Diamond dreams turn to dust as miners eye one last scoop

Little glitter: These days, it’s hard work to find alluvial diamonds in the Wolmaransstad area of North West province. It took this diamond miner (above) three months to find the gems he holds in the palm of his hand. (Photos: Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

Little glitter: These days, it’s hard work to find alluvial diamonds in the Wolmaransstad area of North West province. It took this diamond miner (above) three months to find the gems he holds in the palm of his hand. (Photos: Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

Driving into diamond country looks very different to what you might expect. The glamour and intrigue associated with the precious stone — conjuring up notions of the rich and famous, or James Bond villains — is not evident in Wolmaransstad.

The unassuming town sits on the N12 to Kimberley, which was dubbed the diamond route years back but gem diamond production in this area has since slowed significantly.

Mounds of dust in the bushveld mark where diamonds were once dug.
A number of trading houses would sell stones to prospective buyers who, locals recall, would arrive in Wolmaransstad with suitcases filled with dollars. Today there is only one such trading house left.

Surrounding the weary town are clusters of shacks. Only piles of litter mark where one shantytown ends and another begins.

Out of sight, but just over the horizon, flows the Vaal River. But the body of water pales in comparison with the great, ancient waterways and inland sea that distributed diamonds here, according to geologist John Bristow. A semiretired independent consultant, he has been hunting for diamond deposits for decades and knows this area well.

As part of the geological team for De Beers, which he joined in 1983, seeking out diamonds was all part of a day’s work for Bristow. “We did work looking at the geology and deciding where we can spend our resources to find a new deposit.”

It was just before he joined De Beers in 1979 that the company discovered the last diamond deposit of consequence in South Africa, the Venetia diamond mine in Limpopo. 

The diamond mining industry has a reputation for being opaque, a culture first instilled by De Beers. Small diamond producers also tend to keep a low profile. For unscrupulous traders, it’s to feed diamonds into the illicit market. But for the legitimate industry, it’s for obvious safety reasons. These days, it is also to stay out of the mineral resources department’s line of fire, which has proved capable of making life, and business, very hard for these miners.

For this reason the diamond producers interviewed asked not to be identified. The reticent producers do, however, acknowledge that the deteriorating state of the industry requires that they begin to raise their heads above the parapet — or watch the business disappear altogether.

Alluvial diamond mining, the kind that takes place in Wolmaransstad and along the Orange River, differs from larger-scale operations such as the one that hollowed out the famous Kimberley hole.

In the case of large mines like the Big Hole, kimberlite pipes containing diamonds are mined. With alluvial mining, diamonds were washed away from eroding kimberlite pipes and carried by ancient rivers before settling on the bottom of river beds. Over millennia, the beds dried up and filled with gravel and earth. The precious stones were scattered about the area, waiting to be unearthed.

In the early years deposits were richer and easier to recover, and digging entailed no more than a permit, a shovel and plenty elbow grease. In the “old days”, as locals say, farmers would farm in the good years, and in the years of drought they would look for diamonds.

These days it takes much more to mine diamonds; complying with mining legislation proves increasingly onerous. These family-run businesses are surface mines on family land, yet are subject to stringent health and safety standards designed for large-scale mining operations.

“My father started producing diamonds when he was 21, during a drought,” says Amanda Strydom, who prefers to use a pseudonym. She is one of the smaller miners trying to make a living in the area.

At one site, two earth-moving machines dig down to the solid rock floor, which Bristow estimates is about 2.7‑billion years old. Across the way is another site where 25-tonne dump trucks and other earth-moving machines transfer the ground and gravel into a large “washing machine” for processing diamond bearing gravel. The machine concentrates material containing diamonds. Anything larger than 25mm is spat out (in the Northern Cape it is set higher, to about 35mm). Added water turns the pan’s contents into a muddy slurry from which a concentrate is separated.

The concentrate is mechanically extracted from these pans and moved to a secure facility, where it is further processed in search of diamonds. On average, producers in Wolmaransstad will process 100 tonnes of dirt to recover one carat (or 0.2g) of diamond, says Bristow: “It’s a crazy business.”

Strydom’s operation is considered mid-sized, and the capital expenditure is significant. It would take an estimated R50‑million to set up such an operation today.

It has been three weeks since her operations have found a diamond. The easy pickings appear to be long gone.

“The earlier days were better,” she says. “Now we just scrape by.”

