/ 13 August 2021

Of carrier pigeons and diamond smugglers

Abandoned De Beers Operation Kleinzee Northern Cape
Desolate: An abandoned De Beers mine at Kleinzee in the Northern Cape (above), and a dog near an illicit diamond mining site in Namaqualand (below). Photos: Madelene Cronje and Shaun Swingler/Ground Up

For nearly 80 years, a huge portion of coastal South Africa was closed to the public. With many of its pits now deemed “overmined” and abandoned, American journalist Matthew Gavin Frank sets out across the infamous Diamond Coast to investigate an illicit trade that supplies a global market. Immediately, he became intrigued by the ingenious methods used to facilitate smuggling, particularly the illegal act of sneaking carrier pigeons onto mine property, affixing diamonds to their feet, and sending them into the air.

In Msizi’s lungs, the diamond dust embeds itself into the pink muscle tissue, the sponge and the honeycomb. This is the dust that will, most assuredly, elicit the growth of collagenous nodules, making it difficult — for the rest of his life — for the child to breathe. In his hands, a pigeon named Bartholomew. This is the pigeon, he believes, that will provide him reparations for his future medical issues, that will allow him, his mother and his brother their deserved riches. This is the pigeon that is not only a pet, but also an agent of smuggling, the pigeon that the mine bosses believe is an accessory to a quiet — but punishable — piracy. Bartholomew doesn’t think of words like weight or capacity, or weighed down, or over capacity, but he knows what it’s like to have too many diamonds tied to his feet.

Msizi is afraid of getting caught. He is afraid, and he is 13 years old, and he is sitting cross-legged in the red dust and white sand, and Bartholomew coos as Msizi strokes the feathers with his good pinky, and Bartholomew wriggles like a liver when the child tightens his grip involuntarily as he coughs up his blood. When he stops coughing, he tells me: “I probably should not be showing you him,” meaning the pigeon. “I don’t want him to die.”

“Why are you?” I ask.

Msizi takes one hand from Bartholomew, extends his index finger, and runs it along the skin of my forearm. “My mother says to,” he answers. “She says you are probably safe.” His voice is thin, but deep — too deep, it seems, for his age and slight frame. He smiles and begins to laugh a little, a laugh that quickly becomes another coughing fit. I confess that I do not know what his answer means, that all of my guesses are uneducated. When I ask him to clarify, he shrugs his shoulders, smiles again, and says nothing.

It’s Sunday. We are on a beach on the outskirts of the restricted mining town of Oranjemund, just on the South African side of the Namibian border, sitting beneath a sun-bleached sign that reads “No Entry”. Here, we are mere specks in the middle of the Namaqualand region, 444 000km2 of arid desert that encompasses the western coasts of Namibia and South Africa. Sitting concealed against the lee of a dune, we are about a kilometre from where Msizi lives in a small house with his mother and brother. We can hear, but can’t see, the ocean roaring. 

Msizi and I found each other this morning in the small dirt parking lot of the local multipurpose store, which sells an array of sundries, from canned food to electronics. As he was wearing the palatinate blue overalls worn by those who labour in the diamond pits here, Louisa encouraged me to approach him and his mother, to tell them what, in part, I’m doing here. When I finished my spiel, his mother, disarmingly, urged Msizi: “Speak to him.” The infant-sized sack of cornmeal shifted in her arms. We organised to meet here, this evening. It was his mother, he tells me, who told him to bring Bartholomew.

The sand at our backs is cooling, but still warm. This is the first stop along my planned route down the Diamond Coast, and I have been urged by the locals, Msizi’s mother included, to be careful while driving here, as many of the roads are private — for diamond industry workers only. The guards patrolling the roads, apparently, are often directed to shoot first and ask no questions whatsoever. I catch myself staring at Msizi’s lame pinky. 

The wind cakes my molars with dust.

He tells me of being lowered into pits and shafts by older and bulkier men, a thin rope cinched under his arms. He does not show me the scars at his armpits, but I have seen him scratching. Msizi is wearing his work uniform — the blue jumpsuit — even though it’s his day off. It hangs loose over his body, and is sun-bleached and sand-softened, worn at the elbows and knees, cuffs and collar. It is speckled with faded orange stains that appear to be old blood. Msizi speaks of the digging required to fill burlap sacks with dirt, returning to the surface, rinsing and sifting through the contents for anything that catches the light and refracts it.

