GroundUp

1.

The mineshaft had been dug by hand, descending seven metres through red desert sand before widening into a circular chamber. Repurposed oil drums supported the walls. A worn ladder, held together with steel wire, led back to the surface, where more than 300 diggers waited to enter. An illicit diamond mine at the edge of disused De Beers land, 75 km west of Springbok, the site would become known as Bontekoe, the name of an adjacent mining area not owned by De Beers. It collapsed in the early hours of 22 May 2012, killing ten people.

The name of the De Beers land was Strydrivier, which translates loosely as ‘Struggle River’ or ‘Battle River’. Years had passed since it was last used for legal mining operations, but the ground was still rich in diamonds. The mine’s main chamber, termed the ‘wagkamer’ (‘waiting room’), had space for 40 people at most, squeezed tightly together. Shortly before it caved in, more than 30 diggers crouched shoulder to shoulder beneath the low dirt ceiling, sweating with their shirts off and inhaling stale air, preparing for their chance to belly-crawl into the tunnels.

The tunnels cut horizontally into the earth, following seams of diamond-bearing gravel. Some of the tunnels exceeded ten metres in length, with diameters narrowing to less than one metre. According to diggers, driven to break the law by chronic unemployment in Namaqualand, temperatures inside the tunnels reached 60 degrees Celsius. There was almost no ventilation — matches for lighting cigarettes quickly extinguished themselves once struck. There was also little structural support to withstand the pressure from tons of overlying sediment. But groups of diggers would sit in the wagkamer for more than 12 hours at a time before gaining access, after spending days waiting at the surface. The mine was exceptionally abundant, producing large diamonds on a daily basis, and diggers burrowed ever deeper in spite of the discomfort and risks.

Destined for the global luxury goods market, diamonds were the economic mainstay of Namaqualand for more than 80 years, sustaining large-scale mining operations along some 400 km of coastline — half the total length of South Africa’s west coast. But a spate of retrenchments from the 1990s onwards left hundreds of people without work, culminating in the single biggest employer in the region, De Beers, closing its mines in 2006. As a consequence of this withdrawal, informal diggers, many of whom were once mineworkers, began targeting the diamonds left behind — fuelling an illicit trade that continues across Namaqualand to this day, despite collapses like the one at Bontekoe.

Inside the mine, at the end of each tunnel, men loosened gravel with crowbars and chisels, filling 10kg maize meal sacks to sieve above ground. The dust rose in clouds, illuminated by their headlamps. It was cramped and difficult to breathe. This work continued without pause, 24 hours a day. As soon as one group exited with their sacks, another took their place. Arguments broke out frequently as rival diggers jostled for position; on occasion this triggered violence, including beatings and stabbings above ground. As word spread about the mine’s bounty, people had congregated from further and further away, spending weeks camping out in the veld or in an abandoned mining hostel nearby. The usual diggers from depressed mine towns across Namaqualand — Komaggas, Buffelsrivier, Soebatsfontein, Steinkopf, Port Nolloth — were joined by teams from Cape Town, Johannesburg, and the Eastern Cape. Everybody was chasing rough diamonds, which sell for thousands of rand per carat on the black-market, and the men who’d opened the mine up, and maintained a semblance of order at first, were losing control of the situation.

In the weeks preceding the 2012 collapse, a few diggers had started carrying jackhammers into the wagkamer, powering them with compressors left at the surface. This enabled them to remove gravel faster and access harder rock layers, but threatened the mine’s stability. Cracks began to appear in the ceiling. The earth shook intermittently as large boulders shifted. Fearing for their lives, many diggers left, warning the crowd gathered outside that the tunnels were unsafe. People jeered in response, believing that this was merely a ploy to disperse them, and continued climbing into the shaft.

Sidney*, a digger from the coastal village of Hondeklipbaai, 90 minutes drive south of Bontekoe, was one of those who chose to enter. Three diggers from Hondeklipbaai accompanied him, including Aubrey Booies, a compact, muscular man aged 35. As the group waited in the wagkamer, a dreadlocked man began pounding the roof of one tunnel with a jackhammer, raising a deafening noise. He knelt at the tunnel’s entrance, sweat pouring from his body, while a separate group of diggers worked by hand further inside.

