No diamonds on the soles of their shoes

The hope and despair at recent diggings near KwaHlathi say a lot about the region, where impoverished residents are mostly neglected and have nothing to lose.

A Sotho shepherd found the first stone. A greedy sangoma, digging for roots, found the first stone. Depending on whom you spoke to during the recent frenzied discovery of “diamonds” on a small hillside outside of KwaHlathi in KwaZulu-Natal, you might have heard either of these founding myths for the gems being plucked from the dirt like shells on a beach.

Just how the story of the shepherd’s (or sangoma’s) finding made its way on to social media, or when that glittering word – diamond – was first used to describe the KwaHlathi stones, is now lost to legend. But within a few short days, news of the gems had driven thousands, blankets and tools in hand, to the remote village, which forms part of the communal land administered by the Ingonyama Trust.

16 June 2021: Hundreds of people on a small hillside outside KwaHlathi in KwaZulu-Natal, digging for what they thought were diamonds.

Some of them sifted through the soil on the banks of a stream running through a gulch at the bottom of the hill. But most did the heavy work of uprooting aloes and acacias, moving rocks the size of children, and swinging pickaxes high above their heads. It didn’t take long before the hillside was pocked and pitted by the digging. Some holes were the size of a small box, others deep as a grave. And when a stone was found, up to 20 excited diggers managed to fit into the more cavernous ones.

The stones will have been sitting on the hillside for generations, the playthings of children, trampled into the dirt by the herds of cattle that feed on the abundant veld around KwaHlathi. Some of them were clear as a pane of glass. Others were opaque, the same milky white of the sky just before the sun rises.

But none, it turned out, were diamonds.

The pandemic’s human wreckage

Nearby Ladysmith, where thousands of impoverished people recently handed their money over to a Bitcoin-themed Ponzi scheme, is no stranger to economic swindling. The town started as a British military outpost in colonial Natal.

Landowners and tenants were forcibly removed from the surrounding Black freehold farms between the 1960s and 1980s. Together with the Black workers later evicted from white farms, they swelled Ladysmith’s townships and those of other formerly white towns in the region.

It was the political and economic inclusion of the people living in townships like these on which the success of South Africa’s democratic project largely depended. And there was perhaps no clearer image of that project’s decline than the sight of them digging in the KwaHlathi dirt for economic respite.

The latest figures show that, outside of the province’s metro areas, unemployment has grown by nearly 7% in KwaZulu-Natal over the past year, and the human wreckage of the pandemic was strewn across the diggings.

While the odd fortune seeker did have a job – one was an admin clerk, another a pilot for the South African Air Force; there were a few police officers and a security guard from a local high school – most, such as 50-year-old Mlungisi Ziqubu, were despairing victims of the South African economy.

Ziqubu was driving long-distance Citiliner passenger buses in Johannesburg until the pandemic forced parent company Greyhound to close its doors earlier this year. Sphesihle Ziqudu, who operated machines in a Johannesburg factory before it was closed during lockdown, was another.

Interrupted by brief moments of fun-filled flamboyance – at one point, a young man bounded downhill yelling, “I will get married today if I find a diamond!” – the promise of the glamour of a wealth made in diamonds was for the most part only matched by the modesty of how the would-be miners planned to spend it.

Daniel Makatla, for instance, a reserved 50-year-old wearing thick gloves to guard against the chafe of his pick, said he was hoping to find and sell enough diamonds to buy chickens and goats for his homestead.

In the rough

The KwaHlathi diggings confounded any and all mining archetypes. There were men digging, and children, and women. There were grizzled old-timers, and kids barely able to lift a pickaxe. Hard hats and sun hats. Denim, lipstick, overalls, sweatpants, mini-skirts, tracksuits and blankets. Hand-me-downs and mint leather loafers. Sneakers, slippers, slip-slops and safety boots. There were fathers working with sons, sisters alongside sisters, and aunts supervising their nephews.

