Diamonds set Botswana apart


Wealth: The precious stones have turned one of the poorest countries in Africa into one of the most prosperous.

April 28, 2002|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JWANENG, Botswana -- The spiraling dust devils, the gray, shadeless plains and the unbearable heat here on the fringes of the Kalahari Desert reveal nothing of the riches that lie just below ground.

Carved into this desert landscape is a terraced pit -- large enough to swallow a skyscraper -- bursting with diamonds.

More than gifts to warm a lover's heart, these precious stones are the secret to the success of this southern African nation of 1.5 million people.

About one in three diamonds sold in the world comes from Botswana. There are enough diamonds here to keep miners scrambling around the clock for at least the next 30 years to bring them to the surface. The country's vast wealth has helped propel it from one of the planet's poorest nations to one of Africa's most prosperous in the last three decades.

"You can point to everything here. It is the result of diamond revenue," says Louis Nchindo, managing director of Debswana Diamond Co., a partnership between the government of Botswana and DeBeers, the South African mining giant.

Nchindo rattles off the country's diamond-financed achievements: new schools, paved roads, hospitals and clinics, water lines and electricity in some of the remotest corners, no foreign debt. Botswana's per-capita gross domestic product is $6,600, one of the highest on the continent.

Free of the sprawling slums of shacks that have come to define many poverty-stricken African cities, Gaborone, Botswana's capital, is an orderly collection of broad avenues, tidy homes and gleaming new office towers rising out of the flat desert scrub land. Crime rates are comparatively low. Beggars are few.

Botswana stands in stark contrast to other parts of Africa, where diamond wealth has been used for much darker ends. "Conflict" or "blood" diamonds, as they have been dubbed, come from Angola, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where desperate rebel groups use their mining revenue to buy weapons, terrorize civilians and fuel civil wars. Widely publicized photographs of children in Sierra Leone with hacked-off arms and legs, the work of rebel forces backed by diamond wealth, have tarnished the stone's once romantic image.

The U.S. Congress is considering legislation that would force diamond importers to certify their goods as "clean."

Fears that consumers might start boycotting diamonds, as they have furs in the past, have forced the diamond industry to polish its public image and attempt to end the blood diamond trade.

In Botswana, diamond executives and political leaders also are worried. A slump in the diamond market would deal a severe blow to their country, where diamonds are responsible for a third of the gross domestic product.

"Diamonds are the most important resource we have," says Boyce Sebetela, assistant minister of finance and development planning. "It is clear to us that a diamond is not an essential good. It's a luxury."

So Botswana officials have been eager to tell the world that they are different from other African nations. What sets them apart are their sensible leaders, a stable democratic government and sound financial principles, they say.

"We are rural farmers who have tried to till this barren soil and grow cattle," says Nchindo. "We have always behaved like poor people."

Leaders here take pride in their frugality. Several years ago, government ministers received a fleet of new Mercedes-Benzes, but only because they were driving vehicles nearly 20 years old.

"They have a developed a culture of accountability and sensible corporate and government policies," says Siphamamdla Zondi, a researcher at the Africa Institute of South Africa. "There's a lot of envy for what their country has."

Unlike Zimbabwe, South Africa, Angola, Mozambique and other neighbors, Botswana has never had to endure a liberation struggle. Its homogenous population, dominated by the Tswana ethnic group, also has been saved from the ethnic conflict that has destroyed other developing nations.

But Botswana is not free of problems. It has the highest rate of AIDS infection in the world, About 35 percent of its population is HIV positive. Unemployment is high. At least 19 percent -- and perhaps as high as 40 percent, by some estimates -- of the country is out of work. Although the government has an aggressive rural development program, much of the population still lives in poverty, relying on subsistence farming and government help to survive.

Botswana's political leaders have hoped to improve the job market by diversifying its diamond-dependent economy. But their efforts have generated little outside investment.

One reason is that Botswana is often lost in the turmoil of its neighbors, they say. Next door, Zimbabwean President Robert G. Mugabe has been widely condemned for rigging his re-election, sanctioning violence against his political opponents and white farmers, and sending the economy into free fall. South Africa struggles to control one of the world's highest crime rates.

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