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Friday, July 15, 2011

My Job in old Suid Afrika

Back in the day I once worked at a diamond mine in South Africa. No kidding. It was my first real job after college way back in 1989 during the waning days of apartheid. Basically I ended up in South Africa because I had not really planned for what I'd do with my life after graduation. So I did nothing for about half a year (other than helping on a summer archaeological excavation in Larsen Bay, Kodiak), and at a certain point it became obvious that I had to have a plan. The family was getting on my case. So I told everyone I was going to South Africa. It seemed like an OK idea. It was a country that spoke English, and unlike Commonwealth Nations an American could probably get a working visa. Heck I figured with Apartheid and all they'd be happy just to see a foreigner who was willing to work there. Everybody was happy I had a plan - and so I shipped off to South Africa. I just went - no contacts, no references, no nothing. On arrival I was so freaked out that I shut myself into my hotel room and slept for 3 days.

But it all worked out. I met people, and they were excited to see an American who was willing to give their country a try. It was hard to spin my liberal arts degree in anthropology. Down there everyone is much more specialized in their schooling. But I convinced someone that since I had studied anthropology I was good with dealing with people. And so I got a job in the personnel department at a diamond mine north of Pretoria. The mine I worked at was the Premier Mine in the small dorp of Cullinan in the Northern Transvaal.

De Beers owned the mine and the whole town. I lived in company housing, ate at the company mess hall, drank beer in the company bar and bought food from the company stores. All the migrant workers lived in the hostel which was just outside the security fence for the mine. Each worker travelled from the homelands (mostly Transkei or the Sotho homelands towards Botswana) and worked a year at the mine before going back home for a three month vacation. I worked in the Hostel. And that is a story for another whole post - arms raids, witches, SAP raids, Xhosa plumbers, NUM strikes, gardens full of dagga and mealies. One of the biggest issues was that the workers would rent out their beds to other migrant workers who did not work at the mine. So if we were not careful rooms built for 16 men would actually be home to 40 or more men.

Anyway, more on my experiences at the mine in a later post, and a bit on the mine itself. The Premier Mine is famous for the Cullinan diamond - a 3100 carat piece that was found in 1905. Diamonds come from diamond pipes and the big hole in the bottom photo is the Cullinan diamond pipe (over a kilometer across!). The Cullinan diamond was found on the far side just below where the old hostel (abandonned in the 1970s because it was too close to the edge of the pit) is located.

When I was working at the mine all the workings were far under ground below a 'gabbro' sill. I remember taking the elevator down to the bottom some 800 meters underground. Everyday an entire shift of 1,000 men would climb onto a HUGE elevator shaft and then drop 450 meters in a big swoosh down to the workings below the gabbro sill. The day was punctuated by 2 big ring blast explosions - one at dawn and one in the evening - dust would rise up from the pit and the whole town would shake. Everyone would wait for the dust to settle and then another shift would go back into the mine to clean up the newly blasted kimberlite (diamond bearing ore) and drill new holes for the next ring blast.

In 2004 Zoya and I went on a vacation to South Africa and visited the mine. It was totally changed. Everything had been privitized. Even the hostel was open to anyone - no more security fences or gates. I could barely recognize the place. The top two photos are from when I worked there in 1989/1990. The top is the company town and the second photo is of my 'senior singles staff housing'. The third photo is what my old apartment looked like 14 years later when Zoya and I visited, and the 4rth photo is what we found in the old hostel. Anyway, I have already rambled on too long for one post. Patrick

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