Mining wrote South Africa’s history. Does it have a future?

Why We Wrote This

Mining was the original powerhouse of South Africa’s economy, even as it fed its sharp inequality. But today, the industry’s decline speaks to a wider sense of stagnation that will guide many voters’ choices May 8. 

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
An informal diamond miner at work in the city of Kimberley, South Africa. Such miners trawl sites that were once formal mines in search of diamonds that have been left behind.

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Each day, on the hour, tourists in Kimberley, South Africa, queue up to tour The Big Hole. It’s aptly named: an abandoned mining site that spans the length of almost five football fields and plunges 50 stories below ground level.

A century ago, this was a boom town. But in recent decades, the industry’s decline has left behind a massive gap, and not just a literal one. Gold and diamond mining steered the history of South Africa, endings its days as a sleepy colonial backwater and helping to lay the ground for apartheid. But today, 25 years into democracy, mining is in decline without a clear replacement – a struggle that speaks to the country’s broader challenges tackling inequality and economic rot. On the eve of elections, current President Cyril Ramaphosa has promised to revive the industry, while his left-wing opponents vow more radical redistribution. But many here are skeptical.

Every day, thousands of people comb through the old mines, in search of crumbs left behind – highly dangerous, often unprofitable work. But “one day you could find a big diamond, and it could change everything,” says Elisa Louw, a representative for an informal miners’ association. “Diamonds like that, they have a holiness to them.” 

On a glassy blue March day, on a cratered field flanked by tin shacks, a man named Shimi sinks his hands deep into the dirt that once made his country rich beyond reason.

One hundred and fifty years ago, a few miles from this spot, another man, whose name was recorded for history only as Swartbooi (“black boy”), found a diamond so big that it warped the entire history of South Africa. Now Shimi is trying to do the same. 

Actually, Shimi doesn’t really need the history-warping kind of diamond. The rent-paying kind would do. The new-shoe buying type. The type of diamond that means he has enough cornmeal for a few more months.

“If you’re lucky, with this work, you find enough to live,” says Shimi, who asked that his last name not be used because of the illegal nature of his work, as he carries another bucket of dirt to the homemade sifter he uses to search for diamonds in this old mine dump.

The minerals hidden in the seams of the earth below Shimi’s feet have steered the history of South Africa. By the turn of the 20th century, Swartbooi’s discovery had transformed South Africa from a sleepy colonial backwater to the world’s largest producer of both diamonds and gold, and one of its fastest-growing economies. Indeed, the quantity of diamonds was so vast that it helped transform how we see the rock itself, from an ultra-lux commodity for the super-wealthy to a necessary middle-class possession. 

Meanwhile, mining shaped the trajectory South Africa in other ways as well, hastening the dispossession of millions of its residents from their land and creating the system of cheap black migrant labor that became the bedrock of its economy. By doing so, it helped lay the foundations for apartheid. And later, the industry’s massive earnings would help for decades to insulate South Africa’s white regime against calls for transformation.

But now, mining is declining dramatically, and without a clear replacement. In the 1980s, mining accounted for a fifth of South Africa’s gross domestic product. Today, it is 8 percent. The gold industry today employs some 100,000 people – one-fifth of what it did at its height. Those figures are part of a broader picture of economic rot. Formal unemployment here hovers between 25 and 30 percent, and two major rating agencies, S&P and Fitch, have downgraded the country’s economy to so-called junk status in the past two years.

In Kimberley, the onetime mining boom town where streets are named for mines and the people they made rich, the decline has left behind an even more massive gap. Quite literally. Each day, on the hour, tourists queue up near the city center to tour The Big Hole, an abandoned mining site that spans the length of almost five football fields and plunges 700 feet – about 50 stories – below ground level.

Against this backdrop, South Africa is now preparing, on May 8, to elect its next president. For many, the country’s struggling economy will be at the heart of that choice. And few industries symbolize what’s at stake like the country’s onetime economic engine, mining.

