KWAHLATHI, South Africa – Sbusiso Molefe held the pickax over his head and carved the black, lumpy dirt around his feet. He gave a few more vigorous blows to the edges of the shallow crater he had dug at the bottom of a hill, before picking up a handful of loose soil and shaking it in search of the shard of a gem.
Rumor that a shepherd found clear diamond-like stones in the ground of a grassy, tree-lined slope last month has drawn thousands of South Africans to KwaHlathi, a sleepy village in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal. where the cattle roam freely.
Coming by cab and car, many hours away, they dreamed of luck in a nation whose persistent struggles with unemployment have reached new heights amid the pandemic.
No one who came seemed the least disheartened by the widespread skepticism that the stones were actually diamonds.
Two days of relentless digging yielded four stones to Mr Molefe, 41, who admitted he had no idea if they were in fact diamonds.
“I feel desperate,” he said. “We just hope. If they are real diamonds, that means we are winning.
The diamond rush has completely transformed KwaHlathi, where the chief estimates that around 4,000 families reside.
Cattle once grazed on the digging field, which is on traditional land owned by the chief and until recently was covered with sweet thorn trees and grass. Now it looks like a bare, cratered moon – a treacherous terrain of holes, many of which are the size of graves.
The chief said he was not very happy with what the diggers were doing to the earth, but he understood their plight and did not intervene.
Mr Molefe came here after reading on social media that diamonds had been found in the field, less than an hour from his rural hometown. It sounded too good to be true, but he had to check it out.
He had been unemployed since October when the textile factory where he worked as a foreman burned down. With his job search at a standstill, he subsisted on social grants totaling less than Rand 1,100 ($ 77) per month, a quarter of what he earned at the factory. Staple foods like beef, milk, and butter were luxuries he couldn’t afford anymore.
“As a man of the house it makes me feel less than that,” he said of the difficulty of supporting his three children.
Unemployment in South Africa is 32.6%, the highest level recorded since the government started producing quarterly labor force reports in 2008. Among young people, the situation is even more dramatic: around three in four young South Africans are unemployed .
These statistics translate into all kinds of odd jobs – and risky odd jobs, like venturing into abandoned mines, which have proven fatal. They also help explain the long-term appeal of KwaHlathi and its alleged diamonds.
A sort of satellite village has sprouted up here. Many diamond diggers wrapped themselves in blankets and slept in the holes they dug. Vendors sold cookies, sweet corn kernels, and kota – a South African street food made with white bread, fries, and bologna. Music was blowing from the cars as some people made jokes and sipped beer. And there was no shortage of merchants looking to cash in on their newly mined finds, which they believed were gems.
“Diamonds! Diamonds! Some people shouted.
“I sell,” others said calmly, offering stones for 100 rand ($ 7) to over 600 rand, the prices revealing both their own doubts and desperation.
Although it was the economic hardships that brought many here, the scene still felt like a big carnival, an escape from the desperation of an austere job market. People gathered to examine the stones and celebrate their finds.
“It gave them the freedom not to stress about something,” said Tshepang Molefi, 38, examining the activity on the ground around her one evening as she took a break from digging. . She had arrived the night before after an almost five-hour cab ride from Johannesburg and had been digging all night.
“That people are so happy is rare,” she added. “Maybe if it’s Christmas.”
Just days after the rush began, officials visited the site and took samples for testing.
Government leaders have called on people to stop digging and go, citing concerns over the coronavirus as South Africa is reeling from a third wave of infections. They also said informal digging was bad for the environment, destroying vital pastures.
Despite the warnings, people kept coming.
Many scoffed at the pleas of government officials, jaded by a history of corruption and colonialism that has seen foreign entities extract lucrative mineral resources from communities, with only a handful of elites in the country.
“The government can’t tell us anything,” said Lucky Khazi, 61, standing next to a hole his friends dug. “These big cats, these old crooks, what are they doing? Every day you will hear from millions of people being stolen. He added, “The government cannot tell us what to do in this land of our ancestors. “
Mr Khazi lost his 26-year job with a transport company in December due to the pandemic. His job prospects are bleak, he said, because no one wants to hire someone his age.
A boy approached Mr. Khazi and his friend, Thiza Mhayise, with two stones for sale – one for R80 and the other for 100. Mr. Mhayise rolled the stones between his fingers and held them close. the fading sunlight.
“It changes color,” Mhayise said. “It doesn’t look like it.”
“It looks like a fake,” Khazi said.
Liau Masekotole, a shepherd, said he first found light stones in the field a year ago and quietly hid them to bring them to his family in Lesotho. The only other person who knew was another shepherd, he said.
Their secret was revealed on the first weekend of June when the other shepherd, Happy Mthabela, showed some of the stones to guests at a wedding. Within a week, amateur miners flooded the field
The occupancy rate at the only hotel in town, the James Ilenge Lodge, has fallen from 30% to around 80%, mostly from journalists, but also diamond diggers, according to Excellent Madlala, the owner.
Mr Madlala recalled being perplexed on a Thursday in early June when virtually none of his employees showed up for work. The next day, his security guard apologized for skipping work, showed him a stone and told him diamonds had been found nearby.
Mr. Madlala reacted to his employee’s absenteeism as many bosses would: he took a shovel and went digging. He left with about twenty small stones.
Government officials put the brakes on the business about a week after the rush began: tests, they said, showed the stones were quartz crystals, not diamonds.
Searches at KwaHlathi ended last week after authorities asked those who remained to leave. But prospectors don’t give up so easily – some are now digging in the fields of neighboring communities. And some are still not sold on the government’s announcement.
“I don’t believe the government,” Khazi said when contacted by phone after the announcement. “They’re spreading false news that it’s not a diamond because they don’t want people to go digging diamonds there.”
This sentiment did not surprise Ravi Pillay, a provincial government official in charge of economic development.
“This is not an unreasonable concern given the way things have been in the past,” he said.
A geological survey is underway to determine the commercial value of quartz, Pillay said, and officials would seek to ensure that the community benefits if there are any profits to be made.
Ms Molefi, who had made the trip to KwaHlathi from Johannesburg, said she would consult with gemologists herself to find out if the stones she unearthed were indeed diamonds.
She has not been able to work since March last year after her job at Johannesburg airport was cut due to the pandemic. She lives in a shack in an informal neighborhood south of town and has had to put aside her dream of building a house for herself and her 7-year-old daughter.
Still, Ms Molefi found the digging a laudable undertaking.
“If you don’t go and check,” she said, “you will only have your regrets.”