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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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Botswana on high red alert as AML joins Covid-19 to plague mankind

21st September 2020
Botswana-on-high-alert-as-AML-joins-Covid-19-to-plague-mankind-

This century is always looking at improving new super high speed technology to make life easier. On the other hand, beckoning as an emerging fierce reversal force to equally match or dominate this life enhancing super new tech, comes swift human adversaries which seem to have come to make living on earth even more difficult.

The recent discovery of a pandemic, Covid-19, which moves at a pace of unimaginable and unpredictable proportions; locking people inside homes and barring human interactions with its dreaded death threat, is currently being felt.

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Finance Committee cautions Gov’t against imprudent raising of debt levels

21st September 2020
Finance Committe Chairman: Thapelo Letsholo

Member of Parliament for Kanye North, Thapelo Letsholo has cautioned Government against excessive borrowing and poorly managed debt levels.

He was speaking in  Parliament on Tuesday delivering  Parliament’s Finance Committee report after assessing a  motion that sought to raise Government Bond program ceiling to P30 billion, a big jump from the initial P15 Billion.

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Gov’t Investment Account drying up fast!  

21st September 2020
Dr Matsheka

Government Investment Account (GIA) which forms part of the Pula fund has been significantly drawn down to finance Botswana’s budget deficits since 2008/09 Global financial crises.

The 2009 global economic recession triggered the collapse of financial markets in the United States, sending waves of shock across world economies, eroding business sentiment, and causing financiers of trade to excise heightened caution and hold onto their cash.

The ripple effects of this economic catastrophe were mostly felt by low to middle income resource based economies, amplifying their vulnerability to external shocks. The diamond industry which forms the gist of Botswana’s economic make up collapsed to zero trade levels across the entire value chain.

The Upstream, where Botswana gathers much of its diamond revenue was adversely impacted by muted demand in the Midstream. The situation was exacerbated by zero appetite of polished goods by jewelry manufacturers and retail outlets due to lowered tail end consumer demand.

This resulted in sharp decline of Government revenue, ballooned budget deficits and suspension of some developmental projects. To finance the deficit and some prioritized national development projects, government had to dip into cash balances, foreign reserves and borrow both externally and locally.

Much of drawing was from Government Investment Account as opposed to drawing from foreign reserve component of the Pula Fund; the latter was spared as a fiscal buffer for the worst rainy days.

Consequently this resulted in significant decline in funds held in the Government Investment Account (GIA). The account serves as Government’s main savings depository and fund for national policy objectives.

However as the world emerged from the 2009 recession government revenue graph picked up to pre recession levels before going down again around 2016/17 owing to challenges in the diamond industry.

Due to a number of budget surpluses from 2012/13 financial year the Government Investment Account started expanding back to P30 billion levels before a series of budget deficits in the National Development Plan 11 pushed it back to decline a decline wave.

When the National Development Plan 11 commenced three (3) financial years ago, government announced that the first half of the NDP would run at budget deficits.

This  as explained by Minister of Finance in 2017 would be occasioned by decline in diamond revenue mainly due to government forfeiting some of its dividend from Debswana to fund mine expansion projects.

Cumulatively since 2017/18 to 2019/20 financial year the budget deficit totaled to over P16 billion, of which was financed by both external and domestic borrowing and drawing down from government cash balances. Drawing down from government cash balances meant significant withdrawals from the Government Investment Account.

The Government Investment Account (GIA) was established in accordance with Section 35 of the Bank of Botswana Act Cap. 55:01. The Account represents Government’s share of the Botswana‘s foreign exchange reserves, its investment and management strategies are aligned to the Bank of Botswana’s foreign exchange reserves management and investment guidelines.

Government Investment Account, comprises of Pula denominated deposits at the Bank of Botswana and held in the Pula Fund, which is the long-term investment tranche of the foreign exchange reserves.

In June 2017 while answering a question from Bogolo Kenewendo, the then Minister of Finance & Economic Development Kenneth Mathambo told parliament that as of June 30, 2017, the total assets in the Pula Fund was P56.818 billion, of which the balance in the GIA was P30.832 billion.

Kenewendo was still a back bench specially elected Member of Parliament before ascending to cabinet post in 2018. Last week Minister of Finance & Economic Development, Dr Thapelo Matsheka, when presenting a motion to raise government local borrowing ceiling from P15 billion to P30 Billion told parliament that as of December 2019 Government Investment Account amounted to P18.3 billion.

Dr Matsheka further told parliament that prior to financial crisis of 2008/9 the account amounted to P30.5 billion (41 % of GDP) in December of 2008 while as at December 2019 it stood at P18.3 billion (only 9 % of GDP) mirroring a total decline by P11 billion in the entire 11 years.

Back in 2017 Parliament was also told that the Government Investment Account may be drawn-down or added to, in line with actuations in the Government’s expenditure and revenue outturns. “This is intended to provide the Government with appropriate funds to execute its functions and responsibilities effectively and efficiently” said Mathambo, then Minister of Finance.

Acknowledging the need to draw down from GIA no more, current Minister of Finance   Dr Matsheka said “It is under this background that it would be advisable to avoid excessive draw down from this account to preserve it as a financial buffer”

He further cautioned “The danger with substantially reduced financial buffers is that when an economic shock occurs or a disaster descends upon us and adversely affects our economy it becomes very difficult for the country to manage such a shock”

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