Village threatened by crystals

14 February 2017 - 09:11 By SIPHO MABENA
TUNNEL VISION: Simon Nkatha shows the quartz crystals he digs from the Boekenhouthoek Mountains.
TUNNEL VISION: Simon Nkatha shows the quartz crystals he digs from the Boekenhouthoek Mountains.
Image: Masi Losi

To survive, Simon Nkatha climbs 2.5km up a steep and rocky mountain to get to a makeshift excavation site.

Driven by hunger, the 44-year-old father of two is after glittering quartz crystals, said to possess healing powers, buried deep in the hard ground.

"It is your choice. You either take the risk or starve," he says.

A variety of spirit or cactus crystals, including purple amethyst and goethite, were discovered during road construction more than a decade ago in Boekenhouthoek village in Mpumalanga, 130km north- east of Pretoria.

It has become the main source of income for villagers, who sell to collectors and merchants in Fourways, Johannesburg.

"It is about survival. Sometimes you dig, up to 5m deep, for a month and get nothing. Then you have to move to another spot. If you are lucky, you come across a cluster of purple amethyst, which sells for R250 a kilogram," Nkatha said.

He said the white and yellow crystals do not sell as well, fetching between R60 and R100 per kilogram. Last November he discovered a cluster of purple amethyst and made R7,000 from his yield.

"I own a car which I bought for R8,000 with the money I made from these stones," he said.

A hole in a Boekenhouthoek back yard where people mine for quartz crystals. Images: Masi Losi

Before going down into his hole, now a metre deep, with a diameter big enough to fit his frame, he burns dry grass to repel mosquitoes.

Using a sharpened steel rod and a hammer, Nkatha chips away at the ground, collecting the crystals as he goes deeper into the earth.

"My headlamp has run out of batteries so it is hard today. I can hardly see where I am digging," he said.

Some days he is too tired to climb out, so he spends the night at his mining spot.

Many other miners are scattered over the mountain.

But the digging in the heart of the village is becoming a potential death trap for residents and livestock.

The village has become a quarry of excavation, with underground tunnels - some as deep as 20m - running around and under the villages as some villagers mine their back yards.

The headman, Yazo Mahlangu, is worried.

He worries that houses will be affected by subsidence because the ground beneath has become hollow.

He worries that locals could electrocute themselves as they run electric cables from their homes to connect light bulbs in the tunnels so they can see where to dig out the stones.

"This will not end well. Many people will die.

"Some residents have reported hearing people digging beneath their houses. I even asked residents to limit excavations to their own yards so that when they collapse, they will be responsible, but nobody listens. I do not know what to do any more," he said.

For villagers like Nkatha, it is their primary source of income, even if it nets them less than retail prices in Johannesburg where the cleaned and polished crystals can sell for between R60 and R2700 per stone.

Penny Jaquet, of Crystal Dreams, an online quartz crystal shop in Fourways, has visited the area and found people digging the ridge, which she said was covered in crystals.

Purple quartz, which owes its colour to ferrous iron impurities, is found only in South Africa. Collectors view it as a crystal of alignment and harmony.