Orapa & Letlhakane mine: The highs and lows of the world’s largest diamond mine – Part One
ORAPA: If Las Vegas is famous for its glitterati lights and trendy casinos, the gambling and money spinning haven for a cross-section of the wealthy one percent, Miami, London and Paris the fashion and culture capitals of the modern world.
Hollywood the nurturing cradle of pop-culture that churns out the world’s glamorous, the best entertainers and super stars to wow and thrill our planet. New York, the concrete jungle where dreams are made, then Orapa is the world’s one of a kind reliable and highly trusted giver of rare, special, precious rocks, a gift to the word that keeps on giving.
The Orapa diamond mine owned and operated by Debswana is the world's largest open cast diamond mine located in a small township in the Boteti Sub-District. Orapa has for many years decorated royals and Hollywood stars with jewelry from its priced and truly special diamonds, it is a magical oasis of precious stones in the sweltering warmth of the unforgiving Boteti heat.
At its best, Orapa is to the Botswana economy what Obama is to American politics, what Mandela is to South Africa, what the Buggatti is to the car industry. It is what Floyd Mayweather is to Boxing, but that was then. For close to fifty years, Orapa has endured its highs and lows, it has experienced its boom and bust, in that order and the tale as told by its very first inhabitants is an incredible one.
After close to half a century of uninterrupted high value diamond production and critical support to Botswana's economic development, Orapa is not the same place it used to be. Its first employees and original residents now in the evening of their lives, men who dared to literally invade the sleeping place for lions, (The word Orapa is actually a Sesarwa word that means resting place for lions) sleeping in nothing but makeshift tents (Camp Lamando) when Orapa was just a thicket of bush, a feared forest where lions roamed and the human species, except for some highly experienced Basarwa animal trackers would not dare to step foot in, look back with nostalgia and reminisce about the good old times of the Orapa Beer-fest, the Christmas parties where drinks over-flowed non-stop, the days of Orapa owned Television Station, memories of mine sponsored shopping sprees and the mine bonus program mpho le mphonyana as well as the generosity of the then Minister of Minerals, a certain Minister Mswele, who now seems all forgotten.
They saw the township being built, brick by brick from the ground up, they witnessed too much during the life of the mine. They posses the greatest institutional memory, but yet have also forgotten a lot in the last forty five years which they now remember in bits and pieces before it is all lost to historical record.
This week, two old men who were part of the tiny cohort of Orapa mine’s first employees sat down with this publication to jog their memories and attempt to remember all that was Orapa of yesteryears, Orapa of their time. Eighty year old Kgosiemang Diepo, born in 1935, says that he started work at Orapa mine in 1967 when the mine had just been discovered and the AK1 kimberlite just indentified.
He describes that time as the ‘best of days’. Orapa, the oldest of four mines operated by Debswana, begun operations in July 1971, four years after he had begun work at the mine.
By then Diepo was only 35 years old, and had no idea he was going to embark on the task of building the world’s largest diamond mine, which will turn out to be the mainstay of Botswana’s economic success model for many decades.
Kgosiemang Diepo started work at the mine during it initial prospecting, first sampling and evaluation process in 1967 and was among those in attendance when it was officially launched and open for business in 1971 by His Excellency Sir Seretse Khama.
He says he was part of the mine’s first geologists, led by Manfred Marx, and ably assisted by Dr Gavin Lamont and Norman Randel who carefully traversed the carnivores infested forest of Boteti in search of precious stones, then he had never laid eyes on the stone they sought. He says this adventures process, which later included sampling and evaluation of soils and rocks took them two years to complete.
On June 23rd 1968, the De Beers Botswana Mining Company was born. He says he remembers that special moment then when the first diamonds were discovered and he first laid his eyes on the stones he had longed to see.
The old man saw all that is Orapa today from conception to execution. Now retired and a headman of arbitration at Mokgobelele Ward in Letlhakane, know for his trademark safari hat, Diepo says he had no idea then he will stay at Orapa mine for more than 26 years, let alone live to tell the tale to the younger generation.
“I was among the first local inhabitants to work in the Orapa diamond mine, which was then not called Orapa or Debswana but De Beers Mining Company. I begun work on the 26th May 1967, when Orapa was still just a camp and we lived in temporary structures. The mine headquarters were in South Africa while the geology office was based in Lobatse” the old geezer says slowly.