“The first stone fell a few minutes later,” Sidney told me when I met him in Hondeklipbaai recently. “We knew right away there was a problem. I shouted at that guy to stop using the jackhammer, because it was dangerous, but he was stubborn, and wouldn’t listen. A white dust was falling; it was like salt, or a thick mist. The guys almost choked. We couldn’t see anything.”

Though frightened, the men remained below ground. The dust settled. When their turn came, they crawled into a tunnel and removed enough gravel to fill three sacks.

“We were on our way out,” Sidney said. “I had just reached the wagkamer again. Aubrey was right next to me. The other two were a little further ahead. Then everything went dark, and the boulders started falling.”

Certain he was about to be killed, Sidney ducked and shut his eyes. Men were screaming all around him. The roar of the earth subsided. The men continued screaming. Sidney lifted his head. He was pinned on his stomach by large stones. His right hip throbbed. His mouth was full of sand. He twisted his neck to see what had happened and saw Aubrey Booies lying beside him, bleeding.

“There was blood coming from his nose, his mouth, his ears — blood everywhere,” Sidney said. “I could barely make out his face. I knew straight away that he was dead. His one hand was stretched forwards, like he was trying to reach me.”


2.

Aubrey Booies, one of ten men who died when an illicit mine collapsed in Namaqualand in 2012, had one child: a boy, now aged 10, named Jamouel. The child’s mother is Anna-Marie Vos, a weary, round-shouldered woman who is currently unemployed. I met her outside the home she shared with Booies for four years, a cramped dormitory in an old Hondeklipbaai worker’s hostel; two bedrooms, a kitchen, no toilet. Vos sat on an upturned plastic bucket, shading her face from the sun.

“Aubrey was a serious, responsible man,” she told me. “He was very involved in this community. His death was a complete shock. People were broken when they heard the news.”

Vos grew up in Hondeklipbaai — a settlement with fewer than 200 households, 90 km by dirt road from the N7 highway — and attended primary school with Booies. She only met him “properly” in 2002, when she returned to Hondeklipbaai after working in Cape Town for 13 years. Jamouel, her third child, following two boys from a previous relationship in Cape Town, was born four years later.

“Aubrey took such good care of that child,” Vos told me. “He continued after we separated. When he lost his job it really upset him, because it meant he couldn’t provide for the child anymore. That’s why Aubrey started digging.”

Booies was not the only person facing these pressures. The official unemployment rate in the Kammiesberg Municipality, of which Hondeklipbaai forms part, is 31%,according to 2011 Census data; the official youth unemployment rate is 40%. True figures for the region, including people who have given up looking for work altogether, are much higher — up to 80%, according to residents interviewed in Hondeklipbaai. The situation is similar in the Nama Khoi Municipality to the north, which encompasses large tracts of diamond territory but has generated few formal mining jobs in the last decade.

Although mining companies have closed, illicit buyers continue to offer cash for rough diamonds, paying diggers a fraction of what their discoveries are worth. Depending on its quality, a one-carat stone (200 mg) typically fetches between R2,000 and R4,000 in Namaqualand — a considerable sum for anyone living in poverty, but very little compared to what diamonds sell for on the legal market, where illicit diamonds are ultimately sold.

A diamond industry source in South Africa, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that rough diamonds were extremely variable in price on the legal market, but that most gem-quality stones sold for between $350 and $600 a carat (approximately R5,000 – R9,000).

“Diamonds are not like gold,” the source said. “Every single stone is different. To my knowledge, there isn’t a big difference in value between stones on the legal and illicit market.”

It is illegal to possess rough diamonds without a license, carrying a maximum penalty of ten years in jail. This crime is more strictly policed in Southern Africa than anywhere else in the world, according to the source. “In other countries, even if keeping rough diamonds is technically forbidden, authorities turn a blind eye. They treat it like stamp collecting. South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana still have these draconian laws. It’s all about control.”

