Vincent Kahiya recently in Maranage
“AMONG all the stones that our world’s fancy holds precious, the diamond stands preeminent,” wrote J Willard Hershey in The Book of Diamonds. “The diamonds that gleamed with suc
h fire in an idol’s eye before the rising of the Star of Bethlehem may be sparkling today with more dazzling radiance in the crown of an emperor.”
And how appropriate is Hershey’s observation today. Diamonds are as attractive to the devil as they are to rulers who have fought wars over the precious stones. When managed properly, they are a symbol of national pride and in equal measure a source of disgrace if mismanaged.
Botswana and the DRC stand out as modern examples of the positive and negative impacts of diamonds on a country.
Zimbabwe, which recently discovered diamonds in Marange communal lands in Manicaland, appears keen to mishandle the precious stones and as usual gain a measure of notoriety.
The reckless exploitation of the minerals in the low rainfall area, dominated by rocky terrain and thorny bush, should rank as a national blunder that has serious ramifications for investment in the mining sector. A visit to the area last weekend revealed the sad state of mining policy in Zimbabwe where politics appear to supersede rational thinking.
The drama manifests itself along the Mutare-Masvingo highway, between Chakohwa and Nyanyadzi business centres where youths converge in small lively groups under trees and on shop verandahs gulping quarts of clear beer as if their lives depend on it. Young ladies have also joined in the act. Their animated discussions and barnyard laughs betray the contents of the soft-drinks bottles in hand. They contain a potent mixture of soda and cheap cane spirit.
They carry small bags packed with wads of bank notes and tumapuwe (small stones) which have become a new source of paper wealth for the youngsters. They do not know what to do with the vast amounts which they carry around, it appears. That they are overwhelmed by their new-found wealth is evident in the way they appear to be in competition with each other to spend it as quickly as possible. Beer is not bought in rounds but in crates. Even strangers are allowed to join in the binges provided they speak the same language of kumunda (field).
The field is the source of this debauchery. It is the place in the Chiadzwa area of Marange about 90 km east of Mutare where politicians have given villagers the go-ahead to mine diamonds from claims owned by Consolidated Resources Africa.
The scene in the field is that of mayhem, social decadence, entrepreneurial theft and all the crookedness that obtains when leaders temporarily suspend the law to allow madness to take control. The forty-niners of the Pacific North-West, if they were around today, would recognise all the facets of this latest “rush”.
Last Saturday afternoon there were at least 500 miners at the claim, each in a race to extract the small stones from the belly of the earth. They do this under the watchful eyes of the Central Intelligence Organisation and the police who have set up a temporary post at the mine.
Amid the acrid smell of sweat and human waste, the miners work the diamond pipes with picks and shovels. Local teachers and their pupils, policemen and council workers have joined in the rush. This is a race to riches but it comes at a huge cost to the environment. When senior Zanu PF politicians gave the villagers the go-ahead to mine, no environmental impact assessment had been carried out at the mine and its environs. There are no toilets or safe drinking water for the huge throngs gathered there daily. This is a cholera outbreak waiting to happen.
The threat to the environment has been superseded by the elemental drive for wealth. Huge trees which stood on the diamond pipes have been uprooted and quickly chopped up to provide firewood for the makeshift kitchens.
After digging up the ground, the soil is put in a sieve which removes fine sand to leave small pebbles among which are “greens”, industrial diamonds and “maglass”, the ornamental ones.
The Minerals Marketing Corporation of Zimbabwe (MMCZ) has been sending its officials to buy the stones but they cannot buy everything available. This has attracted illegal buyers who openly purchase the stones at Chakohwa and Hot Springs.
I witnessed a man in a silver Mercedes Benz S320 handing a youngster a supermarket plastic bag full of notes in exchange for maglass. The youngster sporting a crisp Brazilian national soccer team jersey walked away $450 000 richer.
“That was nothing (the money) because I could have earned more if I had sold them to MMCZ but they do not bring enough money to buy the minerals,” he said.
The informal buyers resell the stones to MMCZ, earning huge profits. They are not the only ones cashing in on the bonanza.
Informal traders have stormed the area. They have set up stalls where they display anything from condoms, razor blades, and sanitary pads to clothing, beer and groceries. Others cook food and sell it at the site and there are opportunists scouring the ground for stones dropped by the miners.
But very little money changes hands at these stalls. All trade is barter. They exchange their wares for the diamonds which they then resell. Business is brisk here because the villagers have suddenly developed not-so-common tastes like mid-afternoon tea.
Nightfall brings in new forms of entrepreneurs.
They stand on the paths used by miners retiring to their villagers. Prostitutes attracted by the large number of young carefree men openly advertise their services. They do not want cash for their industry. They want tumapuwe instead. The services are sometimes rendered in the open.
The sudden wealth displayed by individual miners however is in sharp contrast to their surroundings, dominated by rickety huts and a very poor road network, save for the main Mutare-Masvingo highway.
The rocky dirt road to the mine crosses the Odzi River via a narrow bridge whose approaches from either side feature frighteningly steep gradients.
Buses that had long shunned the rutted road now make daily trips to the mine from Mutare bringing in merchants, prospective miners and criminals.
It is a cauldron of disorder that is not likely to benefit the area at all. There is now a separate diamond-based economy where prices of commodities in shops are determined by the price of the stones. But all in all the area remains poor.
The local council is not collecting any royalties or levies from the miners. The buyers and miners are not paying any taxes and meanwhile the major national resource is exploited to satisfy political ends. It is a terrible advertisement for anyone thinking of investing in the mining sector — an unregulated free-for-all where the existing claim holder has lost its rights to politicians and freebooters.
Two years ago there was another human throng in the province of Chimanimani where gold panners laid siege to the district. There were similar scenes of free-spending, bags of cash and politicians turning a blind eye. Billions of dollars worth of gold was extracted from the area and no infrastructural development took place there.
Zimbabwe has a choice to go the Botswana/Namibia route where diamond mining is strictly controlled and the national fiscus benefits, or to follow the precedent of the DRC where political and military carpet-baggers take control amidst widespread pillaging of a vital national resource.
It looks like the latter course has already been embarked upon.