Glitter and Greed in South Africa
By Jani Roberts c96
An African picking diamonds from crevices for De Beers -
in the top security "Forbidden Zone" c96JR.
When I went to South Africa to
research its diamond industry. I had earlier made a film on this
industry but the BBC, after broadcasting my $1.2m investigative film,
refused to sell it to any other country including to South African
television under a deal it made with De Beers. So I showed the film
myself inside De Beers diamond mines. Everywhere it was applauded and
said to be accurate.
Well, I am determined not to be intimidated. I will
hopefully soon find a publisher for the book I have now written.
Surely De Beers' arm cannot reach everywhere...In the meantime there
is the internet thank God.
Here is a taster of what this book says about life
today in Nelson Mandela's South Africa. The section below is just a
small part of one chapter. The research was not too easy to do. I was
banned by De Beers from some mines... but was smuggled into all the
ones I was banned from. This book tells much about the underside of
the diamond world.... For all Mandela's hard work, much evil
The story starts here. I had just arrive in South
Africa. Nelson Mandela was in power. I was going to see what was
happening in the diamond fields....
The figures appeared shadowy, children
darted from the darkness to vanish from the flickering light of my
headlights as I hesitatingly drove over unmade roads through the dust
storm that enveloped the seemingly endless shanty town. The dust had
a peculiar gritty feel. It crusted my lips, irritated them. I was in
Kimberley, the town that gave birth to De Beers. The dust on my lips
was kimberlite, the ore from which diamonds are extracted.
It swirled unhindered through razor wire
from acres of grey waste tips, from mines dug in Kimberley's heart,
clouding the air as it had for a century. But I hoped there must be a
change, an elation in the step of black Africans the dust enshrouded.
It was 1994. South Africa was free. For the first time they were
living in a democracy. On arrival, when I asked for the mineworkers
union, I was directed by chance to an elegant 2 storied iron roofed
and iron laced building from which the diamond empire reigned during
the decades of apartheid and still held strong. The security guard at
its door pointed out the way to the nearby office of the National
Union of Mineworkers where diamond miners were awaiting me. Many
union organizers were also now in power, one was the Premier in
Kimberley. How would De Beers adjust?
One of the miners took me to speak with
miners in a De Beers hostel by a diamond mine amid barbed wire
encased wastelands and then into a township to his home where I was
to stay, across the road from a diamond mine waste treatment plant.
On the way he showed me the squatter camps where thousands lived in
cheaply erected tiny shanties of corrugated iron. I met diamond
workers in their crowded rooms. I met the people who won De Beers
I should have been well prepared given the
length of time I had been engaged in this investigation. But nothing
I had read on the diamond trade had prepared me for this sea of
squatter camps and townships that were inhabited by two thirds of the
city's residents and stretched to the horizon. The city of diamonds
on which the De Beers fortune was founded, the city that paid for the
British empire to be expanded thoughout East Africa, was surrounded
by poverty. I was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of destitution.
These shanty towns and townships were created by the shoddy wages De
Beers paid its employees. The homes of its workers are its crown of
Near the diamond waste reprocessing plant
in the township I came across the blacks' vast grave yard. Many
graves were marked with heaps of rough rocks. Many were freshly dug.
Sometimes the rocks supported the marks of affection of the extremely
poor: a cracked jug, an old teapot, broken cups. From the graves'
size, many were of children. Some had black tombstones. Others had
the name of the dead sprawled on a piece of metal. Many had no name.
The wall around the graveyard was cheaply erected of rough rocks
without municipal help. Not far away, on the city side of the blacks'
township, was the large white grave yard. It's graves were spaced in
wide lawns. The fence around it was high and robust. Thus apartheid
affects even the dead.
I had come to see how De Beers was doing
in post apartheid Africa. When I arrived the National Union of
Mineworkers by a very fortunate coincidence was about to hold a
conference for shop stewards from De Beers' diamond mines and planned
to put on our film, 'The Diamond Empire'. They asked me to talk to
I did this - and was enthusiastically
invited to visit all their mines. Three days later I hired a car and
set out to Kimberley, some five hours drive from Johannesburg. Every
town I passed had a sister town of hovels. A constant stream of black
servants walked, sometimes in uniform, over the dirt paths connecting
the twined towns. Thus I first saw apartheid.
The townships surrounding Kimberley were
divided by partly overgrown heaps of blue rock, the remains of
diamond mines. Clouds of fine dust blew from these tips over a
multitude of playing children. Excavators and bull- dozers moved
through the haze busily reprocessing the waste tips. De Beers had
sold the waste at so much a truck load to licensed contractors whose
job was to search the waste for diamonds that De Beers may have been
missed, selling any found back to De Beers - the only permitted
buyer. I stopped by a gate where a row of black women were sitting.