Booies only started digging when he “had no other options,” Hondeklipbaai resident Ravic Danster, a close friend of Booies, told me. “He was a community leader. He had an office job at the local primary school. He was good with computers. But at the end of the day he needed money.”

Booies also volunteered at the Hondeklipbaai Multipurpose Resource Center (MPRC), a poverty alleviation project aimed at promoting alternative livelihoods in the area. The MPRC operated from the old hostel where Booies’ former girlfriend now lives; the dormitories, currently occupied by some 15 families, were supposed to be converted into community-owned tourist accommodation. The MPRC fell into disrepair when funding dried up and squatters moved in. Booies, disillusioned, took possession of one of the dormitories and turned his attention to precious stones.

Namaqualand’s rich diamond deposits, transported to the coast by the Orange River millions of years ago, were discovered in 1925, fifty years after the Kimberley diamond rush transformed South Africa into a booming frontier economy. By 1926, thousands of diggers had rushed to Namaqualand to seek their fortunes; the following year, the South African government issued laws to restrict any further prospecting in the area. Diamonds only maintain their high value due to enforced scarcity— the reason Cecil Rhodes formed the De Beers cartel in 1888. The addition of millions of carats of gem-quality stones to the market would have crashed prices, and from 1927 onwards production in Namaqualand was tightly controlled.

A barren semi-desert region, unsuitable for much economic activity besides stock farming, Namaqualand had remained peripheral during South Africa’s rapid period of industrial development, despite the establishment of copper mines further inland during the late 19th century. As diamond mining expanded, primarily under the auspices of De Beers and the state-owned diggings at Alexander Bay, it quickly became the largest source of employment in the area, drawing on cheap labour from colonial ‘coloured reserves’ inhabited by Nama and mixed-race ‘Baster’ groups.

Diamond mining — conducted using open-cast techniques, stripping away tons of overlying sediment, or ‘overburden’, to access diamondiferous gravel on the bedrock — also systematically dispossessed local communities of their land and widened racial inequality by reserving senior jobs for white Namaqualand residents. But for many people in the region, working on the mines was the only opportunity to make a decent living.

Donnie Saal, 53, has lived in Hondeklipbaai his entire life. He began working for De Beers in 1984, at the age of 21. A large, guarded man, with powerful forearms and a deep voice, he was retrenched when De Beers shut down its operations in 2006. I met him on a dirt road near the center of the village, standing beside a peeling caravan in his front yard.

“Unemployment was nothing like today,” he told me. “Those were blossoming years in this town. A De Beers bus took 50 of us to the mines and back every day. Another 50 people had jobs with Trans Hex.” (Trans Hex began mining diamonds in Namaqualand in 1965).

“Life wasn’t such a struggle,” Saal continued. “But then the depression started, and everything changed.”

In 1994, De Beers announced plans to close its mines in the region within “10 to 12 years”, citing declining productivity. (Previously, the mines had been profitable enough to fund two private towns north of Hondeklipbaai, Kleinzee and Koignaas, where more than 5,000 employees once lived.) Impact assessments commissioned by De Beers, conducted by University of Cape Town (UCT) researchers in 1992, warned that these closures would have “extreme and far-reaching” consequences in Namaqualand, and suggested slowing production to extend the life of the mines.

Instead, as documented by the investigative journalist Janine Roberts, De Beers proceeded to boost its Namaqualand production from 600,000 to 1 million carats a year, aiming to recover 12 million carats of diamonds during its final 12 years of operation, while generating R12 billion (approximately R45 billion in today’s terms). At the same time, De Beers began shedding employees and outsourcing jobs as part of an aggressive cost-cutting strategy.

“The first big retrenchments happened in the 1990s,” Saal told me. “We asked De Beers to reconsider. We wanted to slow production, and work for longer, but the company’s profits would have been lower that way."

Saal was wearing an Expanded Public Works Program (EPWP) uniform, like most people I met in Hondeklipbaai. Since 2012, the program has functioned as the main employer in the settlement, but Saal told me that work had ceased in March this year.

“That’s why I’m standing around like this. It's difficult to think where I'll find bread for tonight. My retrenchment package has been used up — I spent most of it renovating my house, but the kitchen still doesn't have a ceiling, the lounge still doesn't have a ceiling. One of my sons sleeps in this caravan with his wife and child.”

