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Diamond Fever

Near Kimberley, scores of wretchedly poor miners are digging by hand in search of miracles. In the great journo tradition I’m deathly hungover, and when I lurch towards the guide he takes two guarded steps backwards. Am I too in the grip, unawares, of diamond fever?

Original publication: Sunday Times Lifestyle, July 12 1998.

diamond fever

Although tomorrow’s another day at the mining house, tonight Kimberley’s rank and file have thrown caution to the wind and rushed in their hundreds to peg their claims at one of the diamond capital’s steak houses.

As one cash-strapped family after another arrives to join the queue for the budget special on offer, they’re guided through the murmuring burger barn into a bar-cum-holding area. Their mood is that of strangers brought together by an airport delay. Finally patience is rewarded and the long-awaited windfall comes, with a side-order of fries. Eat up, and early to bed. Tomorrow it’s back to the salary tread-wheel.

Gone, apparently, is the riotous mêlée of the diamond rush days in which the city was spawned during the nineteenth century. Gone, too, is the teeming shanty boomtown, where retching drunks celebrated their big find on high-kicking dance-hall trollops while Barney Barnato and Cecil Rhodes struggled for control of the emerging diamond empire that was eventually to consolidate under De Beers mining house.

Diamond fever lured intrepids from across the planet to Kimberley. Digging nearly shoulder to shoulder at Du Toits Pan mine, they burrowed over 200 metres down this diamond-rich volcanic pipe, leaving the world’s largest hand-dug excavation, the Big Hole, as an inverted monument to their hubris. All were driven by a desire to plunge through muck and mire until fortune would redeem them and miraculously transform the squalor of their lives into something glorious. From the mud to the stars.

In modern-day Kimberley that fever has been tamed, channelled into organisational routine and scientific procedure. And while the city markets its history with pride, it’s curiously symbolic to sit inside a recently opened Irish theme-bar and view the mass-produced portraits of old-time British country life adorning its walls. The images try to create ‘a sense of history’, but it seems redundant here of all places. It’s as if a pre-packaged version of someone else’s history were busy transplanting a real one.

Yet barely an hour’s drive away, living reminders can be found of the diamond rush’s heyday, and as much as these human relics recall the past, they also reveal the hardships and yearnings of present-day South Africans.

These relics inhabit a dusty, sparsely wooded stretch of veldt outside Barkly-West called Longlands. In pioneering days, it was neighboured by a myriad of similar mining villages that arose near the Vaal River, the ‘river of diamonds’. Longlands neither sank into oblivion like most of them, nor did it hit the big time like others.

Today it’s a hamlet with a school, clinic and bottle-store, all serving the 40 or so permanent dwellers. Aside from the bottle store, what makes Longlands worth a stop are the open-cast diamond mines operating in its vicinity – and the grizzled characters working on them.

Driving on the national road, you wouldn’t suspect, nor even give two hoots, that the thickets of bush lining the roadside conceal a peculiar world of its own. Yet every day scores of diamond diggers are out there, probing the soil in quest after ancient water-courses and diamonds deposited by the extinct or long-since diverted rivers that once cut across an unrecognisably different landscape.

Formed in the pressure-furnaces of the earth’s crust, diamonds were flushed up volcanic pipes to the surface millennia ago, to be borne along the subcontinent’s rivers, either settling on slower-flowing banks or debouching into the West Coast. For the diggers, prehistory is a working reality, and they read the traces of primordial events with quickening pulse. Particular contours in the landscape, or soil rich in alluvial gravel, provide clues to the whereabouts of diamonds.

Like other open-cast works, Longland’s diggers fall into three groups. Top of the heap are the big companies, independent of De Beers, which use multi-million-rand equipment to excavate and process massive tonnages of soil from large stretches of land. Below them are private individuals, high-tech and well-heeled after labouring in city businesses or the diamond trade itself. They are often mobile raiders, striking out from established claims to chance their luck elsewhere.

Whereas these two groups use mechanised techniques for excavating, transporting and processing soil, the loners and small teams at the bottom of the food chain are the wheelbarrow-and-shovel set, the historical hand-diggers. ‘It doesn’t help to go hand-digging,’ cautions Dirk L., whose forefathers were open-cast diggers, ‘because you can spend a day and make a million or a lifetime and make nothing. As a mechanised digger, you’ve got volume, so your chances are better. This is a job where you can leave for work a poor man and come home a millionaire.’

