Sunday, September 20, 2020

A tragedy of errors

Bench Mark Foundation chief researcher, David van Wyk, knows more than he should about some things, such as Botswana’s alleged shady arms deals and less than he should about others, such as, the Botswana mining industry. What van Wyk knows and what he doesn’t is a consequence of his background, a former apartheid South African Defence Force (SADF) soldier turned freedom fighter, his associates, left wing radicals who have a dim view of multinationals and his perception of Botswana, “a military junta masquerading as a democracy”.
Van Wyk, who compiled a controversial research paper titled “Corporate Social Responsibility in the Diamond Mining Industry in Botswana”, is a veteran of the South African Defence Force (SADF) 31 battalion. The SADF 31 battalion was set up in the 1970s by the apartheid regime to conduct covert operations against regional guerilla armies. He grew disillusioned with the apartheid system and went into exile in Zimbabwe.

His military background comes in handy as he dissects the shady world of arms deals and covert operations. He talks of suggestions of “covert collaborations between Botswana authorities, Debswana and the South African National Intelligence Services (NIS) during the final decade of Apartheid”. Van Wyk says Eesben Barlow, former lieutenant colonel in the notorious SADF 32 Battalion, who later headed the NIS Botswana desk, designed Debswana’s security training manuals, conducted training and gave advice for the security personnel of both De Beers and Debswana between 1990 and 1993. In the report, Van Wyk says Debswana’s contract with Barlow came to an end when Executive Outcomes, the private military company founded by Barlow, was contracted by the MPLA government in Angola to fight against UNITA.
Executive Outcomes, was a mercenary firm based in Pretoria, South Africa, and manned mostly by former members of the South African Defense Force. It proved to be a decisive factor in the outcome of some civil wars in Africa.

Involved in forcing rebels to the negotiating table in Sierra Leone, and more well-known for contributing to the Angolan government’s success in forcing UNITA to accept the Lusaka Protocol in 1994, Executive Outcomes reportedly had a web of influence in Uganda, Botswana, Zambia, Ethiopia, Namibia, Lesotho and South Africa.

Even though the firm’s expertise was in fighting bush wars, it had diversified and reportedly operated 32 companies, whose interests ranged from computer software to adult education. The firm’s tactic of quickly regaining control of a client country’s mineral-rich regions is well-documented. Within a month of Sierra Leone’s hiring of Executive Outcomes in May 1995, government forces had regained control of the diamond-rich Kono district, which produces two-thirds of Sierra Leone’s diamonds. In Angola, oil and diamond producing regions were the first areas secured by government forces trained by Executive Outcomes. The firm also reportedly mined gold in Uganda, drilled boreholes in Ethiopia and had a variety of interests in the other countries.

Van Wyk would not come to Botswana to table his controversial report “Corporate Social Responsibility in the Diamond Mining Industry in Botswana” because he feared for his life in the military junta masquerading as a democracy. The report, due to be tabled in South Africa on Wednesday, claims that De Beers saw the relationship between Barlow’s Executive Outcomes and the Angolan government “as a threat to its illicit trade in conflict diamonds with UNITA”.

He says “there are reports that Botswana between 1997 and 1998 bought 1,675 StG-58 assault rifles in the illicit arms trade market from a Swiss company Brugger & Thomet, who obtained the weapons illegally from Australian Army Surplus Stock.

“Disturbingly, the UNHCR reports that the ruling People’s Party in Austria received illicit campaign funds from Botswana in a Vienna municipal election in 2001 in return for another shady arms deal. It is not surprising that Vienna is the fashion and jewellery capital of Austria. Botswana has prompted a mini arms race in SADC increasing military spending from 4.1% of GDP in 1996 to an estimated 7-8 % of GDP in 2008.

The Bench Mark report further states that “despite De Beers and Debswana making extensive mileage from the corporation’s support for and involvement in the Kimberly process to eliminate trade in blood diamonds, the company had to be dragged kicking and screaming into it. Its trade in blood diamonds from UNITA controlled areas in Angola in the 1990s are a matter of public record. Less well known were its alleged attempts to dissuade US Congressman, William J. Jefferson, from supporting the Clean Diamonds Trade Act. Jefferson was an original co-sponsor of the “Clean Diamonds Act” designed to curb the trade of blood diamonds. Mr. Jefferson travelled to Botswana four times between 2001 and 2002. He filed a travel disclosure form for just one of the four trips. The undeclared trips cost US $102,000 and were paid for by Debswana. By Mr. Jefferson’s own admission, the new law would have had an effect on Botswana.

Just before leaving for his first trip to Botswana in April 2001, he dropped his co-sponsorship for the proposed law, and on returning from Botswana actively spoke out against the bill which Debswana opposed (CREW)
While in Zimbabwe where he was in exile, van Wyk was a teacher together with James Kilgore. Kilgore, an academic known to Capetonians as John Pape, was arrested at his Claremont home in late 2002 and subsequently unmasked as a member of the USA’s radical left-wing Symbionese Liberation Army; a man wanted in connection with the 1975 murder of Myrna Lee Opsahl in California.

