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Nothing Clean-Cut about Zim's Murky Rough

Zimbabwe’s Marange fields have been called ‘the biggest find of alluvial diamonds in history’. But they are also the hottest flashpoint on the world diamond-map today, putting into a crisis a global system for telling the good stones apart from the bloody.

Original publication: Private Edition, 2010.

Marange diamond fields in Zimbabwe

One thing was for sure: this was not Sunday school in the Methodist hall. His goods were hot as hell, and liable to earn him ten years in the slammer. Hotter, perhaps. Electrified, super-charged; or, then again, nothing off-scale at all, just your pedestrian contraband. Which was it? If the stuff he got up to was bad, then how bad, and bad in which multiplying, ramifying ways – and according to whom, on what basis, to what ends, and with what implications? It had taken a passing enquiry and a night’s sleep to find him.

Or not find him. An illegal immigrant among other things, he would not be broadcasting his name, nor was a face-to-face press conference on the cards. But he was prepared to take questions through a go-between, who met him in a shebeen in the Cape Peninsula – a tough shantytown den, said the go-between, where the tough talk shop and ‘police are scared to go’.

There, under the light of a kerosene lamp, the go-between read out a sheet of interview questions while the subject, a soft-spoken family man from Bulawayo and a plumber by trade, answered them to the letter, and the letter only, but otherwise sat pinting away, rising just once, suddenly and full-height, when the go-between decided to screw around at the end and improvise on the text.

‘Dear friend from Zimbabwe,’ he pretend-read, ‘thank you for your information. You are now under arrest for diamond smuggling.’

A brief freak-out ensued at the shebeen, an iteration of the larger, longer freak-out that for the past two years-plus has seized the political economy of the global diamond sector and which, at the time of writing, showed no sign of having run its course. Put together the words ‘diamonds’ and ‘smuggling’, and alarms sound. Add ‘Zimbabwe’ and it’s DEFCON 1, because the next terms likely to form in the word-cloud are those slaying angels, ‘conflict diamonds’ and ‘blood diamonds’.

Only to be erased. A UN-supported watchdog that represents around 74 participant countries and includes observers from both industry and the NGO sector has cleared Zimbabwe’s post-2009 crop of rough for exportation, subject to special conditions. The express purpose of this body, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), is to stem the flow of conflict diamonds. Ergo, Zim diamonds (provisionally minus the pre-2010 stockpile) are officially, and certifiably, conflict-free.

Yet rather than quell the controversy around Zimbabwe, the decision – borne of a truly pointed dilemma – has if anything escalated it, with many players now questioning the credibility of the Kimberley Process itself, and urging reform and redefinition of its terms of reference.

So what was going on in that shebeen? Were the plumber’s wares blood diamonds or not, those evils that sprung incandescently into the public mind when it was found that rebel movements in Angola, the DRC and Sierra Leone were using illegally sourced diamonds to fund civil war? Charles Taylor, the ex-president of Liberia, is on trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity and serious violations of international law, crimes arising from the military support he provided to Foday Sankoh, Sierra Leone’s infamous warlord. Taylor is alleged to have done so in exchange for gaining access to that country’s minerals, in particular its diamonds, which under Sankoh’s reign of terror were mined under horrendous conditions and put in the service of atrocities even more unthinkable.

Were our smuggler’s goods in any way cut of the same spectacular cloth? What was their moral status, their meaning? Nothing unusual, it might have seemed. They were dangerously illegal, and that was about that: a loss to a mining company, a subatomic diminution of a national fiscus, a whiff of suspicion over the legitimate diamond pipeline into which they would inexorably make their way, and a cause someday for a customer at a jewellery counter to wonder for a second about the provenance of the items on display. None of which you’d like to get out of hand, of course, but standard crookery is a given.

The plumber had calmed down over coffee and biscuits; still, he’d taken rather a fright at the go-between’s joke. Smuggling in RSA isn’t easy, he said. ‘Police security is tight. You can’t trust anyone.’ When he crossed into the country with his wife and children – he was hazy about the year – he hid his stash of uncut stones in ‘a special shoe’. Contraband or not, he’d toiled for it, working in pits and gullies as an unlicensed digger.