But many hand-diggers remain dirt poor. Even routine admin fees to the state strain their budgets. A permit application costs R50, a further R25 a month afterwards, and a R500 deposit is repaid once they’ve rehabilitated the house-sized craters they excavate to shale or bedrock level. Indeed, the miners are regulated by laws requiring the meticulous registration of every diamond – where and when was it found, and to whom was it sold.

These laws seem to presuppose an inherent tendency towards evil in the diamond fraternity. It’s as if the sparklies, pure as they appear, induce a mood of diabolism in the wild-eyed buggers possessing or pursuing them. You’d swear the law were regulating a radioactive substance. Dangerous, criminal, the fiery crystals throb in your hands as though their discovery had violated some taboo or a resistance offered by the land.

Dirk believes that the detectives who enforce the laws, whether by visits to sites or police traps, are protecting the diggers’ welfare – and lives. If it didn’t matter where you obtained and sold your diamonds, what’s to stop you from knifing your buddy and claiming his windfall, or somebody else from doing the same to you moments later?

‘It would be a free-for-all,’ Dirk says, and mischievous diggers have their permits revoked. Diggers themselves might dispense rough justice to thieves and corrupt work-mates. ‘If you’re caught,’ he chuckles, ‘insist on going to the police for safety.’

Tourists be warned: Longlands mining area is access-restricted, and visitors should consult Kimberley’s tourist office before bothering the locals, some of whom ‘will talk to you, others might shoot you.’ Twentysomething Dirk is our excellent tour guide. He’s supervised visits by researchers from the American Museum of Natural History and film crews from far afield. Indeed, one wiry digger, aptly named Koos Patience, is virtually a celebrity, having featured on television screens from Britain to Japan.

In classic journalistic tradition, I’m brain-damagingly hungover, and whenever I lurch towards Dirk, he takes two guarded steps back. Is it that obvious? Or perhaps, unawares, the diamond fever is rabidly upon me and Dirk, blocking my path, fears I’ll sprint towards the bull-dozer silhouetted rock pile on a nearby claim, only to be machine-gunned down like that chap in Gallipoli.

Many locals, black and white, are third- and fourth-generation diggers in this region, and some grow folklorishly large. Still, the era of shoot-outs and brawls among bushveld titans has petered out thanks to the conversion a decade ago of Longlands Hotel into an off-sales outlet. With its veranda and corrugated-iron roof, this century-old sleaze-pit has windows etched in diamond with the names of lucky prospectors and the carat-size of their big finds, which could equate into thousands, sometimes millions, of rands.

For James M., an eighty-year-old digger long retired from the corporation mines but still a knottily muscled nugget of manhood, it’s been ages since his last modest windfall – a marble-sized, 11 ½ carat diamond he found simply lying on the surface of a chest-height heap of soil on his claim.

Despite his meagre fortunes since then, James and his four or five ragged assistants set out early every morning from a nearby township with great expectations. Out here it’s so cold your life flashes before your eyes, and while they wait for the iced-up water pipes in Longlands to thaw out so that their squadron of oil-drums can be filled, pint-sized James smiles beneath his beanie and announces in his whispery voice, ‘Today’s the day.’

His face as lined as an Amazonian woodcut, James speaks with the confidence of someone securely in custody of generations-old mining know-how. But that pretty much wraps up his press statement. Soon he and his bushily-sideburned grandson get busy shovelling one paint-tin load after the other of soil into the feeder-pipe of their washing pan. While his apprentice pours in the reddish grit, James moves it along with an antique spade as diminutive as himself. His hands and forearms grow webbed with bulging veins. His limbs look like largish ducks’ legs and feet paddling in the soil.

Today over a ton of muck – sieved of rocks and large stones – will be mixed with water in the washing pan, a cylindrical drum in which the mud is churned into syrupy broth by a circle of blades rotated by a petrol engine stabilised on rocks. Inside this gurgling roulette wheel, waste materials are drawn to the machine’s centre, where they’re released down a run-off pipe, while the heavier, allegedly diamondiferous, silt is pushed outwards to the pan’s rim. Finally the sludge will be scraped and drained, then sorted on a carpeted table.

‘They’re living history,’ Dirk opines, ‘working as their ancestors did with the same South African-designed technology used 130 years ago. These hand diggers probably won’t be around in 25 years’ time.’

