Tuesday, March 25, 2014

(ROUGH AND POLISHED) De Beers’ Marange ‘saga’ refuses to die down

Zimbabwe’s former mines minister Obert Mpofu made a chilling revelation three years ago that the diamond mining giant, De Beers “looted tonnes” of diamonds from the Marange mining fields over a period of “15 years” without notifying the state of the discovery of the gems.

“De Beers looted our diamonds for 15 years and were sending them to South Africa without our knowledge and they had even declared that area a restricted area, as if it was their land when the country belongs to us,” he said at the time.

Mpofu went on to say that the government believed then that De Beers was only prospecting and carrying out tests when in “reality” the company was carrying out covert mining activities.

“Everyone knows that the diamonds at Chiadzwa (Marange) are mined from the surface and De Beers was for the last 15 years alleging that they were doing prospecting and carrying out tests when in actual fact they were looting diamonds from Chiadzwa,” he said.

He said De Beers pulled out of the country when government began a probe into the operations of the company after getting wind that there were diamonds in Marange.

However, De Beers denied the allegations.

In an exclusive interview with Rough & Polished following the accusations, the De Beers group’s head of media relations, Lynette Gould said there was no evidence to support the allegations made against the diamond giant.

“If we had been mining 'tonnes' of diamonds, over a 15 year period, there would be a very large hole indeed left behind in Marange,” she said.

“Industrial mining of this magnitude would have been impossible to disguise, let alone keep secret. In conclusion, not only are the allegations outrageous and incredible, but they also lack any evidence, whatsoever.”

This denial by De Beers never stopped the Zimbabwean government from accusing the group of covert activities in Marange, although no much detail of the group’s corporate sins were given.

However, a non-governmental organisation called Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG) tried to give us an insight into the ‘saga’ last month.

It alleged in a report that in 1994, De Beers successfully applied for an Exclusive Prospecting Order for Marange diamond fields and prospected for the next 12 years (1994 – 2006) not 15 years as alleged by Mpofu.

The diamond giant was required to recruit indigenous black Zimbabwean geologists due to an affirmative action policy enforced in the 1990s.

However, CNRG said that the local geologists employed by De Beers were denied access to Marange and naturally they became suspicious.

De Beers allegedly submitted successive misleading reports to the Zimbabwe government which cast doubts on Marange as a viable investment option, but it nevertheless continued “prospecting”.

Villagers in Marange also became suspicious of De Beers activities at Bezely Bridge where a very small makeshift diamond processing plant was established.

“According to villagers interviewed, the plant at Bezely Bridge operated at night only. Villagers and local geologists began pressurizing government to act on the clandestine operations of De Beers,” CNRG claimed.

“Some ZANU PF officials, tipped by indigenous geologists at De Beers, began to demand an end to De Beers operations in Marange.”

It said one of the most vocal proponent for the cancellation of the De Beers prospecting license was the late retired army general Solomon Mujuru.

Under pressure from a section of ZANU PF politicians, De Beers notified the government that it would not seek to have its EPO extended in March 2006.

CNRG further alleged that De Beers was not without support from some sections of the government of Zimbabwe.

“When pressed by villagers to explain what De Beers was doing in Marange, a senior government official who was also Mines Minister at the time, reportedly said De Beers was doing experimentation for fertilizer manufacturing,” said CNRG.

“This was meant to deliberately mislead villagers into believing De Beers activities would boost agricultural production in the area.”

The unnamed minister was said to be determined to renew the De Beers EPO in 2006 despite serious concerns raised by his colleagues in cabinet and in ZANU PF.

He reportedly said anyone willing to prospect in Marange was free to submit an application, adding that according to the law first preference would be given to the current EPO holder, De Beers.

However, ZANU PF officials, led by Mujuru, threatened the interests of the Openheimer family in Zimbabwe if they did not relinquish their hold on Marange.

Then the Openheimer family had a 40 percent controlling stake in De Beers.

CNRG said De Beers, however, pulled out of Marange abruptly on 29 March 2006.

It further alleged that when De Beers pulled out of Marange, some white South Africans, believed to be De Beers employees instructed locals to start panning for diamonds which they would buy once every fortnight, marking the beginning of illegal panning activities.

“The white South Africans also taught the locals how to identify a diamond and advised them of the exact places where they could find diamonds,” said CNRG.

“Prior to the withdrawal of De Beers in 2006, Marange residents did not know how to identify a diamond. The number of artisanal miners rapidly grew from less than 100 in May 2006 to over 10 000 by December 2006.”

CNRG also claimed that in 2011, when the Zimbabwe government, through Mpofu, initiated an investigation into De Beers activities in Marange from 1994 to 2006 all records pertaining to De Beers vanished from the Mining Promotion and Development Unit (MPDU).

The Zimbabwean government suspected that some employees, possibly with links to De Beers, could have been paid by De Beers to destroy evidence.

“However there is also a possibility that some senior government officials who were involved in De Beers activities feared that the investigations would expose them and therefore destroyed the records,” it said.

Mathew Nyaungwa, Editor in Chief of the African Bureau, Rough&Polished

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