They told me they were waiting to make sure their men did not waste
their pay. I met one of the diamond miners, a truck driver. He told
me his take home pay for a 50 hour week was R96 - about US$28. There
was clearly little romance in being a diamond miner.
A senior government official told me they
had asked De Beers if unemployed black workers could start their own
enterprises processing these waste tips. The answer was no. The
reason given was that it would encourage 'illicit diamond buying' and
that blacks would gather like 'vultures' (De Beers' word) to search
for diamonds. Instead De Beers was trying to entice to these waste
tips Canadian investors who were at that time enthusiastic about
In South Africa there is a law prohibiting
'Illicit Diamond Buying' or IDB. Any rough diamond found on public
land must be sold to the government who resells it to De Beers.
Africans gasped with amazement when I told them I had seen diamonds
openly traded on the street in Bombay and New York. For them such
actions would mean jail. Despite this, I was told of an organized
black market in diamonds in Kimberley run by men who hated De Beers
for its mean wages and treatment of workers.
The miners over the next days drove me
along countless miles of pot-holed and rock strewn dirt roads lined
with tin shacks, showing me the more substantial tiny overcrowded
homes - not showing me the poorer homes for fear of shaming their
owners. Despite their poverty, residents were house proud and I saw
many taking every day to dust the dust from the steps and
window-sills of even the poorest homes. The bare earth surrounding
the hovels was raked daily and attempts were made at gardens.
In the evening I saw the shacks lit by
scanty electric lights or by flickering flames - as many could could
not afford electricity. Power bills often come to as much as 300 rand
a month a household (approximaely £57 or A$100), the entire
income of those that worked the diamond dumps. (I heard while I
wasthere a news report saying that two thirds of South Africans had
no electricity in their homes.)
In the Kimberley Mines Division of De
Beers there were between 1,200 and 1,400 workers of which 1,100 were
black. Most lived in the townships and squatter camps. A senior
government official in Kimberley told me they approached De Beers for
financial help to rebuild these homes in the name of the
Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) of the new ANC
government of National Reconciliation. De Beers replied they had
given their annual 120,000 Rand (£22,000 or $A40,000) from their
Chairman's Fund and could give no more. I saw too the suburbs
constructed for white miners and for managers, suburbs with names
such as 'De Beers' and 'Ernestville.' These homes were spacious,
green with lawns, well garaged, the only inadequacy the 'maids
quarters' did not cater for the numbers of servants employed or for
the familes of those that had children, for early every morning black
women servants, some uniformed, would arrive at their gates from the
townships and taxi stands.
The mineworkers union had applied a week
in advance for me to be admitted and here seemingly no alarm bells
had rung. The security guard at the gate was expecting me and called
my hosts to collect me. Klienzee is a small De Beers owned town cut
off from the rest of the diamond lease by another security perimeter.
The union organized accommodation for me in a 'coloured' security
guard's home. I could not stay with a 'black' as they only had rooms
in single sex hostels where they were not allowed guests. Only the
'coloureds' and 'whites' were provided with family homes and a
servant and servant's quarters - solely by virtue of their part white
blood,. As apartheid has been officially abolished, the reason De
Beers gives for not giving blacks married quarters is that the black
workers do not belong to the correct wage band. They are nearly all
in the A and B bands with rights only to single sex accommodation in
a hostel. A union organiser told me 'One or two blacks are C band -
but they are only window dressing. Most are A band.'
The family I was staying with introduced
me to their black servant (to me of a scarcely distinguishable hue) I
learnt she had a husband in the mine's single quarters with whom she
could not stay and an 8 year old daughter who she was not allowed to
keep with her. Abe LaRouse, my host, told me: 'It's a De Beers
rule'.. His wife added: 'If my husband got a job outside the mine,
even though I have a job here, I would have to move into single
quarters and my children would have to leave. If a white worker gets
married, he instantly gets married quarters. The administration is
all white. Apartheid is really alive at Kleinzee. It is a major issue
here. ' One black miner at a meeting told me: 'They are breaking up
families for diamonds'.
If a wife of a black miner should obtain
work at the mine, she is accommodated in female single sex hostels.
If husband and wife should sleep together in their rooms, they are
punished. A notice posted inside Villa Rosa, the female hostel,
stated: 'Complaints have been received that men are sleeping over in
Villa Rosa. Management regards these offences as very serious and
will act in future severely towards those that are guilty.' If a
woman should get pregnant she must leave for 3 months and not return
with her child if she wishes to keep her job.
A husband can make a booking for a few
houses made available for conjugal visits. The waiting list can be
very long. There are between 3,000 and 2,000 workers at Kleinzee. I
had seen on arrival, the girl friends and wives of the miners waiting
outside the security gates of the mine for a brief moment with their
husbands. They were not allowed in as they had no jobs in the mine or
town. I was biterly told by the miners working for De Beers, a
company that promotes engagement rings: 'this company promotes
Click here for the latest crisis - the
revolt of the wives against De Beers.
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