He says many of the people he began work with at the mine are late and that his first responsibilities at Orapa were clearing bushes, creating space for internal roads, digging, prospecting and taking soils sample. He was a jack of all trades “we were basically preparing for the parrot plant building, back then we used very rudimentary equipments and everything was a process of discovery through trial and error.
I remember that we were initially paid R8 and then later R10” he says. He says heavy duty drivers who are now paid between P10, 000 and P20, 000 by the mine were only paid R15 “Our Chief geologist was a Scottish man called James George Gibson and our general manager who I remember been picked at the Francistown train station regularly lived in Johannesburg and would only visit to check on progress” he remembers vividly.
He says when the mine was handed over in 1971, it was a period of great joy and trepidation among his contemporaries, and the mine’s first employees “since that day, the mine has operated unabated and uninterrupted, its plant operates non-stop day and night” he says.
“Orapa then was like the biblical land of milk and honey, it was a hodgepodge of people from different nationalities, all focused and committed to the search of one thing, the world’s most valuable rocks. From there on we started having a mix of people from Germany, Canada, South Africa and Zimbabwe coming to this place” he says.
He says many of the new arrivals then brought their children and settled in Orapa. He says that even gold diggers from the south African gold mines, mining engineers, metallurgists, steel experts and the like started descending into Orapa in their droves “as the population of people increased, the mine decided to build the township as you see it today, a modern town, with modern brick houses, additional housing was added gradually over the years to convert the bush into a true modern mining city” he says.
He says back then the mine took good care of its employees “ R10 was a lot of money in the 70’s, the mine could also afford to give its employees, housing allowance, free gas, free electricity, cars to go shopping in Francistown, all expenses paid as there were no shops in Letllhakane or Orapa” he says.
Gabaratane Maphane Mawala, born in 1934, says he was operator with the mine for 20 years. He says they used to be given mine cars to go wherever they wanted “back then to work in the mine gave you prestige in the village, the mine operated non-stop day and night, it never closed, we had 3 shifts, one from 8-4pm, followed by another from 4pm- 12 mid-night, then another group would go to work from 12 midnight until 8pm, the cycle would continue and that cycle has been like that to date. In our time we would be given seven days off work to rest regularly” he says.
While they speak well and glowingly about the mine, the two old timers don’t flinch when they bemoan the lack of developments in their village of Letlhakane. “we had high hopes that the mine would develop this village, looking back we regret that we should have demanded more developments for our region” Mawala says with a straight face.
He says that it is a shame that in 2015, Letlhakane has no street lights “with all the money that has come from the mine the village should have good internal roads and street lights” Letlhakane has no single street light and they both agree that might pose a danger to people who have to catch buses for their night shift.
“life has changed, these days stories of mine employees working night shifts being robbed or victims of crime are common, it is a big disappointment and unbelievable that the village is still as dark at night as it used to be back then in the 70’s, this is a great failure and a disservice on the part of the government and the mine” he continues, with visibly restlessness written on his face.
The two concur that unlike today, in the past it did not require a special permit to enter Orapa “people entered as they pleased. In our days, there was a lot of diamond theft. Many people stole diamonds back then and were as a result denied access into Orapa” Diepo adds.
It was then decided that permission will be restricted and a permit sought to enter the township. He says diamond theft was so rampant that the then chief of police, a certain Jack Monty was transferred to Orapa to assume the post of Chief Security Officer at the mine.
He says many such people were tried in the courts of law in Botswana and it is now impossible for them to enter Orapa, let alone for anyone with a criminal record, this he posist is due to the mine’s high security culture. Orapa is entirely fenced, it has a high security fence, with only two manned entry points, even upon entry into the township, access is only allowed in the green area and not where the diamonds are mined.
“When I started working as Operator on December 20 1989, I thought what the mine did for the village was good enough for us, looking back I would say we have failed the young generation and should have demanded better and more developments’’ Mawala brings us back to the discussion on the villagers co-existence with the mine.
