Monday, August 15, 2022

“Diamond debate must continue”

The discovery of diamonds in Botswana has been both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it has propelled the country from the lowest rung of development in a short space of time, to a decent per capita GDP of US $4 000 plus-minus bracket; from a few kilometers of tarmac road to four thousands or more of tarmac and all the infrastructural achievements to date.

Had we had no diamonds to exploit, we would not have had the curse of blood diamonds hovering around our image, with the President running helter-skelter for damage control. Civil wars in some African states were fanned and sustained by illicit diamond trafficking. Our vigorous dissociation with the phenomenon of conflict diamonds, justified as it may be, does not absolve us from a smear of complicity in the laundering of the diamonds, originally. It is difficult to see how the massive income from diamonds sales, capable of financing decades of Savimbi counter-revolution in Angola and that of Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone could have happened without the loot having gone through the CSO. Some mopping up of this illicit commodity by agents of De Beers, must have taken place some time, some place, somehow. All of us must acclaim the Kimberley Process project, to which we seem to be sincerely committed. We hope it is stringent and transparent enough to “banish” the spectre of mopping up operations, which we want to believe was necessitated by circumstances beyond our control and intention.

The associated curse is that, as a diamond producing country, we have not enjoyed the full benefit of ownership and extraction of this resource from our soil. Botswana has, in the past been praised for a fantastic contract with De Beers for the 50 percent ownership of the Debswana shareholding. Should we be ecstatic about the royalties, dividends, taxes (if payable) whatever their magnitude to the GDP and the national budget? Glibly, we say how much diamonds have enriched us; but do we have an inkling of, how much more they have enriched De Beers?

On our trip, in January 1998, which is the subject of The Sunday Standard article, “Magang comes out of the cold”, we saw the most atrocious conditions under which the Indian diamond cutters and polishers of Surat worked. India, at the time, employed close to one million cutters and polishers.

The arguments against diamond beneficiation in Botswana at the time were the “lack of skills” by Batswana and the un-competitiveness of the “cost of labour” in India and Botswana. The skills argument did not hold water; it was disproved soon after it was peddled by officialdom, at the few cutting and polishing plants in the country.

Batswana, employed at these plants, acquired cutting and polishing skills at an amazing speed.
The disparity between the wages paid to Indian workers and wages paid to Batswana workers is indisputable. So what? De Beers is a functioning monopoly, with minimal competition, with price controlled deftly by the company’s central marketing arm. Approximately 90 percent of diamonds are marketed through this unit. So what is this obsessive fear about competition from India, when she does not produce diamonds? Diamonds are a luxury bought by those who have money to burn; price fluctuation does not necessarily inhibit customers. Not in a big way anyway. Unlike the OPEC cartel, which has to tinker with the supply side to manipulate price levels, De Beers’ strategy and tactics is to keep the fiction of the high value of this valueless commodity alive!

Botswana’s economically active population is nowhere near the figure of one million employed by the diamond beneficiation industry in India! If diamond beneficiation could employ one-tenth of the labour employed in India, it could effectively create employment opportunities in Botswana.
That may result in a multiplier effect that would feed the SMME’S industry and wipe out unemployment within a short period. The fact-finding trip to India reinforced our belief in the wisdom, nay, the imperative for adding value to the raw materials from our soil, particularly diamonds.

The allegation that we came back from the Asian trip, converted according to both Louis Nchindo and David Magang is preposterous and an absolute travesty, a disgraceful thumb sucking. How does Nchindo reconcile his statement that we were “appalled” by what we saw in India, with the suggestion that we came back tamed. It is a contradiction in terms. With our political outlook and the background advocacy for beneficiation, there is something incongruent in the statements.
David Magang’s allegation about our conversion and the self-adulation he juxtaposes against the negativity of his party colleagues is meant to sell his soon to be published autobiography. The truth of the matter is, in the Seventh Parliament in which we served, David Magang as Minister of Minerals never once supported or in anyway hinted that he supported the beneficiation, the opposition, was advocating. Paging through some Hansard editions of the Seventh Parliament, and I have not come across the fervent support Magang alleges, made him a laughingstock at Cabinet meetings. Actually on the 14th March 1995 I gave him a lifeline to do so and he disappointed badly. This is what I said:
“…The SADC region is richly endowed with mineral resources…what this means is that unless we beneficiate our primary products, we will not have the sustainable development that we are desperately in need of. Looking at what is happening in the whole world, we notice that the prices of primary commodities are constantly depreciating while those for the manufactured products are slowly appreciating.”

The intervention was under the Ministry of Mineral Resources and Water Affairs, Appropriation 1995/96 Bill. I was the last speaker before Minister Magang was asked to respond. Minister Magang responded to most of the points made by the other MPs, but did not as much acknowledge the challenge of my intervention in any form! How could one guess, he was as passionate as he professes to be, about diamond beneficiation when he evinced such an unmanly wince when he was baited?

He again demonstrated his unmanliness when I called upon him to retract his malicious statement that we came back turned by Debswana, which in compensation awarded our children scholarships. My boy was nine in 1998 and did not qualify for any scholarship mentioned by Magang. Otlaadisa Koosaletse’s daughter according to him qualified but was denied any assistance by government or any Botswana corporate body.

David Magang’s coming from the cold, has been cold comfort to me personally. He has tarnished my name with impunity, because I am a man of straw and he knows it. I had respected the man as a person, a hardnosed entrepreneur and former Minister. His interview in The Sunday Standard unleashed unprecedented gutter-sniping from a hotchpotch of suspect eminences grises, upstarts, pseudo-analysts and know-alls of political shades, ideology and artfulness.

One must also blame The Sunday Standard for interviewing Magang and publishing the interview without authenticating his remarks by offering us an opportunity to rebut. The Sunday Standard newspaper failed the critical test of the principle on which freedom of the press is based: both sides of the story must be heard particularly when another person’s name might be maligned. Nobody has the right to sacrifice or juggle pieces whether pawns on the board, in a game he/she is playing for own sentiment or profit.

Pawn I may be in an idiomatic sense, but I am very human and touchy when my name is mentioned in vain.

In conclusion, I wish to say, I support the call made by Spencer Mogapi in The Sunday Standard of December 3 ÔÇô 9, 2006, for an official inquiry into the whole saga of diamond beneficiation. Why has it been such a long sub rosa drag, pitting Minister against Ministers, mining company interest versus national interest and cloaked in all these manga-manga, paraphernalia of “I am the cleanest of all” in the game? The public needs to know the truth: How have Batswana been ripped off with the complicity of their government, and so-called leaders/representatives?


Read this week's paper