Digging for jewels in KwaHlathi, South Africa; a clear stone unearthed (right). (Joao Silva/The New York Times (KwalHlathi); Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters (jewel)

South Africa’s ‘Diamond’ Rush

Driven by desperation and rumors, thousands of jobless South Africans rushed to a sleepy village in search of buried treasure

The man stretched a pickax high above his head and hacked into the clumpy black dirt around his feet. He took a few more vigorous whacks into the edges of the shallow crater he had dug at the bottom of a hillside, before scooping up a handful of loose soil and shaking it in search of the sparkle of a gem.

Sbusiso Molefe thought maybe he could strike it rich.

The rumor in June that a herdsman had found clear stones resembling diamonds lured thousands of South Africans like Molefe to KwaHlathi, a sleepy village in an eastern province of South Africa where cattle roam freely.

Coming by taxi and by car, many from hours away, they dreamed of a turn of luck in a nation whose persistent struggles with joblessness have reached new heights amid the pandemic. No one who came seemed the least deterred by the widespread skepticism that the stones were really diamonds.

Two days of digging had yielded four stones for Molefe, a 41-year-old Black South African, who conceded that he had no clue whether they were actually diamonds.

“I’m feeling desperate,” he says. “We are just hoping. If they are real diamonds, it means we are winning.”

The diamond rush has completely transformed KwaHlathi, where the village chief estimates that about 4,000 families reside. Cattle once grazed on the digging field, which sits on land owned by the chief and was until recently covered with sweet thorn trees and grass. Now it looks like a bare cratered moon—a treacherous terrain of holes, many of them the size of graves.

The man stretched a pickax high above his head and hacked into the clumpy black dirt around his feet. He took a few more forceful whacks into the edges of the shallow crater he had dug at the bottom of a hillside. Then he scooped up a handful of loose soil and shook it in search of the sparkle of a gem.

Sbusiso Molefe thought maybe he could strike it rich.

In June, a rumor spread that a herdsman had found clear stones that looked like diamonds. It lured thousands of South Africans like Molefe to KwaHlathi, a sleepy village in an eastern province of South Africa where cattle roam freely.

They arrived by taxi and by car, with many of them coming from hours away. They dreamed of a turn of luck in a nation that has continued to struggle with joblessness. The lack of jobs has reached new heights amid the pandemic. No one who came seemed to care about the widespread doubt that the stones were really diamonds.

Two days of digging had led to Molefe, a 41-year-old Black South African, finding four stones. But he admitted that he had no clue whether they were actually diamonds.

“I’m feeling desperate,” he says. “We are just hoping. If they are real diamonds, it means we are winning.”

The diamond rush has completely transformed KwaHlathi, where the village chief estimates that about 4,000 families live. Cattle once fed on the digging field, which sits on land owned by the chief. Until recently, sweet thorn trees and grass covered the patch of land. Now it looks like a bare cratered moon. Many of the holes across the terrain are the size of graves.

Jim McMahon

Too Good to Be True?

The South African government says tests have shown that the stones discovered are quartz rather than diamonds. Not everyone has been swayed by the news.

Molefe came here after reading on social media that diamonds had been discovered in the field, less than an hour from his rural home village. It sounded too good to be true, but he came nevertheless.

Molefe had been without a job since last October, when the textile factory where he worked as a supervisor burned down. With his job search hitting dead ends, he has subsisted on government support of about $77 a month, a quarter of what he’d earned at the factory. Staples like beef, milk, and butter are luxuries he can no longer afford.

“As the man of the house, it makes me feel less than,” he says of the difficulty of providing for his three children.

He isn’t alone; many Black South Africans have been hit hard by the economic crisis created by Covid. And their situation was tough before that.

The South African government says tests have shown that the stones discovered are quartz rather than diamonds. Not everyone has been swayed by the news.

Molefe came here after reading on social media that diamonds had been discovered in the field. It sounded too good to be true, but he still came. It was less than an hour from his rural home village.

