On November 16, 2015, the largest rough diamond in more than a hundred years was found in the Karowe mine in Botswana. It was almost the size of a tennis ball. As it goes on sale at the end of this month, we go behind the bling and tell the story of the mineworkers who found it.
There are differing accounts of the discovery of the Cullinan, the biggest gem diamond ever, at South Africa’s Premier Mine in 1905. Some credit mine superintendent Frederick Wells with spotting a flash of light in the wall, whereupon he dug it out with his penknife. Others say Welsh miner Thomas Evan Powell brought it to the surface and presented it to Wells, or that he led Wells to the diamond.
When I ask Lucara Diamond CEO William Lamb, the new star of African diamond mining, who was the true hero of the Cullinan – Wells or Powell, or mine-owner Thomas Cullinan, Sir William Crookes who inspected the diamond, Joseph Asscher who cut it – he says, ‘it’s got to be a combination… The entire story has a very important place in history’. But it’s clear he adheres to the Wells version – ‘to spot the exact point where the sun was glinting on the wall… takes a lot of credit’ – and sparklingly smart, hard-headed engineer and businessman though he is, he really believes the lore surrounding the stone. ‘I met the great-granddaughter of Joseph Asscher’ – the Antwerp cutter who, it is said, fainted after he cleaved the Cullinan perfectly with a single blow, he tells me intently. ‘All those stories were true.’
When I visited Botswana’s Boteti region last November, shortly after Lucara reported the discovery of the biggest gem diamond since the Cullinan at its Karowe mine (since named Lesedi La Rona and being auctioned by Sotheby’s in London on June 29), I found among some a resentment at the industry’s remoteness and a feeling that Botswana was yielding its natural riches too cheaply.
Victor Thanke of the Zowa Trust says mining companies’ CSR is a superficial PR exercise.
Young MP Sethomo Lelatisitswe lamented that he first heard about the huge find via WhatsApp from a cousin in the UK. Victor Thanke of the Zowa Trust says mining companies’ CSR is a superficial PR exercise; that there is no proper community consultation over scarce water resources; fundamentals such as adequate street lighting and health services go unaddressed and calls to offer capacity-building training to local people are ignored. Lamb responds passionately to these criticisms.
‘Actually it upsets me quite a bit… The sale of Lesedi is very important… critics don’t quite realise that more than 60 per cent will flow back into the Botswana economy’.
Lucara’s intention is ‘to try and educate the market’ about the industry’s strategic value, not simply publicise CSR benefits.
We’ve heard precious little of Botswana and the Batswana connected with the diamond, managers or operatives.
To give the company its due, it also has considerable community presence, with its corporate parent’s Lundin Foundation supporting local entrepreneurs and the rebuilding of a slaughterhouse. Lamb talks about a project to replace the poorly-surfaced sports field in Letlhakane village.
But what is undoubtedly the case is that we’ve heard plenty about Lucara’s Large Diamond Recovery machines using ground-breaking X-Ray transmission sorting technology in the absence of which Lesedi and a string of other huge finds at Karowe would have been smashed to pieces in the machine process. And plenty about the value of Lesedi La Rona as an object, its rarity, its vital statistics (a 1,109 carat type IIa), what it might fetch at auction, the world tour it has taken, what jewels might be cut from it or whether it will remain as a rough, a thing of wonder in a museum or an oligarch’s home… And we’ve heard precious little of Botswana and the Batswana connected with the diamond, managers or operatives: the Sir William Crookes, Frederick Wells’ and Thomas Evan Powells of our day.
The discovery of Lesedi shows once again Africa’s richness in natural resources – but also the richness in its people.
While Lamb insists modern mining is a long chain of processes which makes individual glory-seeking inappropriate, it all adds up to the impression evoked by Lelatisitswe that as far as the outside world is concerned, ‘we are just a hole where that diamond came from’.
The discovery of Lesedi shows once again Africa’s richness in natural resources – but also the richness in its people. The miracle of Botswana’s diamonds is not only one of billions of years of geology; it’s how in just 50 years the country has evolved from a poor backwater to an enviably stable, upper middle income economy, a trajectory feared to have stalled with plateauing production and falling demand but given fresh hope by Lucara’s discoveries (The name Lesedi La Rona, ‘Our Light’ in Setswana, William Lamb explains, was chosen in a nationwide competition because ‘it actually represents Botswana’, which diamond wealth has ‘brought into the light’).
