Along the west coast of South Africa, a vast stretch of land has been officially closed off to the public for almost 80 years. Die Sperrgebiet (the Forbidden Zone) is owned and controlled by the De Beers conglomerate, which supplies most of the world’s diamonds. It’s an unwelcoming place, as writer Matthew Gavin Frank discovers. The terrain is dusty and apocalyptic, the people often weary of outsiders – although many are willing to talk – and the bosses largely inaccessible. Security is tight, with little getting in or out without the express permission of De Beers or the other mine operators. Inside, labourers and bosses play a constant game of cat-and-mouse over diamonds, with the rewards for smuggling high but the punishments often even higher (with body parts, such as fingers, cut off). Labourers are presumed guilty until proven innocent, with one executive suggesting that 30 per cent of diamonds are lost to smuggling.
While smugglers employ many methods to sneak diamonds out, including using homemade projectiles, one of the most intriguing is their use of carrier pigeons, which they sneak into the mines hidden in their lunchboxes or under their clothes. When the time is right, miners attach a small bag of diamonds to the birds and then release them, to fly to a safe spot outside the perimeter. Frank meets those who are actively involved, some as young as 13. In response, mine owners have made it illegal to raise pigeons in the region and in 1998, legislation made it illegal to not shoot a pigeon on sight.
Miners speak in fearful tones of Mr Lester, a bogeyman in charge of security who is varyingly described as a giant, having more body doubles than Jacob Zuma or being invisible. Frank has the chance to meet the real-life Mr Lester towards the end of the book. As areas stop producing enough diamonds, De Beers moves on, leaving desolate communities and ghost towns behind. Efforts to rehabilitate the area after decades of environmental pillaging are often lacklustre.
At times, the narrative of Flight of the Diamond Smugglers comes across a bit like it was written by a tourist wandering in an alien landscape rather than an investigative journalist trying to understand the truth about what goes on in this secretive region. Still, it’s an eye-opening account and one that’s likely to make you reassess the role of diamonds in society today.