Just one more scoop

Despite the cover provided by his large leather hat, Coen Botha’s striking blue eyes narrow in the glare of the harsh sun. Virgin ground is hard to come by in the area he mines. Botha, which is also a pseudonym, and his team try to dig between the old sites in the hope of unearthing diamonds.

  He produces a small cylinder from his shirt pocket and drops the contents into the palm of his chapped hand. Three small diamonds, one a brilliant white, the other a golden colour and the third a dark silvery grey, are all he has to show for three months of digging. Now Botha is contemplating closing down the business for good.

The situation will soon become desperate, given that his operating costs — mostly wages and diesel — tally half a million rand every month. “I’m seriously considering stopping,” he says.

Gert van Niekerk, chairperson of the South African Small Diamond Producers Association, himself once a small diamond miner notes: “I’m a witness to the risks and financial challenges of this business I lost a lot of money doing this.

[Rough diamond: Gert van Niekerk heads the South African Small Diamond Producers Association. He says that mining legislation designed for large-scale operations makes small, family-run ventures more costly and onerous. (Photo: Oupa Nkosi)]

“In 2010 I closed down. It’s a high-risk, high-reward investment. No bank will lend you the money for it.”

Even so, there is a way for new entrants to come into the market — the 26% empowerment requirement in mining legislation extends to these small producers. Van Niekerk’s three black shareholders were able to use their stake in his diamond operation to move up the proverbial ladder. “They all have their own businesses now, but not in diamonds — they see the risk.”

But for some, the allure is irresistible. “R20‑million might lie in a handful of gravel. You might be the lucky one to get it and if you use it wisely, you can be set for life,” Van Niekerk says. “You never know where the stone is. You can give up, but maybe all that was needed was one more scoop.”

Fokken lucky

Diamond miners in Wolmaransstad are understandably paranoid. Diamonds are mobile currency —they are, after all, the only way that R20‑million can fit in a matchbox.

The processing of the concentrate takes place off-site in a secure location and, quite obviously, the fewer people who know about it, the better.

“We were taught to be observant since we were this high,” says Strydom, stretching her hand out in front of her, waist-high, as she walks into the processing facility outside Wolmaransstad.

Strydom owns only one diamond, a gift from her father for her 21st birthday that is not worn but stored safely away. She wouldn’t want to attract unnecessary attention.

Despite the blood spilled over diamonds in Africa’s recent history, diamond mining is considered less harmful to the environment than other types of mining, because no toxic chemicals are used in the processing procedures.

The processing is far simpler and cheaper compared with other types of mining. The stones repel water but adhere to grease, so concentrate used to be spread over a “grease table” — the very same grease used on the axles of ox wagons — to sort stones.

Since the days of the grease table, the procedure has become more sophisticated. At the Strydom family’s outdoor processing plant, rickety machines grumble and shudder as stones are shaken and transported by conveyer belts, propelled by squeaky rubber straps.

A container holds the machines that complete the process. An X-ray machine detects the fluorescence of the diamonds and deflects them into a secured metal box before they can see the light of day. The stones tumble loudly from the belt after a man takes a large crowbar to the side of the equipment.

Strydom’s father unlocks one of the metal boxes and tumbles the rocks on to a sieve screen and proceeds to shake it in water as though panning for gold. He dumps them on to a sorting table. Right there in the middle is a large, brilliant diamond — unmistakable to the naked eye. “You are lucky. This is the first time in a fokken long time,” he says. He is relieved to see this sizable gem after weeks of not finding a single stone.

The diamond is in the dead centre of the pile of stones because diamonds are heavier than other rocks. Bristow estimates that if it is a six-carat gemstone, as he thinks it is, it could be worth half a million rand depending on its colour, clarity and flaws.

Another box, in which smaller stones have been sorted, produces a few more diamonds. Strydom says she still gets excited to see the gems. Making money never gets old.

Losing its shine

“My brother was meant to take over but when the health and safety stuff started, he wanted nothing to do with it,” Strydom explains as she drives back into town. “My dad says: ‘It was a pleasure to mine and now it is not a pleasure.’ ”

With no one else willing to do it, Strydom began running the mining operation on behalf of the family and now her average workday involves at least 90 minutes of paperwork relating to health and safety matters. She has had to hire extra people because of the added administrative load, but struggles to pay their wages. “I’ve had an inspection every week for the past four weeks,” she says. In the beginning, it was more like one every three months.

Burdensome requirements include building a structure around the diesel tank — even though the site moves every few months — and installing pricey proximity detectors on trucks that are not large enough to justify it. The licensing of vehicles and medical check-ups for staff are an ongoing cost. Then there is the hygienist — testing dust every month at some R14 000 a pop. Electricians must also come in weekly.