He says while his generation was satisfied with R35 which he earned when he became full operator, he wishes they had the vision to see 25 years into the future and asked the mine to cater for village developments as well, to build at least public toilets and street lights for the villagers “The mine has not developed Letlhakane, we are disappointed. Residents should stand up and demand better! Otherwise the mines will soon close, leaving the village as it was when it started operation” he declares.
Diepo adds that not even the main kgotla in Letlhakane which is the symbol and embodiment of the village’s culture, identity and development has a proper roof and is big enough.
“I must add though that when Blackie Marole was at the helm and leadership of the mine he tried his out most best, but was failed by the politics and ill advised by people who did not want to see this village prosper” he says.
He says people should visit Letlhakane to see that it is not any different from 45 years ago, save for a few structures which were not build by the mine but through the sweat and toil of local business men and Letlhakane residents, who saw opportunity in a mining environment. He says while they understand that Orapa is the administrative centre for all the mines in the region, the township has unfairly benefited, getting the bulk of all the developments at the compete exclusion of Letlhakane.
He says water and power never shuts down in Orapa no matter what happens in the rest of Botswana and it saddens them as senior citizens that Letlhakane is excluded when it also has a diamond mine “Letlhakane should be better, we live in a village with no proper sewage system, not many good gravel roads, majority of the mine workers stay here and we are surrounded by diamonds.
The dust is unbearable because we have no tarred roads! Tuberculosis is on the rise in the village. The big mine trucks, so big that we never knew trucks that big existed, have to drive on these terrible roads regularly, sending clouds of dust everywhere and causing more damage to our once peaceful and safe environment. It is time a small percentage of the profits is reserved to help the village build roads” he says hushly, as if to restrain himself.
He reveals that he remembers however that a few years ago the mine reluctantly built 55 toilets in tsikinyega ward and regularly donates cash through their corporate social investment (CSI) arm which will be one of its biggest legacy to the village, but so do many non-mining companies with CSI units he says “what would be wrong with the mine doing something more tangible to remember it by, like constructing internal roads, improving the gravel roads in Letlhakane and building a proper hospital, why should Letlhakane residents still be referred to Francistown hospitals after so many years of mine operation” he asks rhetorically.
While he acknowledge that the mines has built the one road that connects Letlhakane to Francistown, he says he will be proud of the mine if Letlhakane had a proper stadium, airstrip, good internal roads, large hospital, mine sponsored malls and street lights.
He says his consolation is that while the mine did not develop the places and regions the minerals are extracted from, it is comforting that it has helped develop the rest of the country “the mine has employed so many people over the years and changed lives positively, it has employed people from across Botswana without discrimination and that is what consoles me” he says as if in reflection.
He says while he would not like to talk too much about what might have been and dwell on the past, it still troubles him that whites who were junior and doing the same jobs as them were paid more “English people from England and some of those countries, who were doing hard labor and menial jobs, came here and were paid more than us.
That was unfair and it was never explained to us what that was about”. He remembers sadly.
He says having been involved with the mine for that long, he knows that there are still plenty of diamonds in Boteti and that more mines will spring up in the future “I do not wish to reveal too many details or cause alarm about this, but I can assure you that having been to many spaces where diamonds are found in Boteti, from the very beginning, I know there are still plenty of diamonds in this country, they will never finish” he says boldly.
He says he however fully supports government’s strategy of not revealing too much information to citizens about diamonds as that might lead to many mines opening and a possible stock pile of diamonds or the country being attacked in a scramble and scurry for the precious rocks.
“When we begun work at the Orapa mine, we were told that it will have a life span of about 30 years, I retired after 26 years, and its life span keeps increasing. Don’t believe all this hype about the mine life span or shut down. We will die and in my knowledge there will still be digging for diamonds in Boteti. Orapa will get to cut 3, 4 and 5 and I will be proven right.
Having prospected for diamonds, evaluated then and seen some of the pits and the rocks they came from, that is my general view if you ask me about the future of diamonds in Botswana” He says with a relaxed confidence.
He says while the mines may occasionally shutdown and experience their lows and bust, as it occurred in 2009 due to less demand for diamonds and the world economic meltdown, they will always be back up when the world economy changes and demand shifts.
Diepo, who says when he left the mine he had been Promoted many times, remembers being promoted to Geology Transport Supervisor and another promotion to senior Geology field officer, he says he is surprised that people in the same position today earn so much more. He says even white employees back then used to laugh behind his back saying he should have been paid more for the many roles he played building Orapa.
