An illegal miner at Durban Roodepoort Deep. Picture: THE TIMES
An illegal miner at Durban Roodepoort Deep. Picture: THE TIMES

Grandmother Clara Maitse has been arrested seven times over the past decade for illegally mining precious stones in Kimberley, SA’s diamond hub.

Despite the steep legal penalties for DIY mining, the mother of 11 was not "scared of being arrested because the earth and its minerals belong to us black people". Unlike formal mining operations, small-scale miners pan for precious minerals around the edge of established quarries in the hope of coming up lucky.

"We voted for Mandela and now there is no more fear," added Maitse.

Her defiant patience has paid off and small-scale mining, an industry that employs many thousands of people, has been decriminalised for the first time under a permit system. In April, Maitse and 800 other illicit miners received licences to operate on a vast tract of land near Kimberley.

The landmark deal was aimed at curbing the rapid growth of illegal mining, which has been spurred on by rising unemployment. "The most effective way of combating illegal mining is legalising it," said Deputy Mineral Resources Minister Godfrey Oliphant. "Once you formalise it, it solves many problems."

Armed with rudimentary hand tools, workers set off from their shacks at sunrise. Dotted across a vast plain, they shovel gravel into recycled plastic buckets before sieving it for hidden treasures.

Industrial mining and small-scale miners ‘can co-exist’. The company’s security officers used to chase away the miners, but now they protect them

"I feel very relieved now that we have licences," said Maitse, a former domestic worker, as she crushed clumps of soil in search of precious stones. "Beautiful money is what we will get." Maitse, who lives with her 94-year-old husband, turned to illegal mining to provide for her nine grandchildren after three of her daughters died.

‘Treated like terrorists’

Obakeng Monyera has been working the soil around Kimberley since 2007 and has dozens of scars from where police fired rubber bullets at him and other illicit miners. "I don’t even remember how many times we have been arrested, we were beaten, chased with helicopters — just to try to break our spirit," he said. "We were treated like terrorists. Now we are millionaires-in-the-making ... It was a hard journey."

The new permits have meant more than just increased earnings for the miners — they have restored their dignity. Elisa Louw, a mother of five, joined the so-called "zama-zama" miners — a Zulu word for "chance takers" — in January 2013. She laboured for 12 months without uncovering a single diamond. Then on Christmas Day she discovered a small stone that earned her R1,200.

It was around that time that she and others decided to lobby the government for recognition. After more than a year of protests and negotiation "change came to our lives", said Louw. "We were treated like animals, like criminals — [now] we have a permit, we are free." Fighting to hold back tears, she described the "happiness, that pride, when you wake up in the morning saying ‘I’m not an illegal miner anymore’".

Deputy minister Oliphant agreed that decriminalisation had brought about greater dignity and certainty. "When we gave them the licences, you could see the sparkle in their eyes."

The diamond mining pilot programme saw the newly licensed informal miners given access to 500ha of land owned by Kimberley Ekapa Mining — a joint venture between Petra Diamonds and Ekapa Mining.

"It’s been a long time coming, it’s something we have always envisaged," said Petra Diamonds spokesperson Gert Klopper, who added that industrial mining and small-scale miners "can co-exist". The company’s security officers used to chase away the miners, but now they protect them.

Kimberley

The choice of Kimberley for the small-scale diamond mining pilot is highly symbolic as the hub of the country’s mining sector and where gem giant De Beers was founded in 1888 by British colonialist Cecil Rhodes. It is also the home of the Kimberley Process, an international certification scheme to keep conflict diamonds off the market.

The informal miners can make discoveries worth as much as R20m a month although weeks go past without major discoveries. Sleek Mercedes-Benz and SUVs clog the dusty narrow roads around the informal mine, testament to the success of some who toil there. Others travel to work on foot and live in squalor. "This is a milestone and we hope it will be a turning point for other zama-zamas," said Sifiso Dladla, who works for British charity ActionAid supporting mining communities.

According to the International Labour Organisation, up to 20% of the world’s diamonds are dug-up by independent miners such as Louw and Monyera. "Communities affected by mining have never benefited from mining," says Dladla. Until now.

AFP