A picture taken on July 6, 2012 shows a disused mine of diamond giant De Beers in Kommaggas. — AFP Photo

SOUTH AFRICA: The man slips the plastic pouch of gems into his mouth, an illicit haul from the sandy deposits scattered among the mountains of South Africa's diamond coast.

"It's my safe," he explains, sliding the stash back along the inside of his cheek.


A man slipping the plastic pouch of gems into his mouth, an illicit haul from the sandy deposits scattered among the mountains of South Africa's diamond coast, in Kommaggas. — AFP Photo

The group of diggers are waiting for the cover of darkness to make another raid on a disused mine, opposite their make-shift camp, where 10 miners died in an avalanche three months ago.

Illegal miners in South Africa are ready to risk death to chase a share of the mineral riches that shaped the continent's biggest economy.

In sparsely populated Namaqualand, where the famed gem deposits run along the icy Atlantic Ocean to the Namibian border, diamond giant De Beers was once the top employer, providing 3,000 jobs and building two towns with recreation halls, a golf course and schools, to house its staff.

But its mines were halted in 2008 and the company's Namaqualand operations are in the final stages of a 225 million rand ($27 million, 22 million euro) sell-off after years of retrenchments.

The slowdown has emptied out the private mining towns, but has lured growing numbers of diggers from the area's other small settlements into the abandoned fields.

A question of survival

"I can say that more than 60 per cent of the active workforce are involved in the informal diamond trade," said Andy Pienaar, of the social outreach office in Komaggas, one of the few small villages in the mining area.

"There was sort of a blessing from the community that 'people, you may go'" dig, he added.

"It was about survival. It was about sustaining and we're not talking about high life standards, we're talking about just basically survival."

An illegal miner displaying diamonds digged out of a disused mine in Komaggas. — AFP Photo

Komaggas has little sign of gem wealth along dirt roads that wind past humble homes where many residents survive on government welfare payments.

But one local buyer, who also digs with a team who share the profits, estimates that he has made about 400,000 rand since he started digging three years ago.

"It changed my life completely. I don't even mind about looking for a job now because I was running around Cape Town, Johannesburg, looking for a job -- there's no need now, I've got a job now," he told AFP.

"I'm not a rich man but I can support my family each and every month."

With some of the world's richest mineral reserves, mining and its knock-on industries contributed nearly 20 per cent of GDP in 2010. Illegal mining losses represent a tiny fraction of that, but were still estimated at five billion rand four years ago.

Among the most popular targets for illegal miners are the gold industry's disused mine shafts.

But such shafts see regular fatalities from working in unsafe conditions. In Namaqualand, the diggers went underground, into the sandy layers usually mined in open pits, which eventually turned into a graveyard when the tunnels collapsed.

"It's having quite a big impact on us as a business, but one of the biggest concerns we face around illegal mining is the safety issue associated with illegal diamond mining," said De Beers spokesman Innocent Mabusela.

"We would like to see tougher penalties," he added.

The Namaqualand diggers are only fined 300 rand for trespassing if caught in the mines.

A legal miner sifting sand and stones as he looks for diamonds in Komaggas. — AFP Photo

'You can be murdered'

Diamond output is slowing - to nearly nine million carts in 2010 from more than 15 million five years earlier - but the country's deposits which produced famed rocks such as the giant Cullinan diamond are still yielding.

Two years ago, South African gems brought in the fourth highest values in the world: 15 per cent of the $12 billion worldwide production.

There is talk of "millions" being made in a boom in the area from January until the May accident, with the fatal Bontekoe site drawing hundreds of miners who used to queue to get into an underground cave and tunnels.

"It's very difficult and dangerous, you can be murdered in the process," said a female buyer who only wanted to be known as Risa.

"If somebody knows you've got diamonds, they might follow you and try to get them. If you resist, they can kill you to get them," she said.

Despite South Africa's diamond trade regulations, a rock can be easily sold on the black market.

But beyond the profits, the locals also feel a strong sense of entitlement to the land that predates the arrival of white prospectors in the late 1920s.

South Africa's apartheid past handed control of the country's resources to whites and only 8.9 per cent of mines had shifted ownership by 2009.

"De Beers occupies our land and should give it back to us," said Pienaar.

"We do not want to be slaves on our own land any more. We don't just want to be workers, we want to be owners. We want to be part of the decision making process."

The community plans to lodge a claim to the land and there is also bitterness that the shine of gems has not reached Komaggas.

"Nothing has happened here," said William Cloete, who runs a licensed mine next to Bontekoe.

"All our diamonds, the billions, are out of our land.... But we're sitting with nothing - an empty town with nothing."

Updated Aug 04, 2012 07:30am

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