The earliest stages of diamond production in South Africa were characterised by the economic-political system of the ‘Diggers’ Democracy’.
The term referred to a system where the individual small-scale digger and the digger’s needs were paramount, and the regulations the diggers drew up and the legislation that was later enacted by the State reflected that paramountcy.
The establishment of a Diggers’ Democracy on the diamond fields in 1869 was largely due the presence of old diggers from the alluvial goldfields of California and Australia, who brought with them certain ideas of diggers’ law prevailing in the earlier days of gold seeking in America and Australia, which, essentially, gave all miners an opportunity to stake out and work a claim.
The Californian and Australian practices and traditions were readily adopted by the rapidly expanding community on the diamond diggings as these allowed every individual the opportunity to own and work a claim.
To these veteran diggers were owed the limit of the size of claim to 30 ft2, the prejudice against a monopoly of claims, the confiscation of nonworking claims, and the promotion of the rights of the miner above those of the rest of the community.
These characteristics were first entrenched in a legislative capacity in 1870 through the rules and regulations for the working of alluvial diamond claims, which were introduced soon after the formation of the independent Diggers Republic on the north back of the Vaal river.
The main clauses of these rules stipulated that no person was to have more than one claim, that the size of the claim was to be limited to 20 ft2 and that no person was to employ more than five labourers.
Most notably, these rules included a ‘jumping’, or confiscation, clause for the nonworking of claims, a concept that had been practised on the goldfields of California. Essentially, this clause stated that no person was to be absent from his claim for more than three working days without risk of forfeiture of the claim.
The rules and regulations under which the diggers worked were well suited to their requirements. The men employed were, essentially, diggers who looked after their own concerns and the capitalist was unknown, nor was he required in working the little patch of gravel, sometimes only a few inches in depth, which represented the one claim which each digger occupied.
Although this era of diggers republicanism was to be brief (the Diggers’ Republic existed for three months before capitulating to the authority of the Transvaal), the rules and regulations that were introduced under President Stafford Parker would shape the very structure of the diamond-mining industry for the next five years.
While these rules essentially applied to the river diggings, which were worked between 1869 and 1870, the characteristics of the Diggers’ Democracy were immediately transferred to the dry diggings following the discovery of the four kimberlite pipes in 1870 and 1871.
At the time of the discovery of the dry diggings, the Orange Free State exercised de facto rule over the territory that encom-passed the kimberlite pipes.
Following the arrival of thousands of diggers en masse in 1870 and 1871, the Orange Free State took the initiative of assuming control of the diamond fields and introduced legislation to govern the process of mining these four extensive diamond deposits.
In May 1871, the government of the Free State passed Ordinance III, the immediate aim of which was to define and consolidate rules and regulations for the working of the dry diggings.
Fundamentally, the ordinance consti-tuted the ideals of the Diggers’ Democracy, which were entrenched on the dry diggings, if only in an unofficial capacity.
The ordinance included a limitation of the size of a mining claim to 30 ft2 and stipulated that no individual digger could own more than two claims.
While these regulations appealed to the diggers and their desire for democratic governance of the diamond diggings, this ordinance and its corresponding mining regu-lations were not to remain in force for longer than a few months.
At the time this ordinance was promulgated, the British began to extend their influence over the area and, in October 1871, the territory known as Griqualand West was formally annexed to the British Empire.
The British immediately recognised the importance of the diamond fields and the necessity of governing the diggings in a manner that would benefit their empire.
Thus, at the same time that the annexation of Griqualand West was announced, rules were promulgated, under Proclamation No 71 of 1871, to govern the working of the diamond fields under the new British administration.
Significantly, Proclamation No 71 did not deviate from the inherent nature of the Diggers’ Democracy in that the size of claim, the restriction of occupation and the power of confiscation for the nonworking of claims remained unaltered.
Proclamation No 71 essentially enabled every prospector to own at least one claim on the four great diamond mines and, simultaneously, prevented any monopolisation of the industry by capitalists.
The small-scale capitalist structure inherent in the Diggers’ Democracy was evident by the end of 1871 as the four great mines of De Beers, Kimberley, Bultfontein and Du Toit’s Pan had been divided into 3 200 full claims, many of them further subdivided among individual diggers.
However, as the thousands of diggers began their frenetic search for diamonds across the four mines and dug ever deeper into the earth, it would soon become evident that the process of mining kimberlite pipes militated against the individual digger.
As technological and operational problems began to increase, individual diggers could not afford the mounting costs of mining.
Thus, by 1874, the Diggers’ Democracy had to be formally abandoned in favour of capitalistic structures that facilitated the amalgamation and eventual monopolisation of the mines, which enabled the more efficient technical operation of the ever-deepening mines.