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 continues....

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 their fortune.

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 shame.

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 the miners.

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 diamonds.

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 divorce.'

Click here for the latest crisis - the revolt of the wives against De Beers.

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