“It isn't easy to talk about these things,” he continued. “We held onto De Beers, but De Beers drifted away. That’s why so many people do these dangerous things here now. Poaching crayfish at night, or illegal digging. One of the two.”

Aubrey Booies, who’d promised to buy his son a toy truck upon returning from Bontekoe,  was buried in a closed casket at the edge of Hondeklipbaai’s small cemetery, nearly a month after the mine caved in. The rescue and recovery operation took nine days; forensic investigations to identify the ten bodies retrieved, some badly decomposed from high temperatures below ground, took weeks longer. Booies’ grave, a simple mound of earth, is decorated with jars of plastic flowers. In places, shoots of coastal grass have started pushing through. At the head of the grave, a low wooden cross, already worn pale by salt and sunlight, bears a blue plastic card with a short inscription:

BOOIES

Aubrey

Geb: 19/10/1976

Oorl: 22/05/2015

RUS IN VREDE


3.

Trapped in the collapsed mine at Bontekoe, seven metres below ground, Sidney*, an illicit diamond digger from Hondeklipbaai, began removing small stones from beneath his torso, attempting to work himself free. Aubrey Booies, his dead companion, lay at his feet. Miners cried for help beneath mounds of debris, their voices muffled by sand. Others, more seriously injured by the falling rocks, merely groaned. Sidney’s headlamp was still working; he swept its beam around the chamber and saw more bodies.

“There was blood everywhere,” he told me. “Those people couldn’t be identified afterwards. Their faces were damaged. Some men were missing their arms.”

When he had opened a large enough cavity below him Sidney began wriggling forwards, taking care not to disturb the rocks balanced above his back. He could move his chest but his hips were pinned under a boulder. He pulled more stones loose and reached for his legs, pulling them out one by one.

“I had to use all my force,” he said. “I was sweating. I knew those rocks might fall again, but I needed to escape.”

Unable to walk, he crawled on one leg towards the mineshaft. His right hip was dislocated and he moved slowly. “The leg had popped out the meat,” he said. His head hurt. His right shoulder hurt. When he reached the ladder, he climbed with one arm.

At the surface, lit by a crescent moon, survivors sat in shock; many of the diggers waiting to enter the mine had fled. Shortly afterwards, police and De Beers officials arrived from Kleinzee, 30 km away. By dawn, a rescue operation had begun.

 “Management expressed their shock today following an accident that trapped seven or more people in illegally excavated tunnels,” announced a De Beers press release on 22 May 2012. “We can confirm this evening that one person has been rescued and taken to hospital … The rescue team is still carefully excavating the collapsed tunnels to investigate whether more people are trapped.”

De Beers was “deeply concerned that people are illegally digging and thereby endangering themselves,” the statement continued. “The Mine is managing a situation where groups of people are knowingly entering mine property, destroying fences, ignoring signage, evading arrest, transporting mining equipment and undertaking the dangerous excavation of tunnels which have proven to be unsafe.”

Over the next few days, as media flocked to Namaqualand to cover the disaster, three specialist rescue teams worked alongside De Beers technical staff, a police Disaster Recovery Unit, Department of Health Emergency Services, Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) personnel, and three survivors of the collapse, who helped rescuers map out the tunnels. No further diggers came out of the mine alive.

Authorities called off the operation on 31 May, after excavating the entire site down to the bedrock. Two jackhammers and the remains of ten men were recovered in the process. In a press release that day, Phillip Barton, CEO of De Beers Consolidated Mines, stated: “The loss of life in illegal digging is even more tragic in that it is completely avoidable. [Illicit diamond digging] is an action endangering one’s own life. It is an act damaging to one’s own family and community.” Barton added that illegal excavations were by nature “uncoordinated” and “prone to collapse.”

“The solution may rest collectively with a multiplicity of stakeholders yet the will to change ultimately belongs to individuals involved and benefitting from these illegal activities,” he said.

