Where they are mined responsibly, as in Botswana, South Africa or Namibia, diamonds contribute to economic development and stability.
However, where governments are or were corrupt and vile, as was or perhaps still is the case in Angola, the DRC, Liberia or Sierra Leone, the glittering gems became agents of slave labour, mass displacement, murder and economic ruin.
Angola, DRC, Liberia and Sierra Leone were in recent years shattered by civil wars — some of them with roots in colonialism — fuelled by blood diamonds. Instead of being a source of economic development and progress, diamonds became a cause of death and destruction.
It is true that the miseries of modern Africa are, in many ways, a legacy of its history and colonialism. The meddling of colonialists, superpowers and foreign governments caused havoc. Joseph Conrad called the Belgians’ pillaging of the Congo “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience”.
However, African leaders and their internal rivals have exploited diamonds, oil and other natural resources for primitive accumulation of wealth and to fund their repressive and corrupt rule.
Diamonds need not lead to calamity. Botswana, the world’s largest diamond producer by value, is one of the most stable and relatively prosperous countries in Africa. The diamond industry there employs nearly a quarter of the country’s 1,8 million population and accounts for two-thirds of government revenue.
De Beers, the South African conglomerate that controls two-thirds of the world’s rough diamonds, and the Gaborone government control the industry in Botswana in a 50-50 partnership arrangement.
When De Beers discovered diamonds in Botswana in 1969, the country had been independent for three years and was run to all intents and purposes by leaders and traditional chiefs who owned cattle and goats. Britain virtually abandoned Botswana as its protectorate in 1966. The country had nothing.
It only had 10 km of tarred road. There were no schools, hospitals and clinics to talk about. And no traffic lights. Botswana did not even have a currency of its own!
However, during the past four decades Botswana changed into a completely different country.
Using diamond revenues, the government built roads, schools, hospitals and clinics. New modern infrastructure lured investors and created employment, while expanding the economy. The lives of the ordinary people improved enormously despite continuing social problems.
At the height of the economic crisis in this country, Zimbabweans survived on food and other imports from Botswana and other neighbouring countries.
Botswana has shown that diamonds, if responsibly mined and sold, can stimulate economic and social development.
Terry Lynn Karl, professor of political science at Stanford and author of The Paradox of Plenty, a book about the poisonous mix of natural resources, big money and thieving elites in developing countries, observed: “Diamonds are not devils.
“What matters is that there be a tradition of good government and compromise in place prior to the exploitation of these resources,” he said.
Which brings us to Zimbabwe where a “vile scramble” for diamonds is underway. One would have thought by now Zimbabwean leaders would have learnt something from African countries on what to do and what not to do. But alas it does not appear as if anything has been learnt from elsewhere. That is why we have conflict at the Marange or Chiadzwa diamonds fields.
Diamonds were discovered in Marange in June 2006. Instead of putting in place structures and systems for organised mining, government effectively encouraged a diamond rush by declaring the fields open to anyone to mine.
The diamond fields were swamped by panners, smugglers and crooks. The eastern hinterland of the country rapidly descended into in a low-intensity conflict.
Serious human rights abuses were perpetrated by state security forces when they were deployed in 2007 to fight illegal panners and smugglers before they joined in the pillaging.
Instead of stepping in to restore order, government joined in the fray. It ganged up with dubious foreign companies and individuals to plunder the diamonds.
The parliamentary portfolio committee on Mines and Energy is currently investigating how South Africa’s New Reclamation Group and Core Mining & Minerals (Pty) Ltd got their controversial mining licences.
With the situation in Chiadzwa now involving foreign companies, security forces, shadowy characters some of whom have been diamond smugglers and mercenaries and greedy politicians and their surrogates, Marange has become a power keg set-up.
Zimbabwe must learn from its neighbours, Botswana, South Africa and Namibia. Diamonds need not be a source of conflict, but national wealth and prosperity.