For his part, Maphane says, he was told his position was, operator, then shift foreman and later shift-foreman now dealing with blasting, to prove this he shows a scar on his leg, the injury came about during one of the blasting operations at the A/K1 kimberlite. To date, he is still seeking compensation for his injuries from the mine.
Today, the Boteti region boasts of four diamond mines, being Orapa, Letlhakane, Damtshaa (OLDM) and Karowe Boteti mines all within a 10 kilometers radios of each other. Firestone, Monak ventures, as well as other mines are said to be on the pipeline.
The Orapa diamond mine operates for 24 hours, seven days a week all year round, since 1971 and the early 2000, only halting shortly and intermittently for the plant to go for routine service and maintenance.
The average work day on the mine is eight hours. It employs hundreds of operators and miners trained on mining and earth moving machines, drilling, excavating and blasting, who burn the mid-night oil daily, in a meticulous search for life sustaining stones, all working on shifts day and night even as the nation sleeps or some employees go on strike.
The mine has its own independent water and power supplies to ensure uninterrupted around-the-clock operations ensuring that Orapa remains the one of a kind reliable supplier of rare stones, a highly trusted giver to the world that keeps on giving and it seems in the wisdom of Kgosiemang Diepo so will it be, now and in posterity.
Part two will cover the two men’s departure from Orapa mine and their journey to start work on another mine, the Letlhakane mine in 1975. Part three will cover the controversial scannex machines used in the diamond red area, where only a select few are allowed access. Part four the mine’s long term impact on the environment in Boteti. Part five will focus on Boteti Karowe Mine-a Model Mine and the Unknown story of Monak Ventures.
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ICT sector contributed P1.6 billion in Q4 2022
The latest figures by the government owned statistics entity, Statistics Botswana show that the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector in this country registered significant growth during the fourth quarter of 2022 (Q4 2022).
According to the figures the ICT sector made a contribution of 2.5 percent to the total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at current prices, in Q4 2022.
The figures show that at constant prices, the ICT sector realized an annual growth rate of 4.6 percent and the sector contributed around P1.6 billion to the economy during the fourth quarter of 2022. “In Q4 2022, the contribution of ICT sector to the economy stood at 2.5 percent of total GDP at both current and constant prices. The ICT sector’s value added at current prices amounted to P1, 633.6 million while at constant prices it amounted to P1, 242.2 million. The sector registered an annual growth rate of 4.6 percent in constant prices,” according to the Botswana Information and Communication Technology recent update by Statistics Botswana. The statistics entity noted that the Postal and Courier Services sector’s value added amounted to P67.2 million in current prices, which constituted 0.1 percent of total GDP in Q4 2022.
Giving an update regarding the performance of other ICT sub sectors Statistics Botswana stated that fixed telephone line subscriptions decreased by 2.3 percent in Q4 2022, from 93,925 subscriptions recorded in Q3 2022 to 91,725. Mobile cellular telephone subscriptions however increased by 0.8 percent in Q4 2022, from 4,315,368 registered in Q3 2022 to 4,348,010. Comparing Q4 2022 to the same quarter of 2021, fixed telephone lines decreased by 30.8 percent while mobile cellular telephone subscriptions went up by 4.5 percent. Both pre-paid and post-paid mobile cellular telephone subscriptions increased in Q4 2022. Pre-paid mobile cellular telephone subscriptions rose by 0.8 percent from 4,149,143 in Q3 2022 to 4,181,783 while post-paid mobile cellular telephone subscriptions increased slightly in Q4 2022 from 166,225 registered in Q3 2022 to 166,227, according to Statistics Botswana.
Total internet subscriptions both mobile internet plus fixed internet subscriptions increased by 3.6 percent in Q4 2022, from 2,875,153 registered in Q3 2022 to 2,977,845. Mobile internet subscriptions went up, registering an increase of 4.5 percent from 2,721,946 subscriptions in Q3 2022 to 2,844,958 in Q4 2022. Meanwhile fixed internet subscriptions decreased by 13.3 percent (from 153,207 registered in Q3 2022 to 132,887 in Q4 2022).
