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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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Gambling Authority tender dangles as a jittery lottery quandary

30th November 2020
SEFALANA MD: CHANDRA CHAUHAN

Lucrative and highly anticipated national lottery tender that saw several Batswana businessmen partnering to form a gambling consortium to pit against their South African counterparts, culminates into a big power gamble.

WeekendPost has had a chance to watch lottery showcase even before the anticipated and impending national lottery set-up launches. A lot has been a big gamble from the bidding process which is now set for the courts next year January following a marathon legal brawl involving the interest of the gambling fraternity in Botswana and South Africa.

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The uncertainty of getting the next meal in Botswana

30th November 2020
uncertainty of getting the next meal

Households representing more than half of Botswana’s population-mostly residing in rural areas- do not know where their next meal will come from, but neither do they take into consideration the quality and/or quantity of the food they consume.

This is according to the latest Prevalence of Food Insecurity in Botswana report which was done for the 2018/19 period and represents the state of food insecurity data even to this time.
The Prevalence of Food Insecurity was released by Statistics Botswana and it released results with findings that the results show that at national level 50.8 percent of the population in Botswana was affected by moderate to severe food insecurity in 2018/19, while 22.2 percent of the population was affected by severe food insecurity only.

According to the report, this translates to 27 percent of the population being food secure that is to say having adequate access to food in both quality and quantity. According to Statistician General, Burton Mguni, when explaining how the food data was compiled, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), is custodian of the “Prevalence of Undernourishment (PoU)” and “Prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity in the population based on the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES)” SDG indicators, for leading FIES data analysis and the resultant capacity building.

“The FIES measures the extent of food insecurity at the household or individual level. The indicator provides internationally comparable estimates of the proportion of the population facing moderate to severe difficulties in accessing food. The FIES consists of eight brief questions regarding access to adequate food, and the questions are answered directly with a yes/no response. It (FIES) complements the existing food and nutrition security indicators such as Prevalence of Undernourishment.

According to the FIES, with increasing severity, the quantity of food consumed decreases as portion sizes are reduced and meals are skipped. At its most severe level, people are forced to go without eating for a day or more. The scale further reveals that the household’s experience of food insecurity may be characterized by uncertainty and anxiety regarding food access and compromising the quality of the diet and having a less balanced and more monotonous diet,” says Mguni.

The 50.8 percent of the population in Botswana which was affected by moderate to severe food insecurity are characterized as people experiencing moderate food insecurity and face uncertainties about their ability to obtain food. These people have been forced to compromise on the quality and/or quantity of the food they consume according to the report on food insecurity.

Those who experience severe food insecurity, the 22.2 percent of the population, are people who have typically run out of food and, at worst, gone a day (or days) without eating. According to the statistics, rural area population experienced moderate to severe food insecurity at 65 percent while urban villages were at 46.60 percent and cities/town were at 31.70 percent. Those experiencing the most extreme and severe insecurity were at rural areas making 33.10 percent while urban villages and towns were at 11.90 percent and 17.50 respectively.

According to a paper compiled by Sirak Bahta, Francis Wanyoike, Hikuepi Katjiuongua and Davis Marumo and published in December 2017, titled ‘Characterization of food security and consumption patterns among smallholder livestock farmers in Botswana,’ over 70 percent of Botswana’s population reside in rural areas, and majority (70%) relies on traditional/subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods.

The study set out to characterize the food security situation and food consumption patterns among livestock keepers in Botswana. “Despite the policy change, challenges still remain in ensuring that all persons and households have access to food at all times. For example, during an analysis of the impacts of rising international food prices for Botswana, BIDPA reported that food prices tended to be highest in the rural areas already disadvantaged by relatively low levels of income and high rates of unemployment,” said the study.

According to the paper, about 9 percent of households were found to be food insecure and this category of households included 6 percent of households that ranked poorly and 3 percent that were on the borderline according to the World Food Programme’s (WFP) definition of food security.

Media reports state that the World Bank has warned that disruption to production and supply chains could ‘spark a food security crisis’ in Africa, forecasting a fall in farm production of up to 7 percent, if there are restrictions to trade, and a 25 percent decline in food imports.

Food security in Botswana or food production was also attacked by the locust pandemic which swept out this country’s vegetation and plants. The locust is said to have contributed to 25 percent loss in production.

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Solid demand for diamonds towards the ‘gift’ season

30th November 2020
Diamonds

Global lockdown have been a thorn in diamonds having shiny sales, but a lot of optimism shows with the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, the precious stones will be bought with high volumes towards festive season. The diamond market is however warned of the resurgence of Covid-19 in key markets presents ongoing risks amid the presence and optimist about the new Covid-29 vaccines.

The latest findings published as De Beers Group’s latest Diamond Insight ‘Flash’ Report, which looks at the impact of the pandemic on relationships and engagements, has revealed that in the US that more couples than ever are buying diamond engagement rings. Bridal sales is mostly the primary source of diamond jewellery demand in recent months, De Beers said.

According to De Beers, interviews with independent jewellers around the US revealed that the rate of couples getting engaged has increased compared with the period when Covid-19 first had an impact in the US in the spring.

“In addition, despite challenging economic times, consumers were spending more than ever on diamond engagement rings – often upgrading in colour, cut and clarity, rather than size. Several jewellers speculated that with consumers spending less on elaborate weddings and/or honeymoons in the current environment, they had more to spend on choosing the perfect ring,” said De Beers.

According to De Beers, a national survey of 360 US women in serious relationships, undertaken in late October in collaboration with engagement and wedding website, The Knot. This survey is said to have found that the majority of respondents (54%) were thinking more about their engagement ring than the wedding itself (32%) or the honeymoon (15%), supporting jewellers’ hypothesis that engagement ring sales were benefiting from reduced wedding and travel budgets in light of Covid-19 restrictions.

When it came to researching engagement rings, online was by far the predominant channel for gaining ideas/inspiration at 86% of consumers surveyed, with 85% saying they had saved examples of styles they liked, according to De Beers. According to the survey, only a uarter of respondents said they had looked in-store at a physical location for design inspiration.

“For many couples, the pandemic has brought them even closer together, in some instances speeding up the path to engagement after forming a deeper connection while experiencing lockdown and its associated ups and downs as a partnership. Engagement rings are taking on even greater symbolism in this environment, with retailers reporting couples are prepared to invest more than usual, particularly due to budget reductions in other areas,” De Beers CEO Cleaver said.

According to De Beers Group, its Diamond Insight Flash Report series is focused on understanding the US consumer perspective in light of Covid-19 and monitoring how it evolves as the crisis evolves. Also, the company said, it is augmenting its existing research programme with additional consumer, retailer and supply chain touch-basis to understand the pain points and the opportunities for stakeholders across the diamond pipeline.

Demand for diamonds is as hard and resilient as the precious stone itself. De Beers pocketed US$ 450 million in its recently held ninth rough diamond sales cycle, and the company says it is more flexible approach to rough diamond sales during the ninth sales cycle of 2020, with the Sight event extended beyond its normal week-long duration.

“Steady demand for De Beers Group’s rough diamonds continued in the ninth sales cycle of the year, reflecting stable consumer demand for diamond jewellery at the retail level in the US and China, and expectations for reasonable demand to continue throughout the holiday season. However, the resurgence of Covid-19 infections in several consumer markets presents ongoing risks,” said De Beers CEO Bruce Cleaver recently.

High expectations are on diamonds being a sentimental gift for holiday season or as the most fetished gift. However the ninth cycle was lower than the eighth which registered US$ 467 million. For the last year period which corresponds with the current one, De Beers managed to raise US$ 400.

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