UFS PhD student Michelle Goliath and members of the small scale cooperatives in Kimberley, Northern Cape. Photo supplied.

JOHANNESBURG - A PhD student is using unconventional methods to help female "zama zamas" start cooperatives and build a thriving industry in the diamond belt of Kimberley, Northern Cape.

Michelle Goliath, from the Free State University, has been working with at least 3 000 illegal diamond miners, known as "zama zamas", over the past three years. 

The all-female zama zamas are entering the formal mining trade after receiving training as artisans through an agreement with mining companies.  

The zama zama world is dominated by men, some of whom operate in groups in an environment characterised by violence. 

"My research includes the ‘Zamaism’ psychology, a philosophy which looks at the contestation of space and rules, how people navigate the illegal when they are faced with desperate choices. I chose to work with women because they are the worst marginalised in society. They work hard to look after and feed their families. Training a woman is actually training a nation," said Goliath. 

Illegal miners are not criminals but ordinary people trying to survive and escape poverty, she said.

"They do it out of desperation. Government doesn't want to recognise the problems that come with criminalising zama zamas. No one seems to want to analyse this deeply, and consider issues such as migration that built this country's mining industry...it's like a diamond rush.  This is a problem that can be resolved."

Months of negotiations between the department of minerals resources, the local municipality and a mining company saw the establishment of an artisanal diamond process owned and operated by women in 2016. The Batho Pele Primary Mining Cooperative and later Artisanal Scale Mining have already signed agreements with Canada and the USA for the export of fair-trade-certified gem products. 

One of the women in the group, and now an artisan, is Elisa Louw, a former domestic worker from Kimberley's Galeshewe township. She grew up on a farm in the Free State.

Louw did not complete her primary school education and ended up working as a domestic worker for years. She left her last job allegedly due to ill treatment and started hawking. She became a zama zama in 2013.

In 2014, she found her first 75-pointer diamond which she sold for R1 500 on the black market.

"The black market was good then,” she said.

After Goliath's assistance to start the cooperatives, Louw recruited other women to join soon after permits were granted in 2017. It wasn't easy convincing people to join a formal trade, she said.

"People called us names such as terrorists and robbers. But in a meeting [with the South African Police Service, the department of mineral resources, the Sol Plaatje Municipality, and the international Swedish Housing Company, Michelle Goliath] spoke for us," said Louw.

“She informed all parties that we did not want to fight, but that we were looking for a licence to work. She 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."

So impressive was Goliath's work with women in Kimberley that mining conglomerate Anglo American asked her to help set up a cooperative at its Stillfontein operations in the North West.

"They want us to help them start it for the benefit of the community as part of their social development plans. They want us to go into communities and invite stakeholders to identify people for the project. There is a very high level of poverty around the mine. Training artisanal small scale miners to start and run a cooperative can go a long way in that community."

The journey with the women of Kimberley was tough, said Goliath.

“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."

"The mining industry is exploitative at many levels. It showcases rare talent, but under duress. At artisanal scale it is even worse. The only future women have is to lead themselves, to create their own fairer system, to redesign a full value chain that allows broader participation."

African News Agency (ANA)