scavenging for a living

DESTITUTE and desperate for any source of income, the Boekenhouthoek community in Mpumalanga are risking their lives and digging up for cystals in their area.

A villager ays four people have died and others severely injured when pits collapsed

The village in the heart of the former KwaNdebele homeland, about 150km from Pretoria, is riddled with pits and trenches. Some villagers are even mining in their own back yards.

Armed with hope, candles and an assortment of basic digging tools, the unlicensed miners dig deep into the ground in search of the area's abundant transparent, yellow and purple quartz crystals.

The stones are sold tomanufacturers of glittering ornaments and jewellery.

The most valuable crystal they sometimes find is the scarce purple-coloured azurite. Villagers say dealers pay about R350 a kilogram for azurite, but only R12 a kilogram for the other crystals.

Locals say the underground riches were discovered accidentally about 10 years ago, which started the rush that now dominates life in thevillage.

None of the miners know who buys the stones, except for the middlemen who visit the diggers, says 55 -year-old Johannes Skosana.

"These middlemen have access to buyers. They don't want us to have access to the buyers because they get a cut," he said.

Skosana said the miners had been warned not to reveal the identities of the middlemen.

Sowetan tracked down one, but he declined to give his name or discuss the selling prices.

Jacob Mahlangu, 45, owns the biggest pit in the area and has employed three miners to do the hard and dangerous work.

He was reluctant to discuss his operation. "People come here and distort information. This makes us vulnerable ," he said.

The mountain behind the village is full of pits that pose a danger to livestock and people.

Johannes Masemola, 65, and his wife Catherine, 59, head to the mountain every day to dig . It is hard and perilous work but, as Catherine puts it: "You either dig or let your children starve."

Mining engineer Bakang Moholo, of the department of mineral affairs, said mining without the necessary skills, tools and consideration for the environment caused irreversible damage to the area.

"They are actually raping their own area in exchange for a paltry sum."

He said the miners did not need a licence to deal in the crystals because they were not classified as minerals, but mining on any scale required permits because of the safety and environmental considerations.

Moholo said the miners could be prosecuted for mining without a permit.