The diamonds in the soles of his shoes weren’t forever, so a guy needs replenishments. In contrast to South Africa’s inhospitality, he suggested it was a doddle to get back into Zimbabwe for fresh stock and then return. He hasn’t tried it himself, but has some or another inscrutable set-up on the go with cousins of his who rove back and forth between the two countries for this purpose.

Who do his local buyers tend to be? ‘Connections.’ No kidding. And your prices, how much? Ah, thought you’d never ask. Price varies by size, weight and colour. Bugger carats and that. He took a cigarette box and squeezed a strip of foil into a pip. That’s an average stone: US$500. And tore off a filter: the biggest he’s handled, US$2,000, yep. He had been ‘suffering,’ the plumber explained. Now there’s a house waiting for him in Zim, a car, coats, bed sheets. Does he know where the diamonds wind up after he’s sold them? No, he’s only interested in the money at hand.

Maybe he’s not saying, or maybe it’s not healthy to know too much, to look too far and wide. Maybe he’s just not a big-picture kinda guy. Was there a big picture? Jesus: balled-up foil, a cigarette stub, sadly hard-won bed sheets. It wasn’t much of a muchness. Except for one detail, he could as well have been scavenging from any mine in Africa, or trafficking toasters and cell phones from Harare.

The detail emerged from questions about his diamond digging. Yes, he’d worked in a group. With the army or police? Yes. They seemed interchangeable. Did they ever treat people badly? Yes. Who were the buyers? Americans, Germans, Nigerians … ‘foreigners’. Above all else, where do your diamonds come from? That was one name he did give. The answer was another question: Marange.

There are other flashpoints on the diamond map – Venezuela, Lebanon, Angola, Guinea, Cote D’Ivoire, Lebanon – but Zimbabwe, and a particular region in it, is at the forefront of concern. Of the country’s three diamond mines, Murowa and River Ranch are privately owned and not in contention. The third is the Marange fields, a remote expanse of bushveld in Chiadzwa near the eastern border flanking Mozambique. It is the most controversial diamond-mining area in the world today.

Rich in alluvial deposits that can be hand-dug from the surface, it is government-owned via the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation, which holds the concession – legally disputed by the UK-registered firm African Consolidated Resources – to a 66,000-hectare Special Grants area and conducts mining operations through its subsidiary, Marange Resources, which in its turn is currently engaged in three joint-venture companies with private investors; cabinet-level authority resides with Obert Mpofu, the Minister of Mines.

Barely months after De Beers let its exploration rights lapse, Marange was besieged by a vast diamond rush following a discovery made by local villagers in June 2006, and in November, police launched a crackdown on illegal mining that led to 9,000 arrests at the fields. It made little impact on the problem, despite the continued police presence. In October 2008, it was the military’s turn, and in a three-week operation to restore law and order, the state secured effective control of Marange.

According to Zimbabwe’s annual KPCS report, 30,000 diggers and dealers were flushed out, with three reported deaths. The operation was well-named: Operation Hakudzokwi, meaning ‘No Return’. The army meant business, and it wasn’t leaving. Zimbabwe officials have consistently maintained that demilitarisation would need to be done gradually, notwithstanding the possibility of misbehaviour by isolated ‘rogue elements’. Abrupt departure would leave the door open for a return to anarchy; better to encourage investment and withdraw as and when greater numbers of secure production facilities arrived to populate and master the enormous open landscape which illegals try to access for ill-gotten gains at Zimbabwe’s expense. A not unreasonable case. All was cool on the eastern front.

Finance Minister Tendai Biti could have overstated it when he called Marange ‘the biggest find of alluvial diamonds in the history of mankind,’ yet even cautious assessments indicate that it’s a billion-dollar brute capable of uplifting Zimbabwe from rock-bottom to producer of around 25% of the world’s diamonds – a windfall all the more auspicious given that the combination of a recession along with growth in the Indian and Chinese economies has created a huge shortage of rough supply in relation to demand. The trade expert Chaim Even-Zohar put Marange’s eventual annual potential at 30 to 50 million carats. The geologist Mark Van Bockstael described it as ‘a freak of nature’.