De Beers sold its Namaqualand mines to Trans Hex in October 2014, following more than three years of negotiations. The consortium West Coast Resources, in which Trans Hex is a majority shareholder, has subsequently resumed mining operations in parts of Namaqualand, but not at Strydrivier, where the Bontekoe collapse took place.

Today, the site is almost indistinguishable from the degraded mining landscape surrounding it. The gravel deposits, still containing diamonds, were removed and “secured at a safe place,” according to De Beers statements. The tunnels had already been filled in once by the time of the accident, authorities familiar with the case told me. “The diggers began working there again on the Easter Weekend of 2012,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In Hondeklipbaai, illicit diggers told me that retrenched De Beers mineworkers had “tipped diggers off” that the site was rich in diamonds, and that a “clique” had opened the mine up a second time after it was closed by De Beers.

“Those people knew where the diamonds were,” said Sidney, who has deep scars on his back from being pinned beneath the rocks at Bontekoe. “They were well trained but had no work opportunities. You can’t blame them, or say that we’re guilty for going inside the tunnels. It’s like training a person to do something, and later on saying: Fuck him."

Since the rescue and recovery operation — which was largely funded by De Beers, and cost “hundreds of thousands of rands”, according to sources close to the case — police have opened an inquest docket to investigate the deaths at Strydrivier. Once completed, this docket will be sent to the Springbok Magistrate’s Court to determine whether any parties can be held responsible for the accident. The docket requires submissions from everyone involved in the rescue; it already comprises multiple lever-arch files. If, upon being submitted to the court, the inquest contains errors or elicits queries, it will be sent back to the police for further investigation. The inquest will remain off public record until a Magistrate has ruled on the matter — or until the case is dropped.

In the meantime, more than four years later, there has been no formal government investigation of the incident, as required by South African law. This is according to Janet Love, a Commissioner at the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), who in 2013 visited Namaqualand while conducting investigative hearings into illicit mining in South Africa.

“There has been a real failure for any responsible party to stand up since Bontekoe,” Love told me earlier this year. “Unless there’s more exposure, this disaster won’t be dealt with appropriately."

The SAHRC hearing, published in 2015, reports that residents in Komaggas, one of the communities directly affected by the collapse, have “not found emotional closure following the mishandling of the tragedy” by the DMR, the government agency responsible for investigating mining accidents.

“The incident appears to have been re-categorised from being a mining accident to a criminal activity,” the report states. “All questions from the community … were met with the response that they should ask the Springbok SAPS, who have no mandate to conduct an enquiry.” (Emphasis added.)

“It is not acceptable for the DMR to shirk their responsibilities in terms of carrying out this enquiry simply because the incident related to ‘unlawful mining activities’ ... The community cannot continue to be fobbed off ... Whether legal or not, a mining accident requires a report into the mining related issues."

The DMR did not respond to written questions by time of publication.

In Hondeklipbaai, Sidney now works as a casual labourer for a local guest resort, cleaning cottages and tending the garden. His employer pays him R100 per day. “It isn’t good money, but if you don’t have a job, or food on your table, you must take it,” Sidney told me when I visited him at work.

After the mine collapse, Sidney spent nearly a month in hospital; his right hip still hurts when he walks. Some nights, he dreams of bloodied faces and contorted limbs. The images return during the day, while he is folding linen or sweeping ash from outdoor fireplaces. He drinks heavily whenever he can afford to — ”I want to stop,” he said, “but it helps me forget these painful things.”

Although Sidney has not gone digging in more than two years, many others from Hondeklipbaai have continued, including the two other local men who escaped from Bontekoe alive.

“I often think of starting again. I think I will go soon, because I need the money,” Sidney said. “People aren’t going to stop doing this until there is a better opportunity. If we could get permits, or work legally, nobody would need to break the law. Nobody would have died.”


4.

 Shortly before leaving Hondeklipbaai, where the decline of legal diamond mining has left a legacy of chronic unemployment, we accompanied three men on an illicit dig. We met up with them after dark, at the edge of the settlement. We walked hard through coastal shrub with our headlamps switched off. Lights from patrol vehicles flashed behind the dunes. In the past, diggers from Hondklipbaai targeted disused mines north and east of the settlement. One popular spot was called Absa; another, FNB. But the consortium West Coast Resources recently reopened these mines, tightening security and making access more difficult. Some diggers continued operating as before, entering restricted areas in spite of the increased risk — usually by bribing mine security guards, who earn less than R5,000 per month, diggers said. Others, like the men we had joined, shifted their attention to public land, where diamonds are less abundant, but working is safer.