The textile factory where Molefe worked as a supervisor burned down last October. He’s been without a job since. With his job search hitting dead ends, he has survived off government support of about $77 a month. It’s only a quarter of what he’d earned at the factory. Staples like beef, milk, and butter are luxuries he can no longer afford.

“As the man of the house, it makes me feel less than,” he says of the difficulty of providing for his three children.

He isn’t alone; many Black South Africans have been hit hard by the economic crisis created by Covid. And their situation was tough before that.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Living conditions for many Black South Africans are hard; a neighborhood in Soweto Township.

A History of Inequity

South Africa has a long history of inequity. For much of the 20th century, the nation was ruled by apartheid, a government-imposed system of strict racial segregation. In a nation with a large Black majority, a White minority ruled, denying Black South Africans basic rights and essentially treating them as aliens in their own land.

Apartheid officially ended in 1991, and three years later, South Africans elected a new democratic government led by Nelson Mandela, the country’s first Black president. But dismantling apartheid didn’t end the country’s problems, including widespread poverty and high unemployment, which currently stands at 32.6 percent. Among young people, the situation is even more dire: About two of every three South Africans ages 15 to 24 are without a job.

Those statistics help explain the long-shot appeal of KwaHlathi and its supposed diamonds.

A satellite village of sorts has sprouted there. Many diamond seekers wrap themselves in blankets and sleep in the holes they’ve dug. Vendors sell biscuits, sweet corn kernels, and kota—a South African street food of white bread, fries, and bologna. And there’s no shortage of merchants looking to cash in on their finds, which they insist are precious stones.

“Diamonds! Diamonds!” some people yell.

“I’m selling,” others say quietly, offering stones for anywhere from $7 to $42, the low prices revealing both their doubts and their desperation.

Government officials visited the site and took samples for testing. They’ve asked people to stop digging and leave, citing concerns about rising Covid-19 infections. They also say the informal digging is bad for the environment, destroying vital grazing land. But people keep coming.

South Africa has a long history of inequity. For much of the 20th century, the nation was ruled by apartheid, a government-imposed system of strict racial segregation. In a nation with a large Black majority, a White minority ruled. Those in power denied Black South Africans basic rights. Black South Africans were essentially treated as aliens in their own land.

Apartheid officially ended in 1991. Three years later, South Africans elected a new democratic government led by Nelson Mandela. He was the country’s first Black president. But ending apartheid didn’t end the country’s problems. Issues like widespread poverty and high unemployment continued. In fact, the nation’s unemployment rate currently stands at 32.6 percent. And among young people, the situation is even more dire. About two of every three South Africans ages 15 to 24 are without a job.

Those statistics help explain the long-shot appeal of KwaHlathi and its supposed diamonds.

A satellite village of sorts has sprouted there. Many diamond seekers wrap themselves in blankets and sleep in the holes they’ve dug. Vendors sell biscuits, sweet corn kernels, and kota—a South African street food of white bread, fries, and bologna. And there are many merchants looking to cash in on their finds, which they insist are precious stones.

“Diamonds! Diamonds!” some people yell.

“I’m selling,” others say quietly. They offer stones for anywhere from $7 to $42. The low prices reveal both their doubts and their desperation.

Government officials visited the site and took samples for testing. They’ve asked people to stop digging and leave, citing concerns about rising Covid-19 infections. They also say the informal digging is bad for the environment. The digging is destroying vital grazing land. But people keep coming.

Many snicker at the pleas of government officials, jaded by a history of corruption and colonialism that has seen foreign companies extract lucrative mineral resources from communities, with only a handful of elites benefiting.

“These fat cats, these old crooks, what are they doing? Each and every day, you’ll hear about millions stolen,” says Lucky Khazi, 61, standing next to a hole where his friends dig. He added: “The government can’t tell us what to do in this, our ancestors’ land.”