The greatest find in history. Was Biti guilty of similar exaggeration when in the same breath he went on to add, ‘There is nothing coming to the fiscus from Chiadzwa’? For long a de facto one-party state, Zimbabwe since 2009 has been governed by a brittle coalition between the ZANU-PF and MDC, and just the other day in July this year, Biti (MDC) was at it again, reportedly wondering aloud what had happened to that US$30-million he’d heard the diamond op apparently made from some sales, because he’d checked the treasury and it wasn’t there. Obert Mpofu (ZANU-PF) dismissed the insinuation as ‘hot air’.

Nevertheless, whether it be founded on hot air, hard facts, plausible inference or paranoid delusion, humanitarianism or neo-imperialistic racism, legitimate economic self-interest or market-rigging disinformation, talk sure abounds. Zimbabwe is accused of a slew of things, but the refrains are human rights abuses, smuggling and swindling. When accounts of the situation in Marange move from the knowables to their interpretation, from the what’s to the who’s and why’s, and consider accountability and purpose, things really kick off.

Not long after Operation Hakudzokwi, media reports began portraying a strikingly different version of events to the one Zimbabwe provided. Human Rights Watch research groups visited the country in February 2009, publishing their findings in June, the same month in which the Kimberley Process (KP) – amidst a growing international outcry – sent a Review Mission to assess Zimbabwe’s compliance with the scheme’s requirements and arrived at similar conclusions to the NGO’s.

According to Human Rights Watch, the death toll was not three but over 200. Eyewitnesses described beatings, torture, executions, helicopter attacks, shooting sprees in which ‘soldiers killed people like flies’; mortuaries grew overcrowded and turned away trucks with corpses. The preceding period of exclusive police deployment had likewise seen killings, beatings, torture and harassment.

In particular, police corruption had undergone a change from being a matter of giving illegal miners free reign in exchange for money, beer or women. Police officers ran smuggling syndicates, groups of miners who worked under their control, and transacted with middlemen representing the ‘barons’, or principal buyers, stationed in nearby Mutare or across the border in Mozambique and South Africa. With the arrival of military forces, the syndicate system was re-established, the soldiers recruiting villagers, including children, either through negotiation or, often, by dragooning them into forced servitude and beating or killing those who resisted.

Indeed, said Human Rights Watch, army units were being rotated into Marange to give each a chance to benefit from the illicit trade. ‘The enrichment of soldiers serves to mollify a constituency whose loyalty to ZANU-PF … is essential,’ it said, adding that it believed the trade was also likely to be enriching party elites. The party had ‘either failed or decide not to effectively regulate’ the fields.

In its own lengthy report, the Review Mission highlighted its concern about ‘the continuous exit of diamonds from Zimbabwe to Mozambique’, and drew a distinction between smuggling by the ‘usual black-market actors’ and smuggling operated by ‘official entities’. ‘That is, the Team judges that the smuggling operation out of Marange should be deemed to be “on the account of” Zimbabwe itself’ – a claim Zimbabwe denied, saying the activities happened without its consent, and that some of these ‘rogue elements’ had been arrested and the cases reported to the Kimberley Process.

The KPCS rule at issue here concerns the requirement that internal controls should eliminate conflict diamonds from shipments entering and leaving a country. Smuggling, even by the usual suspects, and even from milk-and-apple-pie mines, causes a series of economic losses, ones that might look meagre in the case, say, of our plumber-friend, but which become another story when multiplied by hundreds and thousands.

But what’s more, smuggling creates the risk of facilitating other criminality, from money-laundering to drug- and gun-running and international terrorism. The illicit diamond is great for barter or pay-up-front deals; it’s paperless, retains value, and you can carry it in your ass. Take it to the trading centres of Dubai or Antwerp, said a local diamond dealer, and once the stone is cut and polished, its origin ‘becomes very hard to trace.’ A hop and a skip, it’s in the showroom, and your credit card’s out.

