumps of soil in search of precious stones. "Beautiful money is what we will get."

Clara Maitse, 77, a former illegal miner
Clara Maitse, 77, a former illegal miner, works the soil in search of diamonds. (Mujahid Safodien/AFP)

Maitse, who lives with her 94-year-old husband, turned to illegal mining to provide for her nine grandchildren after three of her daughters died.

'Millionaires in the making'

Obakeng Monyera, 36, has been working the soil around Kimberley since 2007 and has dozens of scars from where police fired rubber bullets at him and other illicit miners.

"I don't even remember how many times we have been arrested, we were beaten by dogs, chased with helicopters – just to try to break our spirit," said Monyera.

"We were treated like terrorists. Now we are millionaires-in-the-making," added Monyera, who has thick locks and goes by the name "Rasta".

"It was a hard journey."

The new permits have meant more than just increased earnings for the miners – they have restored their dignity.

DIY diamond miners
DIY diamond miners in Kimberley. (Mujahid Safodien/AFP)

Elisa Louw, a 47-year-old mother of five, joined the "zama-zama" miners in January 2013.

She laboured for 12 months without uncovering a single diamond.

Then, on Christmas Day, she discovered a small stone that earned her R1 200.

It was around that time that her and others decided to lobby the government for recognition.

After more than a year of protests and negotiation "change came to our lives", said Louw.

'Treated like animals, like criminals'

"We were treated like animals, like criminals – [now] we have a permit, we are free."

Fighting to hold back tears, she described the "happiness, that pride, when you wake up in the morning saying: 'I'm not an illegal miner anymore'".

Oliphant agreed that decriminalisation had brought about greater dignity and certainty.

"When we gave them the licences, you could see the sparkle in their eyes," he said.

DIY diamond miners
DIY diamond miners in Kimberley. (Mujahid Safodien/AFP)

The diamond mining pilot saw the newly-licensed informal miners given access to 500 hectares of land owned by Kimberley Ekapa Mining – a joint venture between Petra Diamonds and Ekapa Mining.

"It's been a long time coming, it's something we have always envisaged," said Petra Diamonds spokesperson Gert Klopper, who added that industrial mining and small-scale miners "can co-exist".

The company's security officers used to chase away the miners but now they protect them.

'Turning point for zama-zamas'

The choice of Kimberley for the small-scale diamond mining pilot is highly symbolic as it is also where gem giant De Beers was founded in 1888.

It is also the home of the Kimberley Process, an international certification scheme to keep conflict diamonds off the market.

The informal miners can make discoveries worth as much as R20m a month, although weeks go past without major discoveries.

Sleek Mercedes-Benz vehicles and SUVs clog the dusty narrow roads around the informal mine, testament to the success of some who toil there. Others travel to work on foot and live in squalor.

"This is a milestone and we hope it will be a turning point for other zama-zamas," said Sifiso Dladla, who works for British charity ActionAid supporting mining communities.

According to the International Labour Organisation, up to 20% of the world's diamonds are dug up by independent miners like Louw and Monyera.

"Communities affected by mining have never benefited from mining," added Dladla. Until now.

Read more on:    kimberley  |  illegal miners  |  mining

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