Chapter 14 The Crown of Shame.
A sample of what I discovered in South Africa...
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 asked about health problems associated with the dust.
'Yes, many of us have lung and breathing problems. When the mine inspector comes, he just visits what the mine manager shows him.
'What about medical records?
'De Beers controls all health matters. Medical certificates from doctors that do not work for De Beers may not be accepted. We are told we must get a certificate from one of the 2 De Beers doctors. These doctors do not listen to us. If the doctor sees you can't breathe properly, they retrench you certifying you are healthy then, when you are offered work, perhaps two months later, they then discover you are too sick to be employe! The mine chases you out so it won't have to pay (sick pay or compensation).'
I asked: 'Are many miners laid off as sick?'
'De Beers hires workers as temporary in the first place - and if they fall sick they say the 'lungs are wet' and so cannot make them permanent. It is hard for us to get compensation even if permanent. White workers with damaged lungs get R49,000 to R51,000. Coloured workers get over R30,000 but R2,800 is the maximum for black workers.'
When I went to Finsch, the other mine from which I had been banned, I learnt how very dangerous could be the dust in the diamond mines. Kimberite often contains serpentine and a form of serpentine is asbestos. The union Health and Safety Officer told me he had been unofficially informed by white staff that 30 per cent of the dust on most levels at Finsch was asbestos...
The Health and Safety Officer told me: 'Some levels of the mine are more filled with asbestos than others. In some places diamonds lie in asbestos. The dust is often so thick one can only see a metre ahead. We sometimes get nose bags but we are told the mine hasn't that many and we must make one nose bag last at least a year. In 20 minutes a new mask gets filled with dust and stops working properly. Our noses are always getting plugged up, filled with black muck. The smell of the chemicals used in explosions also gives us heavy headaches, affects our sinuses.' The hills near Finsch are officially called 'the Asbestos Hills' because they are full of this dangerous mineral. Finsch was discovered by prospectors looking for asbestos, not diamonds.
'Many of the fans in the underground mine have not been working for over two years.' alleged another miner. The union safety officer added to this: 'they say electricity is so expensive that they have to turn off the fans and dust extractors for whole days at a time.' He emphasised again: 'The whole mine is full of dust.' If these accounts of these economies are true, it is no wonder that the mining superintendent at Finsch, Mark Button, could boast in 1994: 'Our costs compare with the best in the De Beers group.' I do not imagine they pay out much for funeral expenses.
... It took me sometime to discover the migrant hostel hidden inside De Beers property beside the Koffiefontein mine. Without announcing my presence to management, I went to meet the miners living there, driving up a road that bypassed the main gate . ...They were working for contractors, former white employees of De Beers who were now paid by De Beers to recruit and run teams of black workers.
There were approximately ten such teams of between 8 and 50 members at Koffiefontein. They were paid destitution wages. Some, I was told, received about 180 Rand a month (£35 - $A60). Most earned between R300 to R400 a month. If they had been directly employed by De Beers, their minimum union negotiated pay would have been R1070 a month (£194 or $A358) .... I was told by a shop steward 'They have no protection. No medical or unemployment provisions protect them.' The contracted workers told me they wanted to find a way to join the union. 'But if our boss should find out we would be sacked. The boss would throw us out and drive to Lesotho to get replacements.'
... The workers had tried to get De Beers to contribute to improved community facilities. 'It took many months work to get De Beers to agree to put up a couple of asbesto-sheet constructed school rooms''. They showed me the very unsafe structures that would be totally condemned elsewhere and which already were battered with holes in an end wall. The older buildings were mostly brick.
There was more to come. .... accomodation was 10 to a room. They slept on bunks, often without mattresses. If they had no mattress they covered the wires of the bed with sheets of cardboard or folded blankets. The showers were accessed across the top of an open stinking drain and were in a long open room with no privacy. A dangling wire loop was pulled to get water. There was only cold water. It had dirt in it and tasted odd.
... They told me: 'If our wives came to visit, they must stay off the mine's premises, out of the compound. They could be arrested for trespass if smuggled in. This is regarded as a criminal charge and, as such, not a matter for the union. Only white families are allowed to come to visit their husbands.'
... They told that when Harry Oppenheimer said he was coming to Kleinzee, 4 Mercedes Benz cars were brought hundreds of kilometres from Cape Town. The whole town was repainted - even the pavements were painted black and white - and everything was heavily guarded. 'But his plane did not land.'
.... On a tempestuously windy day I secured permission to tour the mine workings with a union guide despite protests from management that it was not a good day to go as the workers would be in shelters. The entire mine was shrouded in dust clouds. We drove nearly blind along the tracks to the widely scattered mine operations - and the miners were working. We first came across a group of 'bed rock cleaners' right on the coastline where a dyke had been constructed to keep out the waves. I was told it was a particularly diamond rich area.
... Leaving the car, I was savagely blasted with wind blown grit and had to walk backwards to where they were working. They wore balaclavas and some had goggles. The wind howled around them but the gang were trying to clean the bedrock up to a white painted stone. When they reached it, they would be entitled to a tiny bonus.....
All this was still happening when I went to South Africa despite the rise to power of Nelson Mandela several years earlier.
There is much powerful material to be found in the whole chapter! If you are a black miner, I will provide it to you for free. Just email and ask. Click to Contact Jani