In the weeks preceding the sacking of former Debswana Managing Director, Blackie Marole, talk in the company boardroom was all about improving efficiencies.
One after the other in an almost monotone fashion, the De Beers half of the directors reminded the other half what a “world class asset” Debswana owned mines were. They all singled out the Jwaneng mine, invariably always reaching a conclusion just how better and different the situation could be if only the company was properly managed.
The other half of the directors, which represented the Botswana Government, would ask a few questions like what needed to be done to improve the situation and not in so many words, the De Beers half would point in one direction ÔÇô “change of management.”
Such chilling insights are not likely to inspire confidence among Botswana Government representatives on the Debswana Board, especially as it has since surfaced that no less than three of them had long wanted the position of Managing Director for themselves; indeed, Sunday Standard has learned that a ferocious jostling for the position had long started well before Marole’s contract was renewed for a second five year term starting October 2009.
Until President Ian Khama intervened and overruled them on the side of Marole, the Board had decided that the contract be a one year tenure.
Even after Khama’ intervention, the De Beers corner kept harping on their monolithic theme of a mismanaged “world class asset” while in their various small ways Botswana government representatives fancied their chances as managing directors given the challenges Debswana was going through as a result of the world economic downturn.
“You can fault Marole for anything, but not underperformance,” said a former minister who has worked with Marole during his days as a civil servant.
“It is a dark day for Botswana when you have citizens ganging up with De Beers to get rid of one of their own simply because they hope they too would become Debswana Managing Directors,” continued the former minister.
Aware that a number of individual government representatives wanted the position for themselves, De Beers side played along, deliberately leaving it open that the position was up for grabs ÔÇô a deceptive posturing they maintained until after Marole was sacked.
The jostling for the position of Managing Director went on long after the board and shareholders had committed themselves to keeping Marole for a further five years.
This was notwithstanding the fact that by now it was clear that getting rid of him without anything substantially wrong on his side would cost the company and shareholders a full remaining four years contract worth of salary plus a calculated bonus payout for the duration.
By this time it does not appear that Marole, though for sometime a trusted member of President Khama’s inner circle of technocrats stood any chance against the forceful De Beers spin machinery that enjoyed the full and unqualified support from representatives of the Botswana Government side.
By late November, it was an open secret that he would be replaced.
What was not clear though was that for the first time in 20 years the position of Debswana Managing Director would also be delocalized on an alter of vague complaints of poor performance.
“He [Marole] was isolated the moment his own people started to gang with De Beers. While he continued to believe that his contract would be honoured he was at this time always looking over his shoulder to see if nobody was trying to stab him,” says a Debswana employee.
But his fate had been sealed when De Beers Chairman and patriarch Nicky Oppenheimer flew into Gaborone for a meeting with President Khama.
The news that Marole had been sacked broke out as he was on an official trip in Luxembourg.
Friends who could reach him on the phone say he denied any knowledge while back at home his Public Affairs Manager, Esther Kanaimba-Senai, also in the dark about events, continued to ram into the public media the story line of just how impossible it was that Marole had been relieved of his position ÔÇô by far the most powerful and lucrative in Botswana’s private sector.
At first blush, Blakie Marole’s departure marks a decisive takeover of Debswana by De Beers.
Over the last few years, De Beers has fought without much success to wrestle total control of Debswana.
A little less than five years ago, De Beers approached Botswana Government with figures aimed at convincing the partner that Debswana, a 50/50 partnership, was inefficiently run.
The plan by the Oppenheimer family controlled conglomerate was to approach Botswana Government with an explicit request to give De Beers a management contract to run Debswana ÔÇô at a fee.
Citizen managers with assistance from a few directors notably Akolang Tombale and Kago Moshashane busted the De Beers alibi by producing figures which went a long way to prove that compared with all the mines in the De Beers family of companies, Debswana mines were not only by far the most profitable but also that on a cost per ton efficiencies, De Beers operated mines came nowhere near those run by Debswana.
Profitability aside, citizen managers at the time also went as far as to point out that to Botswana, Debswana was much more than a diamond company.
They pointed out that the company was a national resource that radiated sentimental, political and intrinsic value.
To many observers, the boardroom coup by De Beers is not only painful that it reverses the successes Botswana has made over the years to take control of her diamond production.
“The tragedy of the whole thing is that the same De Beers who we are now giving Debswana to is basically an almost bankrupt outfit that cannot survive on its own without Debswana production,” says an insider.
Not altogether unfair given that close to 60 percent of De Beers Group output comes directly from Debswana run mines not to mention also that less than 12 months ago Botswana Government had extend a lifeboat of close to P1 billion to the same asset rich but cash strapped conglomerate.