Statistics Botswana stated that mobile money subscriptions have been increasing over the years. In Q4 2022, mobile money subscriptions went up by 1.3 percent, from 1,788.551 registered in Q3 2022 to 1,811,036. Mobile money is a technology that allows customers to receive, store and spend money using a mobile phone. To enjoy the benefits of mobile money, a customer has to register and open an account with a mobile money service provider. Existing mobile money services in Botswana include Smega by BTC, Orange Money by Orange Botswana, Myzaka by Mascom and Poso Money by Botswana Post.
The statistics entity stated that on-net fixed telephone domestic calls (Fixed to fixed telephone calls) traffic went down by 8.0 percent in Q4 2022, from 15.4 million minutes registered in Q3 2022 to 14.1 million and added that off net fixed telephone domestic calls (Fixed to mobile telephone calls) traffic decreased as well in Q4 2022. It went down by 0.6 percent from 23.9 million minutes in Q3 2022 to 23.7 million minutes.
With regard to mobile telephone domestic calls traffic, on-net mobile telephone traffic decreased by
0.8 percent in Q4 2022 while off-net mobile telephone traffic increased by 1.6 percent. While mobile to fixed telephone traffic decreased by 1.1 percent in Q4 2022. International outgoing fixed telephone calls traffic declined by 8.2 percent in Q4 2022, from 1.1 million minutes in Q3 2022 to 1.0 million.
The entity noted that outgoing international mobile telephone calls traffic increased slightly by 0.8 percent in Q4 2022, from 4.1 million minutes recorded in Q3 2022. On-net short message services (SMS) declined by 1.5 percent and off-net SMS traffic also went down by 0.5 percent in Q4 2022, according to figures from the statistics entity.
State owned MDCB comes to Minergy’s rescue
Government owned mining investment firm Mineral Development Company Botswana(MDCB) has agreed to bail out embattled Minergy Coal, and clear its arrears with mining contractor – Jarcon, the Botswana Stock Exchange coal miner said in a circular to the market this week.
In the statement Minergy which operates Masama Coal Mine in Media, near Lentsweletau said it has signed a term sheet for funding offered by its main funder, the Minerals Development Company Botswana (Pty) Ltd.
The facility terms are subject to normal legal counsel review, satisfactory due diligence, final documentation, and the review, acceptance, and execution of the relevant financing agreements by the MDCB and the fulfilment of suspensive conditions.
The funding will be utilised to significantly repay the arrears of the Jarcon trade account as required by the Term Sheet. The statement said Minergy and Mineral Development Corporation intends to finalise and allow the disbursement of funds by no later than 30 June 2023.
The funding will allow Minergy to initially continue operations in a reduced sales environment with the associated reduced-cost initiatives implemented to stabilise the business ahead of ramping up to pre-shutdown levels.
In mid- March Minergy announced the halt of Mining operations at Masama due to what it termed a drastic decline in coal prices which resulted in a cash flow crisis.
It emerged that the infant coal miner owed it’s mining contractor, Jarcon over P80 million in arrears. Jarcon had reached a decision to tool down and let go of some of its employees citing cash flow shortfalls as it sought to demand clarity on outstanding payments from Minergy.
Minergy has previously received funding in hundreds of millions from Mineral Development Company (MDC), another Botswana Government 100 percent owned entity.
MDCB, which is housed under the Ministry of Minerals & Energy, is the wholly owner of Morupule Coal Mine. The relatively new minerals investment company also owns 15 percent of De Beers Group on behalf of Government.
Minergy ’s other state funders are Botswana Development Corporation (BDC), the state owned investment entity, 100 percent owned by Government of Botswana, housed under the Ministry of Trade & Industry.
Combined, BDC and MDC have previously pumped over P300 million debt funding to Minergy to bring Masama coal mine to production and later for expansion.
Minergy incurred a net loss during the year ended 30 June 2022 of P131 151 034 (2021: P106 903 609). As at 30 June 2022 the Group had accumulated losses of P376 420 873 (2021: P245 269 838) and its net liabilities exceeded its net assets by P180 279 583 (2021: net liabilities exceeded its net assets by P56 030 697).