This was the picture of a labour market unregulated, of a region cut loose of both the trappings and security of work, and emboldened by the potential and hazard of chance. But one question was delivered by nearly every treasure hunter there, young and old, in anguished and rubble-shaped tones: “Are they real?”

It’s a complicated business, finding a diamond. If one doesn’t have a mining right or permit, then, strictly speaking, it is a crime. But the official finding that the KwaHlathi stones were not diamonds, but quartz crystals, has put paid to even those flimsy hopes. The KwaZulu-Natal government has since warned that it will use “the full might of the law” against anybody who continues digging at the site.

Diamonds – which can be as old as 3.5 billion years by the time we find them – are formed during reactions of carbon-bearing fluids in the earth’s mantle, where heat and pressure are extraordinarily high. They are then plucked up by volcanic eruptions, which transport a cargo of debris, including diamonds, from the earth’s mantle to its surface, usually in the form of kimberlitic rocks.

Diamondiferous kimberlites, however, only occur in areas of the earth’s crust older than 2.5 billion years called archean cratons. KwaHlathi and Ladysmith are situated on just such a craton. In theory, then, diamonds could be found in this region. There are, however, no nearby kimberlites, much less any diamond-bearing kimberlites.

Susan Webb, a geophysicist at the University of the Witwatersrand who has suggested that the diggings might be turned into a tourist attraction if there are enough high-quality quartz crystals, said that this is likely because “the cratonic keel is too thick in this area” for the kimberlites that might host diamonds.

The only people better off after the digging were those who had set up businesses to sustain the miners. One of them was Nondumiso Zikalala, a 33-year-old butcher with a day job at a nearby supermarket. Cutting meat by day, Zikalala fed miners amagwinya (vetkoek) by night, cooked in oil boiling over a brazier she had set up in an abandoned digging, and polony sandwiches with generous gulps of tomato sauce and spice.

She served her food from a makeshift table of plywood and crates that she called Busy Corner, and said of the operation that “business is business, and business is good”.

Old world in the new country

A tangle of footpaths quickly developed, twisting and turning to avoid the hundreds of pits being dug on the hillside. And if the mineral fortunes billowing in the belly of the earth had smiled more generously on KwaHlathi, they may one day have become major avenues.

In Johannesburg, and Kimberley before it, similar footpaths eventually grew into city streets. Not long ago, Commissioner Street in Joburg was a path weaving its way among shacks and guy ropes.

There were some similarities to South Africa’s earlier mineral discoveries. The haggle and barter of diamond sales, for instance, happened in nuggety little brick offices during the Kimberley diamond rushes, and at the tinted windows of 4x4s in KwaHlathi.

16 June 2021: Miners get ready for the night dig as light fades over the hill near KwaHlathi in KwaZulu-Natal.

Behind the wheel of one such BMW and a pair of dark sunglasses, snacking on a giant packet of Nik Naks, was a Gucci-clad, self-described diamond dealer from Johannesburg whose sentiment that “we have been very, very lucky” suggested that the black market had become as excited by the gems as the impoverished women and men digging them up.

But if history was repeated on the KwaHlathi diggings, it was only as tragedy and farce.

The desperation of the KwaHlathi diggers provided fertile ground for rumour. And it soon grew beyond diamonds to include the methods of their extraction when news spread of an app showing where the stones could be found.

16 June 2021: Fortune seekers dig through the night, making fires to ward off the cold.

Diamond Radar Simulation is “explicitly a fun app for purely entertainment”, according to its listing in the Google Play store. While you might “feel like a treasure hunter”, the listing says, you should “keep it in mind that this is just a simulation”.

By the time night had fallen and the hillside resembled a small camp under hundreds of torches, miners could be seen in their pits, searching for more gems by the light of the make-believe app. Desperation had driven treasure seekers to believe in an old world of mineral luck. But it was the new world that revealed its futility.

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