/ 17 July 2022

War for diamonds: Child diggers part of illicit diamond economy

Port Nolloth Krieks Backyard Diamond Classification Dh 6413

The drop-out rate of children at schools in the Northern Cape reached a historic high of 7% — or  21 415 learners — in 2020. This is higher than the average 4% — or 11 000 learners — drop-out rate over the previous 10 years.  

Many children who leave school become part of the illicit diamond economy that, for many households, is a way of survival. When the Mail & Guardian visited Port Nolloth, the dusty streets were buzzing with children. 

In the backyard of a home in Port Nolloth, about 20 illegal miners stand around piles of gravel listening to a fable — narrated by an older miner leaning on his shovel —  about a young girl finding a diamond. 

One day, many years ago, adults were digging for diamonds, surrounded by  heaps of gravel already sorted in the hope of finding the precious stones.  None were found until a young girl changed the fate of the diggers. The girl had accompanied the adults and idled away time playing with the gravel that had already been sorted through when she picked up a shining rock. It later turned out that the diamond was worth thousands of rand. 

The narrator cannot say with certainty when, or if, this actually happened. But aspects of the legend  ring true.

All photos: David Harrison.

Heaps of gravel that have already been checked for diamonds lie in one corner of the yard. The miners say sometimes children ask for the leftover gravel to look for stones. Generally considered a game or a way of passing time, for many young children, it later becomes a means of survival. 

Richie, 27, who started mining diamonds at the age of 15, left school when he was in grade 10. Terrence, 25, also a backyard digger, was introduced to mining at the age of 13 by his brothers. Shetner, 28, and Ahgurno, 26, share similar pasts. 

At Nuttaboy and Bontekoe, two abandoned mines about 70km southeast of Port Nolloth, children and young adults participate in illegal mining. Children also sit on the laps of mothers who run food stalls at the mines. 

Brian Clark, an illegal miner and vendor at Bontekoe, says that while older children only visit the mines, the youngest stay there with their parents. 

Dry open plains surround the mines for kilometres. There is no infrastructure nearby. Children are exposed to the weather, alcohol abuse, the dangers of open mines as well as the violence which erupts between miners and law enforcement officers.

The department of education in the Northern Cape says it only tracks learners who are in the school system and therefore does not have statistics on the number of children involved in illegal mining activities. 

But Geoffrey van der Merwe, the communication officer for the department, confirmed that reports of child labour have been discussed with the department of employment and labour. 

The department, Van der Merwe says, urges “all stakeholders in communities as well as the department of mineral resources and energy to report such matters, including child labour on farms, to the DOL [department of labour] who will investigate and take further action”.

A moral decay

Richie Cloete, a former social worker at the Northern Cape province’s education department, attributes children dropping out of school to “moral decay”. 

He says the government’s moral regeneration programmes in the province have existed for 14 to 20 years but “do not work”. 

“There is moral decay which causes parents to not take responsibility for their children,” contends Cloete, who was the sole social worker for 74 schools in the Namaqua district. 

“Does that sound right to you? Does that sound acceptable and fair? Every school needs a full-time social worker, psychologist and occupational therapist.”

Cloete says he raised the issue with his district director but his pleas for more social workers were dismissed. This is one of the reasons that motivated him to join the political arena “to prioritise people’s needs”. 

Cloete is a councillor for the Namakwa Civic Movement, which was established last year. It won eight seats in the 2021 local government elections and governs the Namaqua district in a coalition with the Democratic Alliance

Depression, anxiety, domestic violence and poverty are some of the impediments facing communities here, Cloete says. “You cannot work with a child in isolation — it is the parent, the community, the school and the department of art and culture” that plays a combined role in the lives of children.”

“The children at the mines do not go to school. When they are out, they are out. The school system fails them, if they do not go to school for a certain period, they are expelled,” he adds.

According to the education department, the drop-out rate in the province recorded a “historic” decrease in 2021, slowing to 2.8%.

“This is not only a drastic improvement from 2020 but also an improvement from an average of 4% drop-out in the previous 10 years,” says Van der Merwe, also pointing out a “gradual improvement” in throughput rates over the past 15 years. 

Van der Merwe attributes the decrease in learner drop-outs to the department’s quality learning and teaching committee (QLTC), which consists of structures such as churches, nonprofit organisations and the government, that advocate education as a societal issue. 

“The QLTC programmes include among others, awareness around teenage pregnancies, love your school campaigns, adopt a school campaign, working with [the department of] home affairs [to] secure birth certificates and IDs for learners who qualify for grants, guardianship programmes and dignity programme[s],” he says. 

But aside from the school situation, children have to contend with many other difficulties including living in squalor, with a distinct lack of maintenance of infrastructure. 

“It has come on for so long people became used to it, that it became normalised. We are surrounded by natural indigenous resources — diamonds, copper, iron, and ore — but it looks like we are living among a dump,” Cloete says. 

Cloete quotes a speaker who, during a mayoral meeting, recounted the words of a visitor from the Netherlands. The visitor was shocked at the contrasting conditions in the province, stating: “You are surrounded by mines but the only thing I can see you mine is poverty.”  

As one drives through towns such as Springbok, Steinkopf, Port Nolloth and as far as Calvinia in the Hantam district, there are no properly-maintained sports fields, nor any  gyms and recreational facilities for young people. 

“We do not have cinemas, clubs, or bars,” says Cloete. “There are no swimming pools in the hottest part of South Africa.”

“Do we invest in our children? No, nothing is being done for the children.”

Back in the yard where the illegal miners gather each day with the hope of finding valuable gems, stands Kriek, a 38-year-old leader of the backyard diggers.

“When you go to Spar, it is young people there [working as cashiers]”, says Kriek. “They earn R800 a week. If you need money, you resort to illegal digging.” 

Kriek says the fight for permits to mine legally continues, adding that the diamond seekers are “not only fighting for permits” but also for the future of the youth in Port Nolloth. 

In this four-part series, mining in the Northern Cape is explored largely through the lens of informal miners whose efforts to obtain legal mining permits have been futile. They are not among the informal miners who work for syndicates who are not trying to get mining permits. The series hopes to bring forward the voices of the people of Namaqualand, a place often forgotten by many.