Artisanal miners, popularly known as Zama Zamas, are largely viewed as criminal miners because they are not officially recognised. They operate on a subsistence level, usually selling their minerals through illegal channels and fighting for territory is part of their daily routine. It’s not a safe terrain for women but some have braved it in the Kimberly diamond fields over the years. And recognising their potential, one woman has decided to bring together about 3 000 other women in that area and ensure their operations are legally recognised. The Weekly’s Martin Makoni asked Michelle Goliath, a PhD student in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of the Free State, how the idea came about and why the particular focus on women. Makoni also asked Goliath how the women are expected to benefit in the long run and how other communities could emulate her model. Excerpts:
How did this idea of working with Zama Zamas come about, and why women in particular?
Initially, I had been working with artisanal miners for about three years. And the reason we chose the ladies was because there is always quite a gender bias in mining. The mining sector is always about men. So, we found it important to focus on the ladies because the needs of women are totally different to those of men. One of the areas I focused on in my PhD programme was the issue of contested space. The idea was ‘how do people navigate through poverty. And women have a different way of navigating through poverty compared to men. Generally, when you look at ladies and their struggles, it’s very easy for them to stay suppressed because the mining industry, in this case, is not a very friendly environment. So, we had to find a way, because people are broken. Poverty breaks people. So, to build people up, we need to give them a reason to want to grow and do better, hence the focus on ladies.
So, why take the risk to involve women in artisanal mining, surely, there are other areas one could consider which are less risky?
We looked at the entire value chain… previously while working with bigger groups, the focus was always on legalising the whole Zama Zama environment. But when we looked at the ladies, we considered the fact that the lady who wears the diamond ring, very often doesn’t know where that diamond came from. Also, these diamonds were not being traded for fair value. In the past, people were only getting 20 percent of the value of the stones, they now get 100 percent. And very often, the most impoverished people, are the ones who are digging. As soon as the stone leaves them, they get nothing else. It’s like you get divorced from your stone. So, to build the whole value chain… it was so that some money from the rest of the process – the cutting, polishing, jewellery making, the selling and exporting – must come back to the ladies involved in the artisanal mining process.
The women are working as a cooperative, how do they access the money and at the same time ensure the operations continue?
Some of that money goes into the cooperative to get more permits and more equipment. The idea is for them to keep getting some value out of their work. That’s actually why we decided to do that and it just grows. It’s been a marvelous project because people have seen the benefits of the value chain. Normally, if you look at the colonial past of South Africa, all these things were exported directly out of the country and nobody here got any value. We want to reverse that and make sure the people here get the value. That way, we also create a higher end value for export. We want to bring more money into the pockets of the poorest of the poor. The project is probably a first for South Africa. The other point is, it was a completely illegal process and now it a completely legal process. It was quite a struggle for the ladies and I’m very happy for them now.
You said earlier that you had initially worked with the Zama Zamas for about three years, what exactly were you doing?
In that time, I was part of the Zama-wars, where people were fighting for land. I was part of a committee we created to formalise true entire process. The aim was to negotiate for land with the municipality and the formal mining sector to see if some of the soil could be re-washed. It’s more of recycling lower potential ground. But it’s obviously still diamonds. We can actually create a lot of employment from recycling the diamond bearing material. We basically went through the entire process of negotiating with the municipality, the mines and the Department of Mineral Resources to get the operations legalised. The current permit system for mining doesn’t make any provisions for artisanal mining. There is still quite a lot of work being done on changing the entire legislation to make it more inclusive. We were lucky to get the first permits because there is still a lot of work to be done to change the current system. We got an agreement to work on 600 hectares of land.
And how significant is that initial deal?
It’s a very good model. It works very well. But war is not over. Economic inclusion is a long war but we need to start somewhere. We were very lucky to be the first people to be able to make it happen here. So, if we can replicate this in all the areas where illegal mining is happening, it could really change people’s lives. Obviously, the type of mining will determine the health and safety risks that you need to accommodate, but I think we have proved that through negotiating you can find solutions. It was a long and dangerous process for the women. Some people got shot, others were evicted and some even went to jail. We have been through blood, sweat and tears. We are now reaping the benefits of all the hard work.
How did you get into the space, what’s your background?
I am an accidental miner. I am the CEO of South Africa Swedish International Housing Company. right next to the mining site. So, the very first land invasion in the area was on my piece of land. We are a Section 21 company. So, we were not sure whether we should get an eviction order or what. We were then invited to a meeting at the Premier’s office in Kimberly. That’s when I was able to interact more with all the people. My background is community development. I have worked in that space all my life. The interaction was not really new to me, but I have never done mining before. I then said to myself, poor people are poor people, it doesn’t matter where you are or the sector you are in. You need to approach issues with a problem solving mindset. I also found out that the people didn’t have someone who could really stand up for them and speak on their behalf.
What did you find striking from your interactions with them?
Zama Zamas are often labelled as terrorists, rapists, etc. There is a lot of negative branding that goes with the term Zama Zamas. That’s very far from the truth. Most of these people are just desperate people who haven’t had that alternative to work. So, after talking to them, and given the nature of our work, we realised that they were actually potential clients as they also needed new houses. I don’t wish to take credit for this. We have worked as a team and I think out problem solving efforts have been quite unique. It’s important to talk and understand each other.
What sort of training are the women getting?
We are still busy setting it up. The training component is only two months old. What’s happening with that is, we have already looked at the value chain. At times you have things running, but they are not linked together. So, your markets never link and that’s sometimes why things don’t work. You actually need to re-link the value chain. We are very fortunate here in Kimberley where our project is based, in that we have an incubator project for diamond cutting and polishing. They battle to buy diamonds off the tender because they are very expensive. So, we decided we could get diamonds from the ladies and go directly to them. It’s been working very well. It’s also a transformed company and our ladies will also under training in diamond cutting and polishing. In the long-run, we want to be able to export processed diamonds in the form of jewellery and others.