“In this country, the majority of people are just getting by,” says Kabelo Bontsi, another informal diamond miner in Kimberley. “We vote because that’s the benefit of freedom. But are you really free if you don’t benefit economically? Can you be politically free if you’re not economically free as well?”

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
A shot of The Big Hole in Kimberley, South Africa, which was, at the turn of the 20th century, the largest diamond mine in the world. It fell into disuse during World War I and now serves as an attraction for tourists.

***

The word for informal miners like Shimi and Mr. Bontsi in South Africa is zama zama, which comes from a Zulu verb: to take a chance.

Every day, in Kimberley and the crumbling towns that surround it, thousands of people take their own chance, combing through old mines and piles of their tailings in search of the crumbs the mining companies left behind when these spots ceased to be profitable decades ago. 

The zama zamas’ methods are little different from the first miners’ who scoured the ground here a century and a half ago. They crush rocks by hand and then pass the dust through a fine sieve, looking for the tiny shards of clear rock that refuse to break apart.

Because most of these miners work illegally, their numbers are notoriously hard to record. But one recent study from the Open Society Foundation estimated that there are between 10,000 and 30,000 currently working in South Africa. Altogether, the informal mining industry is worth about U.S.$500 million annually (by comparison, the legal mining industry produces about $45 billion per year). In Kimberley, thanks to a deal struck by mining companies, zama zamas, and local government, some informal miners now work legally with state-issued permits. Others – like Shimi – continue to do the work illegally.

But for individual miners, the winnings are generally small. Most of the miners the Monitor spoke to said they’d never found a diamond worth more than a few hundred dollars – and even those can come months or years apart.

Still, informal digging carries the same charged energy it did a century ago.

“Even when people have nothing, they prefer to work here rather than clean or do piece jobs because at least they work for themselves,” says Elisa Louw, a representative for Batho Pele, an association of informal miners here. “And one day you could find a big diamond, and it could change everything.”

“Diamonds like that,”  she says, “they have a holiness in them.”

South Africa’s current president, the African National Congress’ Cyril Ramaphosa, has promised that if he is reelected May 8 – and he almost certainly will be – he will bring economic development to places like Kimberley, where many say informal mining is their only viable work. A former trade unionist in the mines and later a mining executive, Mr. Ramaphosa has promised to revive the industry, which has been buffeted in recent decades by challenges like increasing costs, competition, and labor disputes.

But in places like Kimberley, his proposals face skepticism – and a sharp challenge from a left-wing opposition party called the Economic Freedom Fighters. Created by a fiery former ANC activist named Julius Malema in 2013, the party has gained support – and notoriety – for its radical proposals to shift the balance of wealth in one of the world’s most unequal countries.

Among them: The EFF says that if it wins an electoral majority, it will nationalize the country’s mines, distributing their earnings among the black communities that have historically built key industries while seeing little of their enormous profits.

“All you have to do is look around you to see that communities here didn’t benefit from the discovery of diamonds,” says Aubrey Baartman, head of the EFF in the Northern Cape Province, where Kimberley is located. “All we are asking is for a government that provides for its own people.”

But the EFF, which is expected to take about 10 percent of the vote, isn’t exactly known for asking nicely for what it wants. Its leaders, led by Mr. Malema, advocate frequently for members to take over unoccupied or underused parcels of land. (In Kimberley, locals accuse the group of being behind several recent land grabs on mine sites, though Mr. Baartman vehemently denies the charge.)

But many here say they’re doubtful of the motives behind these land takeovers.

“People are poor in this country because they don’t have land, because their land was stolen from them, that is true,” says Sabata-Mpho Mokae, a local novelist and historian. But like many here, he believes that groups that call for land redistribution are often doing so largely to win votes, without a clear idea of what would happen next. “Politicians are also capitalizing on [people’s] suffering,” he says.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
A tourist snaps a photo of an old mine shaft at The Big Hole, a former diamond mine turned historical attraction in Kimberley, South Africa.

 

***

On July 16, 1871, two years after Swartbooi found a diamond in a riverbed outside Kimberley, another man, Esau Damoense, sank a shovel into the rust-colored ground in what is now the city center and pulled another hard, clear speck of rock from the dirt.  

