Analysis: South Africa diamond rush threatens health, trust and environment

Image credit: Dreamstime, Facebook

E&T's analysis reveals lessons from last week's diamond rush in South Africa, including how the government's failure to allay public concerns poses threats to health and the environment.

There is hardly space to stand, let alone dig another hole. Images from last week’s scene of labouring gem diggers in the small South African town of KwaHlathi featured exhausted men and women, some with children strapped to their backs.

Similar scenes last witnessed during the great diamond rush in Marange, Zimbabwe’s eastern highlands, in September 2006, when a mineral rush broke out that had devastating consequences. A government takeover accelerated the momentum in subsequent months. The situation culminated in 10,000 illegal artisanal miners working tiny plots, triggering a water, sanitation and housing crisis. 

So far, the current events in the town near Ladysmith have not reached such dramatic scales, partly because experts are still busy authenticating them.

E&T's analysis shows that the site in South Africa is a long way away from the clusters of other established diamond mining sites. which isn't a bulletproof tell-tale sign but one that reduces the odds

Dr Gideon Groenewald, a geologist from South Africa, said in an interview that kimberlite looks similar to dolerite and that in the area of KwaZulu-Natal where people started digging, there are "severe intrusions of dolerites". With "a lot of dolerites all over the place there," there is a possibility that the gems may turn out to be quartz crystals, though he doesn't want to rule out the claims of diamonds having been found. 

The hectic digging may have been partly driven by the fear among local diggers that the government might fail to compensate them for their findings. Southern Africa Resource Watch executive director Claude Kabemba said that people are concerned about possible government corruption. People are worried that if the state comes in they might not benefit as they should, he said

The risk in sending security forces to protect the area from illegal mining is that they may become part of the trade, says Kabemba. His advice to the government is to have a healthy dialogue with the people digging and to develop a structure that they understand. If these are diamonds, he expects a struggle for control of these minerals between people and government. 

Reporters counted around 1,000 adventure-seekers, according to Reuters. MzansiTimes later claimed numbers had swelled to around 3,000. Many continued digging deep into the night as videos show. 

Rumours of the diamond frenzy spread like wildfire throughout social media. With the hashtag #diamondrush, people debated in thousands of posts why illegal mining should still be legitimate and why they think people should be able to keep them legitimately. 

David van Wyk, a senior researcher at Bench Marks Foundation, an organisation that helps corporations with their social, economic and environmental performance, points out that it's illegal to find a rough diamond and they will need to be handed in at the nearest police station. "You cannot have a rough diamond in your possession unless you have a mining or prospecting license. People will be classified as illegal miners," he commented. 

If the gems turn out to be real diamonds, locals who found them can't just trade them, experts explain. They will need a Kimberley process certificate, Claude Kabemba says. "Without that, any trade is illegal," he warns. The government will need to collect the stones back under a fair price, he adds. 

While the jury is still out on whether the gems are in fact real diamonds, misinformation spread quickly claiming experts had already confirmed their authenticity.

One news outlet claimed - though only in a headline - that geologists had verified the authenticity of the gems. This which wasn't the case . The government only sent experts to the scene a day after the article came out. The story quickly garnered more than 8,000 views, however. 

Other social media users tried to use images to verify the stones and shared their opinions on social media, spreading ill-informed judgements, misinformation and false hope. 

Experts worry deeply about the spread of Covid-19 in the area. South Africa’s cases are on the rise. Pictures posted by locals on social media sites Facebook and Twitter show almost none of the diggers wearing protective masks.

During these times of Covid-19, to see so many people gathering without masks is concerning, Kabemba from SAR Watch says. He thinks people do in fact understand the danger they are facing. However, in a situation of poverty, marginalisation of those communities and a high level of unemployment, "I think the choice between getting some riches or getting Covid-19 is clear: people will go for the diamonds". 

KwaZulu-Natal's Premier, Sihle Zikalala raised fears, calling it a potential ‘super-spreader event’. He said he regards the act of mining as illegal and has called for order, without much success.

Environmental impact

While experts point out that disease can spread among labourers due to poor sanitation and living conditions, gem and specifically diamond exploration can also take a heavy toll on the local environment with soil erosion, deforestation, and ecosystem destruction cited as a result. Drone images shot by locals and shared on Facebook show hundreds of holes. 

The impact could also be observed via Planet satellite imagery, which is updated daily. E&T found patches changing colours between 11 June and 17 June, when most of diggers arrived at the site. 

This analysis also found how people attempted to advertise and sell their gem exploits on Facebook Marketplace. One ad attempted to sell a stone for R10,000, around £509. The images posted were of low quality. Whether any sales were actually conducted on Facebook Marketplace, E&T could not confirm. 

If stones were traded on Facebook, the tech giant might have potentially facilitated illegal diamond sales by failing to respond quickly to take the ads down. If the stones weren't diamonds, the platform at least helped to raise false hopes and potentially scam buyers.

The jury is still out on whether these are real diamonds, and the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) sent experts to verify reports, who arrived on Tuesday. The review involves DMRE as well as “experts from Mintek (the Council for Mineral Technology) and the Council for Geoscience who can judge the mineral composition of rocks, and can provide an analysis of areas potential for mineral resources respectively," it stated in a press release.

It also asked people who are digging to “leave the site to allow the DMRE to conduct a proper inspection without any hindrances”.

Other wares started selling like hot cakes. One product, so-called diamond testers, a technical device to test properties of diamond stones, were marketed heavily (and probably sold well) among social media networks, including Facebook Marketplace. While expert reviews claim that diamond testers are fairly accurate, they may mistake moissanite gems as diamonds as the stones are very similar.

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