Kilgore’s arrest sparked a media frenzy on both sides of the Atlantic. In California, he’s James Kilgore, wanted on murder and explosives charges, but to the packed courtroom in Cape Town he was John Pape, “CHAMPION OF (THE) POOR,” as one local paper headlined him just before he appeared at an extradition hearing.

Van Wyk shares Kilgore’s loathing for big business which he feels is robbing the small man of the fruits of their struggle. During the launch of Kilgores book “We are all Zimbabweans now”, Van Wyk posted on a blogg sphere: “James’ book accurately captures the decade of the 1980s in Harare and Zimbabwe and accurately describes many of the events and issues that were topical at the time. Although fictional, the book represents a well thought through attack on the ‘great man theory of history,’ and a confirmation that the great events of our time, including the liberation struggles in Southern Africa, were not carried out by great men, but by humble ordinary people.

These same ordinary people frequently see the results of their efforts stolen by the very ‘great men’ who harvest the fruits of the struggle of poor peasants, workers and people who sacrificed loved ones, their own education and personal advancement on behalf of the struggle”.

Van Wyk further says the book is “excellent reading material for students of history engaged in fieldwork research pointing to the relativity of the ‘truth’ and how powerful elites are able to manipulate information in the service of perpetuating their power”.

After years in Zimbabwe, van Wyk emerged in South Africa as a champion of the common man against big business. His by-line appears in the online edition of “ In Defence of Marxism” where he wrote that, ”as we predicted in earlier articles on the April 2009 elections, working class communities throughout South Africa are rising up and demanding that the state gives attention to the appalling conditions they are working and living in. Everywhere workers are striking demanding better wages and working conditions”.

During the land grab controversy in South Africa’s Limpopo Province, Van Wyk presented a paper criticising mining companies for taking a huge amount of land from communities, and forcing them to move to smaller properties.

He said there were problems between local governments and traditional authorities that bedevilled consultations. “There is not enough consultation between the mining industry and local communities on issues of land. In most cases, consultations take place in the week, when a substantial number of people, especially men, are at work,” Van Wyk said. People available to attend those meetings were usually women and the aged, who ended up agreeing to decisions not in their best interests.
There is a sense that van Wyk has an overriding preoccupation with protecting workers and the small man that overshadows any concern for being fair to big business. He paints a picture of poor working conditions in Debswana mines by wayb of illustrating that the mining company has not generated any benefits for local communities.

The Bench Mark Foundation’s report by van Wyk does not reflect findings of numerous reputable independent studies by academics and bodies ranging from the United Nations Development Program to the World Bank. In contrast to the Bench Mark Foundation’s report, these highlight Botswana’s unique success in using its diamonds wealth to drive sustainable development at community and national level as well as the role played by Botswana’s governance record in the process.

Debswana and De Beers state that, “ we can only speculate that the Bench Marks Foundation’s disregard for views of organisations like UNDP and the World Bank is based on their belief that, “structures like the IPPC (sic) The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ÔÇô a division of the United Nations…. and the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) are what the Bench Marks Foundation classify as “part of that category of structures and networks which serve elite political and economic interests”.

It however emerges that beyond a handful of reportedly anonymous interviews and a lower than 5percent response rate of their questionnaire, van Wyk and his charges did not interview Debswana, De Beers or Botswana government officials. They also did not reference any company documentation other than annual reports.
Van Wyk writes in the report: “Researchers experienced difficulties to interview representatives of the mining companies and to get members of mine management to fill out questionnaires designed for companies, an exercise requiring several follow up telephone calls and e-mails”.

De Beers and Debswana point out that, “In view of the topic of this report, and the weight afforded to what could best be described as eclectic individual sources, this is a critical omission. It also emerged in the report that The Bench Marks Foundation (BMF) drew broad conclusions based on a wholly impartial review data. “Thus, for example, the BMF critique Debswana’s multi-billion pula citizen procurement programme solely on the basis of the views of a single contractor that entered into a contractual dispute with Debswana,” states a report by De Beers and Debswana.

The number of mistakes in the report threatens to make it an embarrassment, and some leading scholars even fear that the report is endangering the reputation of the Bench Marks Foundation. ‘There are a number of people who think the errors inexcusable in a report intended for international reference. ‘It is a question of confidence. Some of the errors may be small, but they cumulatively devalue the report, and by extension the Bench Marks Foundation,” said a member of the Botswana opposition. In perhaps one of the most damning mistakes, the report manages to make a mess of Botswana’s environmental regulation. The Bench Mark Foundation asserts that there is no government ministry responsible for environmental issues. This is not true. The Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism has overall accountability for the regulation of environmental issues within which there is a separate Department of Environmental Affairs.

The report further alleges that there is no legal safeguard for “heritage” issues in Botswana. This again is not true as the Monuments and Relics Act serves this function and has been in place for years. Each EIA report has to have an archeological section attached. The National Museum and Art Gallery is the custodian of the legislation. The report is also critical of the apparent absence of an “independent department of water affairs in Botswana. This is a curious assertion given that there are separate regulatory structures for water and mines in Botswana. Debswana and De Beers have come up with a 32 page report pointing out close to 70 mistakes in the Bench Mark Foundation report.


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Sunday Standard September 20 – 26

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 20 - 26, 2020.