While Swartbooi’s diamond had touched off a rush to the area, Mr. Damoense’s began the excavation of one of the most important diamond mines in the world. The land Mr. Demoense stood on belonged to a family called the De Beers. And in the years after his discovery, it was chopped and dug and plundered. As thousands tilled the earth in search of diamonds, what had once been a hill became first a ditch, then a gully, then an abyss. 

Meanwhile, a city sprang up all around it. Originally called New Rush, the place changed its name in 1873 to Kimberley. Like many mining settlements, it was a brusquely cosmopolitan place, where the collision of so many people from around the world often scrambled the social order. In the city’s early days, it had black civil servants and black prospectors. Black men with high enough incomes were allowed to vote in local elections. One of South Africa’s most important intellectuals, Sol Plaatje, who also co-founded the ANC, got his start in Kimberley as a telegraph messenger. 

But that racial mobility spooked many white residents of mining cities like Kimberley and Johannesburg, and working-class white workers began to push for formal divisions to protect them against competition from black miners.

By the 1960s, when Mr. Damoense’s grandson Andrew Damoense was in high school, not only was Kimberley rigidly segregated, but the role of black South Africans like his own family had been all but written out of mining history.

“If we learned about Kimberley at all, it was about how wealthy this city was. We learned about how it had the first streetlights in the Southern Hemisphere,” he says. “But mostly, history was Napoleon. History was what happened in Europe, not here.”

Today, visitors to the site can wander through a rehabilitated version of Kimberley’s old town, which backed up against the mine. There are quaint old shoe stores and antique shops, a barber and a church and a little tin shack made up to look like the ones where diggers sold their diamonds to buyers a century ago. Still, to many who visit, the history feels incomplete.

“People ask me a lot, What happened to the black men who made all these important discoveries [of diamonds]?” says Jackie Mokwena, a tour guide at The Big Hole.

For many, though, the answer is already clear: nothing. Those men didn’t get rich. They didn’t get written into history books. Their communities saw little of the wealth they unearthed.

And that is still true today. A little outside town, while Ms. Mokwena walks another group of tourists to the edge of The Big Hole, a group of kids plays soccer on a field scratched out from tailings taken from that very mine. Overhead, the leaders of the three major political parties – the ANC, the EFF, and the Democratic Alliance – smile widely from campaign posters tacked to electrical poles.

Shimi sits nearby, taking slow drags from his cigarette and watching the neighborhood stream by. Come Wednesday, he says, he won’t be casting a ballot for any of them.

“Nothing changes,” he says. “Voting is a waste of time.”

He drops the stub of his cigarette into the dust, sinks his hands into the dirt, and returns to work.

 Reporter’s Notebook

As I stepped forward to pay my admission fee for Kimberley’s Big Hole – the abandoned open-pit diamond mine that sits smack in the center of town – the cashier looked at me apologetically.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “No tours today.” And then by way of explanation, “load shedding.”

Load shedding. In recent years, this has become a South African term of art, a sterile way of describing the rolling power outages instituted by the state electricity company to keep its aging grid from collapsing. When I visited Kimberley in early April, the entire country was experiencing scheduled power outages multiple times per week.

Kimberley was a striking place to be during load shedding because it was a reminder of the city’s slow fall from grace. In 1882, just a few years after its founding, Kimberley became the first city in the Southern Hemisphere to have electric street lights. It had them, its residents still proudly explain, even before London.

Back then, Kimberley was a boom town, chaotic and roughly cosmopolitan. But then diamond mining began to decline. Today, the city’s streets are largely empty, even at rush hour. Potholes crater the roads in even the chicest of neighborhoods. In an ornate synagogue just outside the city center, a caretaker still sweeps the floors and dusts the seats daily, though only about 15 people a week come to services here, says that caretaker, Freddy Panthle.

“Kimberley has lots of troubles now,” he says. “Everyone who can leave, they have left.”

He went back to sweeping. The lights were still out.

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