We stopped on a flat platform, within earshot of the ocean. Shallow depressions dented the surface beside neat mounds of pebbles. The men dropped their tools: a spade, two sieves, some plastic sacks, and a long jackhammer chisel, or ‘gwala’. With their backs to Hondeklipbaai they switched on their torches. Then they spread a dirty white sheet on the ground and started to dig.

One of the men, Paul*, was 19 years old. He had been drinking since before noon, and hacked the ground with little precision. He gripped his chisel like a weapon, breathing heavily. As he loosened the gravel, one of his accomplices — tall, stooped, middle-aged — shoveled it into a sieve to remove the sand. The men then transferred this gravel into a coarser sieve and shook it out above the sheet, discarding the larger stones. When they had collected enough gravel they lifted the sheet and tipped it into one of the sacks.

On the walk from Hondeklipbaai, Paul had grown belligerent, issuing orders and goading the two older men. At one point, he threatened to leave with the tools; one of the men stopped him, almost leading to a fight. But as Paul worked he became calmer, and by the time the men carried their gravel down to the shore he was focused on completing the task.

He bent above a rock pool to rinse the gravel. The water turned brown as he shook the sieve. He knocked the sieve from side to side, settling the gravel. Then he carried the sieve to a shelf of clean stones a short distance up the beach.

“Dolomond!” he cried — the word Namaqualanders use for diamonds. In a smooth movement he tipped the sieve upside down and emptied it onto the shelf. His shaking had drawn the heavier material towards the center of the sieve. It was darker in colour, forming a distinct circle inside the wet gravel square. Diggers call this circle the ‘kol’. When diamonds are present they appear right in the middle, like bullseyes. Paul dropped to his knees and began inspecting the rough, his nose centimetres away. He repeated the process four times, but found nothing.

Walking back to Hondeklipbaai, Paul spoke about his older brother, who was stabbed to death in a drunken argument this January. “I feel messed up,” he told me. “I want to hurt people. I want to kill people.”

“He’s crazy,” one of the older men added. Paul had recently stabbed Sidney, one of the diggers who survived the Bontekoe collapse, in the cheek and back, “for no reason.”

“Something is wrong,” Paul told me. “I get mad and can’t control it.”

The moon had turned deep red and slipped over the horizon. It was Paul’s brother’s birthday, the men announced; he would have turned 21 that morning. His mother had visited the grave with flowers that afternoon. Paul hadn’t joined her, but sat at the harbour, drinking.

The next morning, we drove to Komaggas, where an estimated 90% of households once depended on the diamond mines for employment. It grew hotter as we drove inland. By the time we arrived, the temperature exceeded 30 degrees. At a meeting in the community hall, representatives from four former mining communities — Komaggas, Hondklipbaai, Buffelsrivier, Soebatsfontein — discussed plans to protest against West Coast Resources.

“For nearly 100 years, De Beers gave us job opportunities, but left nothing behind,” said a middle-aged woman named Juliana. “Now there’s a new company working here. We’re going to make sure they meet our demands.”

West Coast Resources had promised to employ local people but then “brought outsiders in from other mines,” a man from Buffelsrivier said. “There have been many empty promises,” he added.

On its website, the company predicts creating 200 jobs by June 2016, and a total of 550 jobs by 2021. By August 2015, the company had received more than 3,500 CVs from applicants. The company stated its “[commitment to] employing local candidates, especially previously disadvantaged individuals, women and the youth,” in anApril 2015 newsletter. To date, the company has hired two people from Hondklipbaai, according to residents. West Coast Resources declined to answer written questions and referred me to “public knowledge” on their website.

“We can talk about work,” said one of the men at the meeting. He had recently become a local organizer for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). “But we must discuss ownership. This land is ours. The government should give us the chance to mine certain areas ourselves.”