Some people wouldn’t be around in 25 minutes’ time. I tramp about the makeshift site. It’s not the stuff of romantic postcards. Massed around the washing pan are oil-drums, piles of soil, wire-mesh frames and the small scrap yard that constitutes James’s treasure-trove of equipment.

Some of the other guys in the outfit amble about wordlessly in peak caps and broken, laceless North Stars, smoking cigarettes of Boxer tobacco hand-rolled in newspaper. A twig fire built on corrugated iron smoulders underneath a pot. Crud-lined pannikins encountered underfoot suggest that today’s breakfast will be the same as yesterday’s. Looks like it’s mielie-pap and bitter coffee again, Doris.

Amid the petrol engine’s clatter, the day draws out mindlessly. No longer hungover, I’m merely sun struck. I tread in dung. Oh joy. James’s operation is located on the rim of a plateau. From this promontory, a rocky embankment slides into a gorge, where ordure-spreading donkeys gambol in the dust. The scene only requires a poncho’d gunslinger to ride in from the desolation and blow these pranksters away.

But digging isn’t a fistful of dollars, agrees 62-year-old Ben, a portly Tswana and lifelong vegetable hawker in the big towns. Ben is expertly staying aloof from the main action by spending the day tinkering with a faulty engine. Engines need petrol but they don’t have to be fed, he sighs, slapping his paunch. Aside from his multiply clocked-over 1970s Corona, with which commutes from a far-flung shanty town, he has nothing: ‘Just the clothes I’m wearing.’

After several dry months at the digs, the occasional fleck of diamond isn’t enough to amortise the subsistence debts he runs up in support of his unemployed relatives, so Ben has to solicit ‘a piece of bread’ from the white honchos, generally helpful but still of old South African bent, who supervise the mechanised digs. I follow his drift, and hand over my cigarettes.

‘Diggers are survivalist-orientated,’ Dirk observes as we drive off to Oom Corrie, the supervisor of a lonesome stone-crushing plant who’s set up shop digging in the interstices – the containment walls, the equipment sites – left untouched by a large-scale digging works, now completed.

Corrie, a 51-year-old Durbanite and rally driver, charges toward you from the direction of his self-built brick office and a nearby caravan, sunk wheel-height into the sand and surrounded by a rock garden. He’s a genial dust-devil, a zephyr of high spirits and entrepreneurship. He laughs! He swears! He pops open a plastic vial!

Hallucinogenic drugs? No – diamonds!

Great! He’s shown us his find! Now he’ll have to kill us! He’ll bury us in his slag heap! No one will ever know!

But Corrie’s not like the others. Thrilled to have company, this zesty extrovert in a silent wilderness bemoans the ‘unfriendliness’ of the longer-established diggers. ‘A bad nation,’ he clucks, ‘and the worst friends in the world.’ Pally-pally with you when their luck’s good – ‘the guy working the hill over there made two million in two days! Two million!’ – diggers grow tetchy when the dreamed-of mansion and 16-door garage in Benoni eludes them.

‘There was an old man I used to greet. ‘Whad’ya want?’ he’d shout. ‘No, hullo, Oom,’ I’d say. ‘Fuck off, man!’ he’d shout. ‘Get away! Where’s my fuckin' rifle?’’

Corrie’s stones are pip-sized, but ‘digging’s like fishing,’ he explains, gesturing at the ghostly water-courses around us. ‘You’ve got your line on the water. It doesn’t matter how big the rod is or how thick the line – you might be the bladdy bugger who lands the biggest fish!

‘It looks like dead ground but there’s stuff in it, and you know what? The unbelievable part is that God created such beautiful things in the earth. It’s something you cannot grasp!’ He smacks his baseball cap in incredulity and thrusts out his cupped hands, shaking them as if the miraculous stone of pure light were already burning in his palms. ‘You cannot grasp onto it! You think – cheezus, is this really mine? When the diamonds get you, you won’t ever leave.’

Back at James’s claim, he’s sorting through the glistening riverine pebbles, but despite the backbreaking labour that’s led to this moment, it’s not a day for another Star of South Africa. James shrugs, and scoops the yield off the table onto the sand. A waste.

‘But it’s coming,’ he says with quiet authority. ‘It’s going to come.’

It had better come quickly, or these tenacious small-timers – ‘living history’ incarnating the fever that built an empire – will become history pure and simple, and sooner than later. One more postcard in a marketing campaign, they’ll circulate like ghosts in an impersonal machine.


* Names have been changed.


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