The man slips the plastic pouch of gems into his mouth, an illicit haul from the sandy deposits scattered among the mountains of South Africa’s diamond coast.
“It’s my safe,” he explains, sliding the stash back along the inside of his cheek.
The group of diggers are waiting for the cover of darkness to make another raid on a disused mine, opposite their make-shift camp, where 10 miners died in an avalanche three months ago.
Illegal miners in South Africa are ready to risk death to chase a share of the mineral riches that shaped the continent’s biggest economy.
In sparsely populated Namaqualand, where the famed gem deposits run along the icy Atlantic Ocean to the Namibian border, diamond giant De Beers was once the top employer, providing 3,000 jobs and building two towns with recreation halls, a golf course and schools, to house its staff.
However, its mines were halted in 2008 and the company’s Namaqualand operations are in the final stages of a 225 million rand (US$27 million) sell-off after years of retrenchments.
The slowdown has emptied out the private mining towns, but has lured growing numbers of diggers from the area’s other small settlements into the abandoned fields.
“I can say that more than 60 percent of the active workforce are involved in the informal diamond trade,” said Andy Pienaar, of the social outreach office in Komaggas, one of the few small villages in the mining area.
“There was sort of a blessing from the community that ‘people, you may go’” dig, he added. “It was about survival. It was about sustaining and we’re not talking about high life standards, we’re talking about just basically survival.”
Komaggas has little sign of gem wealth along dirt roads that wind past humble homes where many residents survive on government welfare payments.
However, one local buyer, who also digs with a team who share the profits, estimates that he has made about 400,000 rand since he started digging three years ago.
“It changed my life -completely. I don’t even mind about looking for a job now because I was running around Cape Town, Johannesburg, looking for a job — there’s no need now, I’ve got a job now,” he said.
“I’m not a rich man but I can support my family each and every month,” he added.
With some of the world’s richest mineral reserves, mining and its knock-on industries contributed nearly 20 percent of GDP in 2010. Illegal mining losses represent a tiny fraction of that, but were still estimated at 5 billion rand four years ago.
Among the most popular targets for illegal miners are the gold industry’s disused mine shafts.
However, such shafts see regular fatalities from working in unsafe conditions. In Namaqualand, the diggers went underground, into the sandy layers usually mined in open pits, which eventually turned into a graveyard when the tunnels collapsed.
“It’s having quite a big impact on us as a business, but one of the biggest concerns we face around illegal mining is the safety issue associated with illegal -diamond mining,” De Beers spokesman Innocent Mabusela said.
“We would like to see tougher penalties,” he added.
The Namaqualand diggers are only fined 300 rand for trespassing if caught in the mines.
Diamond output is slowing — to nearly 9 million carats in 2010 from more than 15 million five years earlier — but the country’s deposits which produced famed rocks such as the giant Cullinan diamond are still yielding.