[Some of the machinery used for digging of diamonds Photo: Oupa Nkosi/M&G)]

On the road to one of the family’s digging sites, Strydom says there had been seven or so operators on this stretch. “Now there are two. They couldn’t keep up with the health and safety stuff.”

The Strydom family has scaled down its diamond mining operations by half because of the expenses related to health and safety. Seventy-five jobs went with them.

Each of the large maize farms around Wolmaransstad used to provide jobs that sustained 30 to 40 families, but combine harvesters have largely replaced the need for labour.

Strydom has lived here her whole life. “There is a change, yes, but it is downward,” she says as we drive out towards the digging sites. She recalls: “Everyone had food and a job; farmers provided houses for workers. Now there are a lot of homeless people.”

Van Niekerk says the small diamond producers play a vital role in fuelling rural communities. “Employment is our biggest claim to fame. The methods we are using to mine diamonds makes us a firm job creator,” he says. “We produce 4% of the diamonds in South Africa, but we supply 50% of the jobs in the entire diamond industry in South Africa.”

According to the South African Small Diamond Producers Association, in 2000 there were an estimated 1 200 small diamond operators employing about 25 000 people. Today, it’s closer to 170 operators employing 5 000 people. An operation typically employs between 20 and 50 people.

Over the past 15 years, since the implementation of the Mineral Resources and Petroleum Development Act in 2002, the small diamond producers have experienced a marked decline.

“We have a unique set of circumstances. We are not the same as all the other mines. These are really small operations,” says Van Niekerk.

The association was created out of a growing need for lobbying in the interests of the industry. It is affiliated with the Chamber of Mines to have its say on aspects such as proposed mining legislation — although, says Van Niekerk, “we are such small-fry in terms of other parties, they don’t really take notice of us”.

The problem for these small diamond producers is the legislation does not distinguish between a small miner and a large one. There is no definition of a small operator.

“If you are under a certain number of employees, certain parts of the law should not apply to you. But that is not happening,” says Van Niekerk, adding that discussions on this issue have yet to yield meaningful results for small diamond producers.

“If the department comes now and stops me with a section 54 [a work stoppage notice], I’ll say: ‘Fine, that is enough,’ ” says Botha.

“With all the inspections, we are really not sure if in a year’s time we will still be here.”

He has just paid a consultant R30 000 for a rehabilitation plan that he had to submit, although he strongly doubted the department would even look at it.

If Botha could go back to the old way — as it was 15 years ago, when he could dig for diamonds by himself — he would probably continue. “But the inspections, the books, the paperwork — it’s too much,” he says.

Botha has not only had to jump through hoops to keep his operation going, he has also been waiting for five years for his mining rights to be renewed. Legally, he can continue to operate, but the long waiting period is an indictment on the department, he says.

The diamond producers are a vital part of the local economy of Wolmaransstad and the surrounding areas, but Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane’s recent attempt to freeze the granting of new mining permits (successfully interdicted by the Chamber of Mines) threatened to bring alluvial diamond production to an abrupt end.

Zwane’s new mining charter — also subject to a legal challenge — would also have an adverse effect on these small operators, who would need to meet more stringent requirements relating to employment and employment equity, despite their small size.

Bristow argues that producers accept the need to work safely and responsibly, but the legislation must be enabling rather than restricting.

Van Niekerk also says the industry understands there is a need for change, but adds: “You can only transform something that is living; you cannot transform something that is dead.”

Bristow warns that South African diamond mining, and mining in general, has become part of a political bunfight. As a result, it is being increasingly left behind while elsewhere in the world, every other guy is out with his dog or his donkey or his four-wheel drive looking for new ore bodies.

“The tragedy is that the South African mining industry is seen as a sunset industry. It’s in decline and margins are being squeezed. But we haven’t explored the country in a modern sense and we have not cultivated a robust junior mining sector,” he says.

“There’s a sort of culture and arrogance within our country that bigger is better, and ‘we have found all the deposits that could have been’.

“But in the rest of the world we see a healthy synergy between big and small mining companies, with exploration providing the new deposits that replace old ore bodies.  What’s more, with enabling policy and proper implementation, the exploration and junior mining sector should be the breeding ground for the new black entrepreneurs and owners of our industry,” he says.

“There is a whole new world and treasure trove out there that we should be exploring.”

The mineral resources department did not respond to a request for comment.

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen. Read more from Lisa Steyn

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