South Africa currently has no legal framework to support artisanal or small-scale diamond mining, despite claims on the Department of Mineral Affairs (DMR) websitethat the government is “working to legalise the small-scale mining operations that currently exist, and find ways to help make them economically viable.”

An investigative hearing by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), conducted in 2013, reported that “artisanal mining is not legally recognised, despite its growth and the potential opportunities it offers, economically and socially.”

With up to 30,000 informal miners working illegally across the country — mainly targeting diamonds and gold — the SAHRC hearing concluded that the sector “cannot be ignored … particularly [in a context of] poverty, unemployment, inequality, and unevenly enforced regulations.” 

After the meeting, some men took us to the ‘digveld’, a pitted expanse of land, littered with trash, in an old strip-mine near Bontekoe. People peered from the crest of a mine dump as we approached, preparing to run. The men shouted from the vehicle — “It’s safe! They’re with us!” — and guided us through drifts of sand to the site. Sunset was approaching; the air had cooled. More than 40 people clustered in groups around crumbling metre-deep holes.

A tiny, wrinkled woman in a pink church hat and fleece jacket stood back from one of the diggings, where her son and six other men were sifting piles of gravel. Her husband, a thin 70-year-old with raised veins on his arms, waited at her shoulder. She told me that they had been camping in the veld for seven days, sleeping in a ‘khaya’ — a low tent made of branches, blankets, and plastic sheets — in the nearby riverbed.

“Our food is finished. We’re driving back to Komaggas tonight,” she said. “Our petrol is low; we don't know if we'll get home. But we can't carry on.”

They had found no diamonds that week, she said. “We have no other income besides my husband’s pension of R1,500 per month. We’ll come back as soon as we can afford another trip.”

A short distance away, three middle-aged women sat at the edge of a pit, knocking chisels into the earth and rinsing stones in a plastic drum. One of the women was from Cape Town; she told me she’d once worked as a cleaner at the Silver Spur in Bellville.

“I have three adult children. None of them have jobs. One of the grandchildren lives with me in Komaggas now,” she said. “If I find anything, I send the money home.”

She had found no diamonds after digging for eight consecutive days, she said. At most, she hoped to earn R1,800 for a single stone, splitting the money with her two companions.

We left the diggers and drove deeper into the mine. In an abandoned, unvegetated trench, lit orange by the fading light, we came across a Rasta elder with a posse of younger men. They had been excavating tunnels for almost two weeks, the Rasta said. They hoped to reach the gravel layer, buried beneath the trench walls, within the next few days.

He took us to the entrance of the deepest tunnel, which dropped ten metres through hard sand. One of the men swung into the tunnel and descended like a spider, his feet finding crevices chipped into the mud. When he reached the bottom, he gazed up, dwarfed by the shaft. The Rasta said that they would dig horizontally for at least fifteen metres from where the man stood.

“As soon as we find diamonds, people will start coming, just like at Bontekoe,” he said. “That’s when the fights will start.”

 The Rasta spoke from experience. In 2012 he excavated the tunnels at Bontekoe, working alongside thirteen other men. “We prospected that area before digging, just like geologists,” he told me. “We kept working when the crowds arrived. We kept control of that place for a few weeks but then it became impossible. People started carrying jackhammers in.”

The Rasta left Bontekoe three days before the tunnels collapsed, when he saw cracks spreading across the ceiling. Dust had already started to fall. Diggers at the surface swore at him when he warned them not to go inside; he gave up arguing and walked away. Since then, he has opened “many” other tunnels, he said. He prays each time he crawls below ground.

Bontekoe was no deeper than any of his newer tunnels. It was no less secure. A tragic mine collapse seems no less likely four years later. We visited the Bontekoe site a few days before meeting the Rasta; it was silent, the way deserts are, in a basin below red dunes and heaps of mining debris. There was no trace of the old tunnels, only compacted sand with the fading imprints of bulldozer tracks. Clumps of chalk scattered the surface where the area had been filled in. The stones gave the ground a slightly paler colour. Rubbed together, they produced a white dust that scattered in the wind, like salt.