“Some days are good,” he says, “and some days are bad. Some days, no stones. That’s when they think I’m hiding something. I only use Bartholomew if I find a good amount, early in the day. I have to wait for when no one is looking at me.” He smiles, and raises Bartholomew as if assessing his weight. “We are good at being invisible,” he says, more to the bird than to me.

“I start at four,” Msizi says, and I’m not sure if he’s referring to his age when he began labouring in the diamond mines, or the morning hour at which he begins his shift. Though recent child labour laws in South Africa prohibit the hire of someone under the age of 15, the law is routinely ignored and rarely enforced. According to a 2016 report by the US’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs: “Gaps in labour law and criminal law enforcement remain. Children in South Africa [continue to] engage in the worst forms of child labour.” According to the same report, the percentages of children between the ages of five and 14 who work, who attend school, or who combine work and school are all “unavailable”.

The sun is down, but the red earth holds its light, makes it seem as if it’s still up. Msizi and I listen out for voices or footsteps or the cocking of a gun, but all I can hear is the ocean and the wind, and the sand blowing against our bodies. I imagine the three of us glimpsed through a sniper’s scope, the crosshairs bobbing from Bartholomew to Msizi to me.

Armed men are well paid to protect the rough diamond harvest at all costs — a harvest that can exceed 176-million carats a year. At 200 milligrams a carat, that amounts to 35 200 000 grams of diamonds produced for sale in a single year. To these armed men and those who employ them, Msizi and I are comparatively worthless.

A few times a year, confused pigeons with diamonds at their feet land on beaches such as this one. When a carrier pigeon is overloaded with cargo, it loses its natural GPS, and this is what happens: a confetti of feathers and gems decorate the beach, and lovers stop kissing, and combers stop combing, and parents leave their children to the whimsy of the waves, and they yell and they point, and they fight, and they tear the diamonds from the pigeons’ feet, sometimes tearing off the feet themselves, and, in the sand, no one can tell if it’s the blood of the birds or the blood of the humans, but they fill their pockets, and their noses are running, and their children are underwater, and they are richer, and so they quiet one another. 

At least one of the mine workers — maybe the culprit, or someone mistaken for him — will have his pinky finger broken, or eye excised, or hands or ears or feet, or head, cut off.

Msizi tells me that he has fashioned little smuggling bags out of old cornmeal sacks, and that, on a good day, Bartholomew can accommodate up to four of them: one cinched to each foot, one tied beneath each wing. Sometimes there is only one bag, sometimes none at all. 

Msizi tells me that Bartholomew’s left foot is the stronger one, and that he only uses the wing bags on the most bountiful of days, as they can stifle the bird’s air vents there. He tells me that he’s more careful than most; that he usually doesn’t try to sneak Bartholomew onto mine property more than once a week. If someone else gets caught smuggling, he tells me, he’ll wait up to three weeks before trying to use the bird again.

A dog scavenges near an illicit diamond mining site in Namaqualand.

These timelines aren’t hard and fast. He admits that there have been occasions when he was feeling reckless or angry, or desperate, or lucky; nervous-excited times when he dared to sneak the bird onto mine property five days in one week. 

“Everybody does it. Or tries to do it,” he tells me. “Everybody knows. So you have to be tricky. Sometimes, I’m the trickiest.”

“Everybody knows?” I ask him.

Msizi waves his hand, and Bartholomew stretches his wings. Up close like this, they appear longer than I would have expected. “Yeah. Ask anyone. You have to be tricky.”

“So the guards know?”

“Of course. They’re the best at taking away the diamonds.”

“You mean, smuggling them?”

“Yeah, of course. Go ask them.”

Matthew Gavin Frank is an American journalist and author of Flight of the Diamond Smugglers: A Tale of Pigeons, Obsession, and Greed Along Coastal South Africa published by Icon Books and available through Jonathan Ball Publishers