South Africa’s ‘diamond rush’: Why thousands are flocking to KwaHlathi

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Since June 9, fortune seekers armed with pickaxes and shovels have been flocking to a field in KwaHlathi, in eastern South Africa, after a local found some stones he believed to be diamonds. The discovery has caused a veritable “diamond rush”, attracting people from all over South Africa to claim their share. But what’s the real story behind the rumours of these mysterious crystals? Our Observer told us more. 

It all started with a local herder who came across the first stones. Then, after photos and videos began spreading online with the claims that diamonds were discovered in KwaHlathi, thousands of people rushed in to search for precious gems. 

‘In the case that they’re real, we want to have as much as possible’

Our Observer, Simthembile Mtshali, who works in Johannesburg but is originally from the KwaHlathi area, rushed back to her hometown when she heard the news from her family: 

There was a guy who was herding cows in the field. He starting digging – I don’t know what he was looking for – and he found those precious stones. On June 9, he started calling everyone in the village and telling them about the stones. Most people don’t have WhatsApp or data here in the village, so it wasn’t spread on social media. But those of us from the cities who have internet connections started spreading videos and it became exposed. 

A video posted on Twitter June 11 shows crowds of people, equipped with pickaxes and shovels, searching for diamonds in KwaHlathi. 

We used digging equipment, shovels, pickaxes, and we found a lot of them. You have to dig for about a metre and you can find the precious stones, they’re very small. Every person from my family has gone there. They’re still digging because the results are not out yet – they’re still testing whether they are real diamonds or not. In the case that they’re real, we want to have more of them, as much as possible.

A team of geologists from the government has collected samples in order to determine whether the material is diamond or not. They expect conclusive results before mid-July. While the existence of diamonds in the region has not been ruled out, some experts surmise that it is more likely quartz, a similarly transparent crystal that is far less valuable than diamond. 

‘There are now people from all over’

The rumours escalated into a national frenzy:

There are now people from all over, from different provinces. You’d be surprised if you knew this place, because usually we only see a car every 15 minutes, but now there’s a lot of traffic. About 4,000 people come per day. The field is an open space, but it’s not big enough to accommodate all these people, they are crowded in the few open holes. They wait for someone to dig out the soil and they start searching, because the stones are so tiny. They are fighting for them. People are even sleeping there now, which shows how hungry and desperate they are. They dig until the morning. 

In this video posted on Twitter June 14, a family loads “the biggest stone yet” into their car. 

A video posted on Twitter June 13 shows hundreds of people digging tirelessly for pieces of stone.

After the discovery went viral on social media on June 13, the government of KwaZulu-Natal, the province in which KwaHlathi is located, called for order, proclaiming that the excavations amounted to “illegal mining”. The South African Department of Minerals and Energy sent their “enforcement and compliance” unit to inspect the site on June 15.

The government has asked people to vacate the site, fearing “chaos and a possible stampede” alongside concerns about the spread of Covid-19. 

‘Suddenly the government sees something that might be precious and they’re interested in us’

For Mtshali, the government’s intervention reveals systemic issues in her region.

For years, we have told the government that we have problems with roads, with schools, but we’ve been neglected. Our village is so underdeveloped. We don’t have purified water, we don’t have paved roads – it’s rural.

Within a week of discovering these stones, the government sends people, but they never came before to check the water, the roads, the people living in poverty. Suddenly they see something that might be precious and they’re interested in us. We are worried that the government says we must give back the stones if they are real diamonds, but we can’t do that, we’ve been neglected for so many years. 

Despite local authorities imploring people to leave the site for inspection, and uncertainty surrounding the true material of the stones, hundreds of people remain hopeful that the discovery will be their key to a prosperous future. 

Some of the stones collected by Mtshali and her family. Photo provided to the FRANCE 24 Observers.
Some of the stones collected by Mtshali and her family. Photo provided to the FRANCE 24 Observers. © Simthembile Mtshali

‘We could have the life we’ve always wanted, the life we see on TV’

For Mtshali and other residents of KwaHlathi, the crystals have offered a glimmer of hope for their economic prospects.

If the diamonds are real, I will be so happy. I think it’s going to change peoples’ lives. In my family of 13 people, only three of us are working to support the family. The people in this area are not making good money, they are just making enough to support their families and put food on the table. If the diamonds are real, we could have the life we’ve always wanted, the life we see on TV.

South Africa deals with high levels of unemployment, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. More than 30 million South Africans are living in poverty.

The world’s sixth-largest producer of diamonds, South Africa manufactured 7.2 million carats in 2019.