FOCUS: Mining wrote South Africa’s history. Does it have a future? – by Ryan Lenora Brown (Christian Science Monitor – May 7, 2019)

KIMBERLEY, SOUTH AFRICA: On a glassy blue March day, on a cratered field flanked by tin shacks, a man named Shimi sinks his hands deep into the dirt that once made his country rich beyond reason.

One hundred and fifty years ago, a few miles from this spot, another man, whose name was recorded for history only as Swartbooi (“black boy”), found a diamond so big that it warped the entire history of South Africa. Now Shimi is trying to do the same. Actually, Shimi doesn’t really need the history-warping kind of diamond. The rent-paying kind would do. The new-shoe buying type. The type of diamond that means he has enough cornmeal for a few more months.

“If you’re lucky, with this work, you find enough to live,” says Shimi, who asked that his last name not be used because of the illegal nature of his work, as he carries another bucket of dirt to the homemade sifter he uses to search for diamonds in this old mine dump.

The minerals hidden in the seams of the earth below Shimi’s feet have steered the history of South Africa. By the turn of the 20th century, Swartbooi’s discovery had transformed South Africa from a sleepy colonial backwater to the world’s largest producer of both diamonds and gold, and one of its fastest-growing economies. Indeed, the quantity of diamonds was so vast that it helped transform how we see the rock itself, from an ultra-lux commodity for the super-wealthy to a necessary middle-class possession.

Meanwhile, mining shaped the trajectory South Africa in other ways as well, hastening the dispossession of millions of its residents from their land and creating the system of cheap black migrant labor that became the bedrock of its economy. By doing so, it helped lay the foundations for apartheid.

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