Since colonialists such as Barney Barneto and Cecil John Rhodes took land from indigenous Griqua, Nama, Batlhaping, and other peoples in the Kgalagadi desert in 1869 to establish the diamond mining conglomerate De Beers, Kimberley has been the heart of South Africa’s diamond mining industry. Today, the De Beers diamond mines are now residual dumping sites owned by Ekapa Mining, where approximately 30,000 people, mostly migrants from across the nation, work as zama zamas, or informal miners [15, 13]. The name zama zama comes from the Zulu verb for taking a chance . They do small-scale unregulated artisanal “illegal” mining digging for diamonds in abandoned mine dumps with pickaxes and shovels. The work is dangerous owing to lacking proper equipment and rescue opportunities for the many deadly accidents caused by shaft collapses, rock falls, gas explosions, and more. Yet there is often little other choice because getting a permit from the Department of Mineral Resources is very costly and difficult .
Zama zamas are often accused of causing significant financial losses and security threats . Violent fights sometimes break out between different groups fighting for the same piece of mining land. The absence of the law is further compounded by corruption, as miners pay police off to turn a blind eye to their activities. Moreover, not all informal mining is small-scale and artisanal, because international crime syndicates often run complex operations worth over $400,000,000 annually used to fund gun smuggling, human trafficking, and the drug trade. The zama zamas themselves see very little of the profit . The zama zamas are a highly vulnerable, impoverished group desperate to provide for their families . They live in informal settlements such as Samaria, which has one communal water tap, no electricity, and no sanitation . Informal mining is often the only viable source of income for many in Kimberley, who prefer to at least work for themselves rather than clean or do piece jobs. Many also hope to change their lives by finding a big diamond, explains Elisa Louw, a representative for Batho Pele Primary Mining Cooperative, an association of informal miners .
In 2016, Free State University PhD student Michelle Goliath began a project working with more than 3,000 women zama zamas to give them formal, legally recognized status and artisan training through agreements with mining companies. Women zama zamas face the worst marginalization in a male-dominated trade characterized by violence. Goliath negotiated with the Department of Mineral Resources, the local municipality, and mining companies for months to help women establish their own fair-trade artisanal diamond process in collaboration with Batho Pele . Elisa Louw, a former domestic worker from Kimberley’s Galashewe township and now living in Samaria who became a zama zama in 2013 after poor treatment at her previous job, partnered with Goliath to achieve permits in 2017 and recruit over 200 other women, establishing Women in Artisanal Mining (WASM) [2, 4, 5]. This had been difficult for the women to achieve on their own because mines would take their IDs and issue them eviction letters .
On May 10, 2017, approximately 1,000 protesters, including zama zamas, the Kimberley Artisanal Mine Workers (led by Elisa Louw, Lucky Seekoeie, and Victor Taku), Black First Land First, Mining Affected Communities United in Action, and other civil society organizations marched from Samaria to the Department of Mineral Resources to file a criminal case at the High Court against Ekapa Minerals, De Beers, Supper Stone, and Crown Resources for mining without permits, delaying investigations of theft and violence against certain mining groups, and more [7, 9]. They delivered a memorandum of demands condemning the companie’s profiting off illegally grabbed land and destroying the environment without locals receiving the benefits, using private security companies to violently steal artisanal mining equipment (often at gunpoint), fueling black on black violence through the police, forced evictions, racial persecution and killings of zama zamas, and more [7, 8]. However, the zama zamas did not receive any justice for the criminal prosecutions .
According to Louw, “People called us names such as terrorists and robbers” until had a meeting on their behalf with the police, the Department of Mineral Resources, the Sol Plaatje Municipality, and the international Swedish Housing Company [1, 2]. Goliath was able to convince stakeholders that the women zama zamas did not want to fight but were looking for licenses to work . The meeting led to the issuing of a legal permit to the mine in 2019 . The zama zamas would thereafter be covered by the Mining Charter implementing Radical Economic Transformation .
As Louw describes,
“Society labels zama zamas negatively as terrorists. In a way, you become a zama zama at heart once you live with people who fight for economic inclusion every day. You fight the illegal diamond trade that exploited people as digging slaves. You fight formal mining, which is a difficult sector to enter as a woman. You literally fight others with stones for territory. You fight political fights, land fights... the system at every level, to seek an existence … [Goliath] helped us to obtain our legal permit to mine. It was such a relief when we received the permit. I could go home and sleep without worrying about the safety of the old people and children who are mining. The permit changed my life as a woman. My voice is heard; my words count. I am proud of myself” . “I'm happy that we can work freely without worrying that the police would confiscate our goods. Though we sell diamonds, we encourage women to be more independent by empowering them to do other things such as creating a ring from the diamond” .
In April 2019, more than 800 zama zamas attained permits to work on 500 hectares of land owned by Ekapa Mining and Petra Diamonds under the condition that they do not damage old mine shafts and uphold a concern for safety [6, 12]. This was also touted as a more sustainable solution because zama zama work causes less environmental impact owing to using little water and producing insignificant amounts of waste . Although the companies’ security forces used to arrest them, chase them with dogs and helicopters, and shoot at them, they now protect the miners . Arrangements were made for them to be able to sell their diamonds to Canadian and European markets to avoid exploitation from third parties . However, legalization did not significantly change living conditions for the zama zamas. As Louw described, the 2,000 miners living at Samaria continue to struggle with the lack of basic sanitation, substance abuse, and lack of access to emergency services. In her words, “The police rarely give us attention here. You’ll find we call them but they ignore us. Even when we call an ambulance their response times are delayed” . Moreover, Louw added that her position as a marshal in the gave her minimal power to enforce rules, saying “People who live in these compounds are abusing drugs and alcohol. We have people in the camp dealing drugs. If we as marshals had to intervene it would mean risking our lives. Men here don’t treat women with respect anymore because of sex workers. Sex workers and women in general in this camp are treated like slaves and punching bags” . The living conditions in the artisanal mining camps are so severe that women have to be cautious when going to relieve themselves in the veld as they have no basic sanitation. As Louw elaborates, “If you’re a woman these men in the camp are very naughty. If they see a woman going into the veld he’ll watch you until you finish” .