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Mystery stones spark diamond rush in poor South African region

Single mother Lihle Magudulela spat out a mouthful of dirt as she sucked on a stone dug up from a hillside in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, convinced she might have found a diamond.

Thousands have flocked to the outskirts of KwaHlathi village, more than 300 kilometres (186 miles) southeast of Johannesburg, after a cattle herder last week unearthed a handful of unidentified crystal-like stones.

News of the finding spread fast, triggering a rush to the site despite messages of caution by the government warning the stones could be worthless.

At dawn, men and women upturned clumps of soil with shovels and picks and frantically rummaged through the earth with their bare hands.

Many found more of the mysterious stones and set them aside in small dirt-encrusted piles.

“They are real,” beamed Magudulela, in her 40s and struggling to feed her three children.

“I’m going to buy a car, a house, send my kids to private school,” she told AFP.

The prospect of finding a diamond sent glimmering ripples of hope to one of the poorest regions of South Africa as the coronavirus pandemic worsened decades of extremely high unemployment levels.

The country, internationally renowned for its mineral wealth, still holds a record for the world’s largest ever rough diamond discovery — the Cullinan — found in 1905 in the small mining town by the same name.

South Africa is also the brith place of the Kimberley Process, an international certification scheme to keep conflict diamonds off the market.

“We are poor, we are unemployed. But this could change everything,” said Precious, 38, who did not wish to give her full name.

She had spent the night digging, with her teenage son and baby daughter.

The boy clutched a transparent crystal the size of a ping pong ball.

“They are not tired, we are looking for money,” Precious exclaimed.

– Dreaming of ‘Dubai’ –

Rumour has it that the Cullinan, which weighed over 3,000 carats uncut, was lying only a few metres below ground and dug up with a pocketknife.

The rough stone yielded nine major diamonds used to adorn the British crown jewels, as well as almost 100 minor brilliants.

Johannesburg resident Thulani Manyathi, 36, travelled to KwaHlathi from the impoverished township of Alexandra with his four young daughters.

“We are going to live in Dubai. I want a house with double storage, this is going to change our life,” Manyathi told AFP, fingering a cluster of stones in his pocket.

“No school today,” he added. “We are digging for diamonds.”

There is talk of “foreigners” buying the stones for a few hundred rands in the nearby town of Ladysmith.

But experts say it is highly unlikely the stones will turn out to be valuable.

“These are not diamonds, people here are just wasting their time,” said 18-year-old Bhekumuzi Luvuno, skeptically inspecting one of the stones he unearthed overnight.

Authorities over the weekend asked diggers to leave the area, citing coronavirus restrictions, but to no avail.

The government on Tuesday sent a team of geological and mining experts to the area, now pckmarked with holes, to collect stones for analysis.

Police cars are monitoring the area to keep the crowds in check.