Photograph © Shaun Swingler

Roads and Kingdoms

A thin, dreadlocked man, middle-aged but fit and ropey, spends his days digging for diamonds in South Africa’s Namaqualand desert. That he is known simply as Rasta, in a region home to several hundred Rastafarians, indicates the sweep of his reputation. A prospector and geologist with no formal training, he has constructed dozens of tunnels in the last 15 years, granting diggers access to untold thousands of diamonds. Working by hand with rudimentary equipment, he excavates for weeks at a time, hoping to strike layers of diamond-bearing gravel. His operations are unlawful and exceedingly dangerous. A tunnel he helped open in 2012 collapsed after a few months, killing 10 men.

Though that disaster alarmed him, Rasta has not stopped digging. He is among the best known diggers in an area where illicit mining is endemic: a folkloric character in a marginal resource economy, renowned for his commitment and apparent fearlessness. Mine closures a decade ago left a legacy of chronic unemployment in Namaqualand, an arid, sparsely populated region with few alternative industries. Though legal mining is no longer profitable enough for companies to employ large numbers of people, enough diamonds remain in the ground to lure hundreds of diggers to risk their lives and break the law.

A week before Christmas, on a scorching summer afternoon, I join Rasta inside one of his tunnels. A spate of police clampdowns on illegal digging has infuriated him, and he wants me to comprehend the physical difficulty of his work. We drive into an abandoned mine pit the size of a football stadium, its bare, chalk-colored walls reflecting the noonday heat. Though mining companies are legally required to rehabilitate old sites, created by stripping away tons of sediment from the bedrock, vast expanses of the Namaqualand diamond fields, scarred and devoid of vegetation, illustrate how seldom this remedial action takes place. Rasta, who is excitable and speaks at a blistering pace, directs us towards a crumbling cliff, six stories high. At its base, obscured by a heap of red sand, stands the entrance to a narrow shaft.

He bends himself inside the opening to the tunnel, balancing on a ledge. “I don’t care anymore,” he mutters. “People must see what we do to survive. Fuck this government.” He descends fast, straddling the sheer drop, his hands and feet finding shallow depressions in the walls. The earth muffles his voice. His outline blurs in the dark. Then it is time to follow. My palms are clammy and I’m afraid I’ll slip, but the gravel, despite sifting loose in places, holds firm. At the bottom, 20 feet from the surface, it smells like wet clay.