An ‘established smuggling channel as exists from Marange,’ the Mission said, ‘could easily be viewed as a feasible mechanism for a tracker of conflict diamonds’. You can sense the problem. Losses, risks: if smuggling increases, ratchets up, becomes snappily organised, and on top of that is let loose on ‘a freak of nature’ capable of gouting indefinitely into the world, you have a problem, a crisis of distinction at point-of-sale with effects that ripple from the showroom to the mine, from the mine to the fiscus and the people, especially, of developing countries.

How can you tell the licit from the illicit diamond, look at them and know the answer to the questions, ‘Good/bad? Pure/impure? Free-range/battery-farm?’ And can you know these answers even if you do know the gem’s origin? Here, for instance, is a stone from Zimbabwe. Fine: but what then is the meaning of Zimbabwe? The Kimberley Process is a globally critical institution for ensuring that such meanings can be certified; for the industry, consumer confidence and reputational capital are intangibles crucially at stake in the preservation of the KPCS. The threat to safeguard against is that diamonds come to be considered as retrograde as mink coats, ivory cutlery, whalebone corsets, the good old cigarette: balled-up foil, a greasy stub.

In the months that followed the Review Mission’s visit to Zimbabwe, these issues were top-of-mind in the deliberations around its finding that the country was non-compliant with minimum KPCS requirements. Was Zimbabwe to be suspended or not? That would mean work stoppages, an intensification of the smuggling, loss of livelihood to legitimate employees, and – assuming Biti was wrong in saying no money had come to the coalition fiscus – loss of funds to the people. Suspension also came with the danger, bluntly, that a loose-cannon Mugabe would blow the load and destabilise the market.

Zimbabwe’s retention, by contrast, meant a chance to invigilate and improve conditions. A plenary in Swakopmund in November 2009 ordered in effect that Marange exports were to cease but could go ahead under a supervised export system once the KP Monitor, Abbey Chikane, was satisfied Zimbabwe had implemented various technical measures. After a not uneventful trip to the country, Chikane was pleased to inform a KPCS meeting in Tel Aviv in June 2010 that Zimbabwe had cracked the nod and supervised exports could push ahead. Deadlock at the Dead Sea. Outrage. But a compromise later in St Petersburg, allowing two limited Marange auctions.

Why the outcry? Chikane’s report is perhaps immoderate in demonstrating his good faith in the Zimbabwe authorities, but other than that he stays in the fences-and-paperwork parameters of the job laid out for him by the Swakopmund plenary meeting. It’s the abuses, the other stuff – what happened to that?

Despite having found evidence of serious abuses committed in a smuggling trade ‘on the account of’ Zimbabwe,’ the Mission stopped short of classifying Marange stones as conflict diamonds, partly because of the absence of armed conflict and largely because, as many have said, the very definition by which the KPCS functions precludes it as a possibility: ‘rough diamonds used by rebel movements … to finance conflict aimed at undermining legitimate governments’. If you called them conflict diamonds, you’d be calling Zimbabwe a paradox, both a government and its own undermining rebel movement, its own enemy and negation. You’d be postulating a country at war with itself.

Critics said the definition gave Zimbabwe a loophole through which to escape censure, and also blamed the consensus voting system for allowing the country’s allies to protect it. The KP had lost its way, betrayed its humanitarian basis. But maybe that was also borne of a dilemma.

Punish Zim for abuses through suspension, and you endanger the value-chain; don’t punish Zimbabwe, and you do the same, because then you bring your credibility into doubt, your authority to make the very political-moral distinctions at issue in the first place: good diamond, bad diamond? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

‘Some people are labelling them as blood diamonds, others not,’ said a South African diamantaire and jeweller. ‘We don’t deal in Zim stones, period, because you don’t know exactly where they’re from. You don’t know if a ten-year-old child dug it, or a woman with a stick on her back. You’re not sure. You can’t say this one from Zimbabwe is clean, this one not. There just isn’t a clear cut.’


* Names have been changed.


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