Here are the stories of some of the diamond miners of Botswana, at Karowe, and other mines such as industry leader Debswana’s huge operation at Jwaneng.
As a rejoinder to coverage elsewhere, and in recognition of Lamb’s hope that Lesedi’s discovery might be regarded with the same awe and sense of historical signficance as the Cullinan’s, here are the stories of some of the diamond miners of Botswana, at Karowe, and other mines such as industry leader Debswana’s huge operation at Jwaneng – beginning with the young diamond sorter who was the first person to see Lesedi La Rona.
Tiroyaone Mathaba, junior sorter, Karowe mine
Much was expected of the new TOMRA machines when they were commissioned at Karowe last July – the mine had already produced a string of diamonds larger then 100 carats. For a month, chief sorter Nkoke Tshupo said he dreamed about finding ‘a very big stone’ in the output, causing laughter among his colleagues.
Then one morning when Tshupo was off duty, probationary employee Tiroyaone Mathaba found he was handling material that was unusually cold and unyielding – ‘we were experiencing a near blockage, I was having to work quite hard to get the material down’, he says. Once the rocks had been transferred to the sort box and Mathaba could see they contained a huge gem, he was stunned.
‘At first I wanted to scream – then I said in a low hoarse voice, “god it’s a diamond”.’ His on-the-job trainer reckoned it was 400 carats; Mathaba thought is was bigger. Tshupo was called in to verify the find, then it was passed up the chain to the senior process engineer, process manager and geology department manager.
Since that day, Mathaba says, ‘everyone’s looking forward to coming to work, there’s been a breath of new life’.
A buzz of excitement went around the mine and great efforts were made to stop news getting out before the find was declared. Since that day, Mathaba says, ‘everyone’s looking forward to coming to work, there’s been a breath of new life’. He won’t say what bonuses he and his colleagues received – there’s no bounty for the recovery of individual big stones; every one of Karowe’s 804 employees and contractors received a bonus tied to the discovery of Lesedi, says William Lamb – and his Facebook page is silent about his stroke of fortune. The company confirms he has been given a permanent job.
Mathaba is the grandson of a chief from Matlhakola village in the Tswapong hills, Central district: he spends some of his free time looking after the family’s substantial herd. He is unmarried with a young daughter. Tall and gangly, he likes playing football and chess and ‘to give back’ does some tutoring for free. He proudly describes himself as a star student, recounting all his exam grades at primary and secondary level. He went on to the University of Botswana to study geology but dropped out in his third year there after his dad died; he has also lost one of his two sisters. He joined Karowe from the Gemological Institute of America lab in Gaborone, where he trained.
He speaks eloquently about the appeal of sorting: ‘You never really expect rocks coming out like that. You get to see diamonds how nature made them – the octahedron shapes, the cubes – before humans touched them’. He’s optimistic that Lesedi La Rona and other huge recent finds at Karowe aren’t the end of the mine’s bounty.
‘I think we are in for a surprise… With my little understanding [of geology], with some kimberlites, diamond size and grade tends to improve as you go down. As we go down, we could even call 342 carats [the size of another stone mined at Karowe] a small diamond… My friend, you might be calling again one day.’
Nkoke Tshupo, chief sorter, Karowe mine
‘We were so excited! My department was so happy and surprised that my dream came true – everybody was saying it could never happen,’ says Tshupo, without betraying a hint of disappointment that he wasn’t the first to set eyes on the big stone.
Before Karowe, he worked as a recovery co-ordinator sorting and acidising at Lerala, a mine that closed in the recession. ‘Sorting is actually very interesting – every day you come across different colours’ he says. ‘You need to stretch your eyes every two hours’.
Tshupo has wanted to work in the diamond industry since he was at school when his class was told there was a lot of money in it.
His father worked in a South African coal mine. Tshupo has wanted to work in the diamond industry since he was at school when his class was told there was a lot of money in it. He got as far as secondary qualifications, then engaged temporarily as a sorter before doing in-house training. He’s now studying for a part-time accountancy diploma.