Liau Masekotole, a shepherd, says he first found clear stones in the field a year ago and quietly stashed them to take to his family. The only other person who knew was a fellow herdsman, he says. Their secret leaked in June when the other herdsman showed the stones to guests at a wedding. Within a week, amateur miners had flooded the field.

Excellent Madlala, owner of the town’s only hotel, was puzzled one day in early June when barely any of his employees showed up. The next day, his security guard apologized for skipping work, showed him a stone, and told him that diamonds had been discovered nearby. Madlala got a shovel and joined the digging. He came away with about 20 small stones.

Many mock the pleas of government officials. They’ve been jaded by a history of corruption and colonialism. For so long, foreign companies have drained profitable mineral resources from communities. And only a handful of elites have benefited.

“These fat cats, these old crooks, what are they doing? Each and every day, you’ll hear about millions stolen,” says Lucky Khazi, 61, standing next to a hole where his friends dig. He added: “The government can’t tell us what to do in this, our ancestors’ land.”

Liau Masekotole, a shepherd, says he first found clear stones in the field a year ago and hid them to take to his family. The only other person who knew was a fellow herdsman, he says. Their secret leaked in June when the other herdsman showed the stones to guests at a wedding. Within a week, amateur miners had flooded the field.

Excellent Madlala owns the town’s only hotel. He was puzzled one day in early June when barely any of his employees showed up. The next day, his security guard apologized for skipping work, showed him a stone, and told him that diamonds had been discovered nearby. Madlala got a shovel and joined the digging. He came away with about 20 small stones.

Joao Silva/The New York Times

The land has been torn apart by the digging.

‘I Don’t Believe the Government’

Having been told to leave KwaHlathi, some prospectors have simply started digging in nearby communities instead. And they’re wary of the government’s insistence that the stones aren’t diamonds.

“I don’t believe the government,” Khazi says.

A geological study is underway to determine the commercial value of the stones, and officials say they will make sure the community benefits if there are profits to be made.

Having been told to leave KwaHlathi, some people have simply started digging in nearby communities instead. And they’re wary of the government’s claim that the stones aren’t diamonds.

“I don’t believe the government,” Khazi says.

A geological study is underway to determine the commercial value of the stones. Officials say they will make sure the community benefits if there are profits to be made.

Told to leave KwaHlathi, some started digging in other places nearby.

Tshepang Molefi, 38, who made the five-hour trip to KwaHlathi from Johannesburg, says she’ll consult gemologists on her own to find out whether the stones she unearthed are indeed diamonds.

She hasn’t been able to work since March 2020, when her job at the Johannesburg airport was cut because of the pandemic. She lives in a shack in an informal settlement south of the city and has had to put on hold her dream of building a house for her and her 7-year-old daughter.

Still, Molefi says the digging was a worthwhile endeavor.

“If you don’t go and check,” she says, “you’ll only have your regrets.”

Tshepang Molefi, 38, made the five-hour trip to KwaHlathi from Johannesburg. She says she’ll connect with gemologists on her own to find out whether the stones she unearthed are indeed diamonds.

In March 2020, her job at the Johannesburg airport was cut because of the pandemic. She hasn’t been able to work since then. She lives in a shack in an informal settlement south of the city. Her lack of employment has delayed her dream of building a house for her and her 7-year-old daughter.

Still, Molefi says the digging was a worthwhile attempt.

“If you don’t go and check,” she says, “you’ll only have your regrets.”

John Eligon covers southern Africa for The New York Times.

John Eligon covers southern Africa for The New York Times.

32.6%

PERCENTAGE of South Africans who are unemployed.

SOURCE: Statistics South Africa

PERCENTAGE of South Africans who are unemployed.

SOURCE: Statistics South Africa

55.5%

PERCENTAGE of South Africans living below the poverty line.

SOURCE: World Factbook (C.I.A.)

PERCENTAGE of South Africans living below the poverty line.

SOURCE: World Factbook (C.I.A.)

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