This gave rise to a material uncertainty that casted significant doubt on the Group’s ability to continue as a going concern, and therefore, that it may be unable to realise its assets and discharge the normal course of business.
Significant progress towards stabilizing the business was made during the financial year in mitigating the going concern which included receipt of the final tranche of debt funding, completion of debt restructuring to stabilise the business and successful commissioning of Stage 4 of the Processing Plant (Rigid Screening and Stock Handling section) which allows it to now operate at nameplate capacity.
In addition to this, the ongoing war in Ukraine stimulated high coal prices from the end of the third quarter of FY22, as the energy market and the security of supply came under severe pressure. This led to extraordinary demand, allowing access to previously uncompetitive and uneconomical exports into the seaborne market during the fourth quarter.
Minergy successfully exported coal via Walvis Bay, with two 30 000-tonne vessels dispatched in May and June 2022 on a FOB basis. The Group also exported coal through Maputo via rail to the port, with two trains dispatched in June 2022 on a Free-On-Rail (“FOR”) basis. These events increased sales volume for the financial year by 40%, with record sales achieved in May 2022. These increased sales levels have been maintained post year end.
G4S Botswana gross profit down P12 million
G4S Botswana Limited gross profit for the year ended 31 December 2022 declined by around P12 million, according to the company’s consolidated financial statements released by Botswana Stock Exchange (BSE) this week.
G4S Botswana gross profit declined by P12, 373 000.00 from P51, 289 000.00 recorded for the year ended December 2021 to P38, 916 000.00 for the year ended 31 December 2022.
G4s Botswana provides security services to among others, financial services industry and the services include cash transportation, counting and reconciling cash, sorting of notes for use in ATMs, counterfeit detection and removal, redistribution of cash to bank branches, ATMs and retail customers. The company also collects and processes cash notes within the retail environment.
In the recent financial statements, the BSE listed security services provider noted its revenues and profits were negatively affected by increase in fuel prices and cost of proving security services. “The significant decline in gross profit for the year was as a result of the abnormal price increases on fuel, as fuel expenses increased by 88% for the full year, compared to prior year adding significantly to total cost. Additionally due to the heightened security risk environment, the business invested in enhanced security upgrades to its infrastructure specifically in the cash service line. Investment in live monitoring of all cash vehicles further added to the cost of providing service putting further pressure to total costs.”
The company recently indicated that following the increased national security risks characterized by attacks on cash in transit vehicles, the company was forced to improve security of its vehicles, by adopting the latest technology.
According to the company’s management the significant miss in Gross Profit (GP) largely drives the decline in the profit before tax (PBT) year on year. “Added to the PBT decline is the increase in administrative expenses owing to the normalization of the alarm monitoring and response (AMR) teams wherein from September 2021 Management added back the full crew complement to the AMR response crew structure which had been reduced during 2020 – effectively experiencing the full cost of this change in the whole of 2022.
G4S Botswana management meanwhile noted that its revenue for the period increased by 6.45% driven primarily by good growth in the manned guarding service line and added that the top line growth was despite the contract losses experienced during the period under review primarily because of the new Citizen Economic Empowerment (CEE) legislation. “The Cash service line grew marginally by 4% while the Electronic Security Systems (ESS) remained largely unchanged as it continues to experience intense competition from new entrants particularly in the Alarm monitoring and response (AMR) space.”
G4S Botswana management noted that the company will continue to focus on growing revenue following encouraging increases in revenue quarter on quarter for both the third quarter and fourth quarter of 2022, indicating that revenue lost during the first half of 2022 is systematically being recovered. “We will continue driving the sale of integrated security solutions to ensure that we remain at the forefront of security capability in Botswana. The trading conditions remain challenging with significantly fewer opportunities than in prior years primarily due to CEE legislation. As a response, Management continues to drive its commercial strategy of focusing on industry-specific growth such as the retail growth strategy that has driven revenue growth. The infusion of technology into our service offering has also been successful as a revenue driver. Specific focus for the year is on cost management with driving efficiencies across the business and continued fuel management aimed at managing profitability.”
G4S management noted that the company will continue to focus on improving profitability. “Despite the reduced performance of the company, in lieu of stated reasons, the Board of Directors and Management are confident of the company’s going concern status and will continue to work hard towards improved profitability in the foreseeable future.”