He started out with Debswana – when it comes to bonuses, he says, Lucara is ‘one of the best’. The downside is less opportunity for personal development because it’s a small company.
He lives in Letlhakane while his wife and three kids aged 3, 8 and 12 are in Francistown, 200km away. He’s a businessman on the side, running a construction firm and a cab company with three drivers.
Sunday is strictly for church. He’s travelled around southern Africa; another of Tshupo’s dreams is for him and his wife to visit the UK some day.
Gobotswang Letebele, retired miner, Orapa, Damtshaa & BK11
Gobotswang Letebele began his career with Debswana in 1976. Born in Serowe, he studied for his City & Guilds at Orapa, Botswana’s first diamond mine, and was promoted from fitter mechanist to engineer to foreman general. He’s worked at three other mines, including helping get operations underway at Karowe; he is still doing jobs for the industry. He seems to have enjoyed most his time at Damtshaa mine where he was responsible for water services. ‘There was a problem with pit flooding’ he recalls. ‘I did my best with dewatering the place so they could reach the ore. I had to work around the clock to motivate the guys and I managed to do it, I was really rewarded for that’.
He now runs a popular butchery-cum-bar in Letlhakane village where miners flock for beer and the braai or for parties. He farms as a hobby. The management at Karowe are ‘really hands on, doing a lot’, for example by rebuilding the abbatoir in Letlhakane village.
He endorses the government’s approach of using diamond wealth to enrich the whole country – ‘I’ve seen a lot and I’m happy with the government this way [rather than how] in South Africa, some tribes benefit more than other tribes because minerals are found in their area’. He wants diversification of the economy but mainly into beef and leather. ‘The backbone [of Botswana] is diamonds and agriculture, it’s either one or the other’.
Candy Godie, senior mining engineer, Jwaneng
Candy grew up in Gaborone, the daughter of a soldier. She was top of her class in pure maths and sciences at 17 and was the only girl who went on to study engineering, attending the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa on a Debswana scholarship. As part of her training she worked in a gold mine, a coal mine and in platinum mines, where she tended to be the only woman. ‘I really gelled well with the crew’ she says.
‘There’s nothing really differentiating a man and a woman, it’s about your attitude, pushing productivities. Yes, I got that from my father growing up – he’s very proud’.
Her role model is Cynthia Carroll, Anglo-American’s former CEO; she would like to be an executive herself.
Now at Jwaneng mine, she is a senior mining engineer in a more gender balanced team of six women and nine men. In seven years, she’s worked across different sections of the mine – loading and hauling, brushing, plant maintenance, foremanship. Her current responsibilities include personnel management and drawing up education plans.
In her free time she enjoys reading books about leadership, and jogging. She has two kids with her husband, a military pilot based in Gaborone. Her role model is Cynthia Carroll, Anglo-American’s former CEO; she would like to be an executive herself.
Joe Mchive, mining operations manager, Jwaneng
‘The most exciting part [of my career] is basically now‘ says Johane (Joe) Mchive, relishing the experience of running mining operations in the largest diamond producing mine by value in the world.
He speaks of the beauty of mining and of Jwaneng mine as a ‘mother hen’ in the Debswana system.
His focus is on driving efficiency and productivity, getting the most out of his team by keeping them motivated. He speaks of the beauty of mining and of Jwaneng mine as a ‘mother hen’ in the Debswana system.
Since he started his career with Debswana in the mid-1990s, he has seen the introduction of new technologies such as collision avoidance and auto-drilling and has grown accustomed to the cyclicality of the diamond market.
He worked at Karowe for three and a half years before recently rejoining Debswana. Jwaneng is a particularly appealing place to work because of its closeness to the capital and South Africa. He grew up in the villages of Maun and Butale in the north of Botswana and loves the country’s big game, fish, hippos and crocodiles, the Okavango delta and the Tsodilo hills. His role models are his parents, ‘particularly my mother’.
Where does he think Botswana should be in 20 years’ time? ‘It sounds like it’s a wild dream but a lower scale first class country’.