Cruel fate of miners who found perfect blue diamond

If diamonds are forever, the same cannot be said of Ambrose Gambushe’s job. Friday was his last day at work. He has spent 10 years guarding the deafening machinery that digs out a maze of tunnels almost a kilometre below the surface in search of carbon stones older than the dinosaurs.
And although Ambrose has not made a fortune from his job, other people have.

On Tuesday a Sotheby’s auctioneer will almost certainly slam his gavel on an offer of at least £4-million (about R50-million) when an “important and rare, fancy, vivid, internally flawless blue diamond weighing 7,03 carats” finds a buyer at the Beau Rivage hotel in Geneva.

It is seven months since the unique gem, in its rough form, tumbled down a chute at Cullinan mine, embedded in anonymous grey rock. The sale of the diamond has caused headlines around the world. Yet on 23 April, Petra Diamonds, which owns the mine and is selling the polished stone, wrote to unions stating that “the ongoing deterioration in our income” was forcing it to “revise, review” and replace all previous collective agreements with the mine’s 900 staff.

Cullinan mine, adjacent to a charming village 48km from Pretoria, is no ordinary pit. It produces a quarter of the world’s highest-quality stones and is the most reliable source of the highly prized blue diamond. The imperial state crown and royal sceptre—housed in the Tower of London—carry two of the mine’s finest stones, including the Great Star of Africa, cut from a 3,106ct diamond found here in 1905. The mine also produced the 69,4ct diamond that Richard Burton bought for Elizabeth Taylor for more than $1-million.

Petra Diamonds’ chief executive Johan Dippenaar (51) said the Cullinan mine, which the company bought last year, produced about one million carats a year of industrial and gem-grade diamonds, worth at least R580-million (£46m). But he added that the global recession had led diamond prices to fall by up to 45% since 2007, forcing the company to streamline operations and cut costs.

Gambushe (43) an instrumentation technician, is now a cost that has been cut. “I resigned because I was humiliated out of my job,” said Gambushe, who fractured his shoulder blade when he fell down slippery stairs at the plant in January. Four weeks ago he was called to a disciplinary hearing that found him guilty of “failing to adhere to company safety standards” because he had not held on to the handrail. At the end of his disciplinary hearing, he was given a “final warning” that was to be valid for 12 months.

Gambushe, who is married with two children, left a salary of R21 000 a month. “The atmosphere at the mine has really deteriorated since Petra bought it from De Beers last year. Skilled black workers are leaving in droves. You have no prospects at that mine if you are black. There are pay differentials between black and white workers in the same jobs of up to R10 000 per month.”

Gambushe’s allegation was supported by the National Union of Mineworkers’ chairperson at Cullinan, Maxwell Hlalethoa. He said that, 15 years after the end of apartheid, race relations were poor at the mine. “The majority of supervisors are still white. They rate their white brothers better than black workers and this accounts for the pay differentials.”

The mine’s NUM branch said salaries ranged from about R3 000 a month for unskilled labour to R30 000 for skilled plant operators or controllers. The blue diamond being sold in Geneva was probably discovered by a diamond sorter paid in the region of R6 000 a month.

Petra management held a first meeting with the NUM and the two smaller unions at Cullinan on Friday to outline the terms of a savings package aimed at reducing costs. Hlalethoa claims the new management wants to erode a range of benefits, including allowable sick days, maternity leave, productivity bonuses and compensation for lost rest time between shifts.

Cullinan’s general manager, Teon Swanepoel, denies there is racism or discrimination at the plant and claims any existing imbalances were inherited from De Beers. “I need the workers and they have already made great efforts to optimise production. We are looking at all costs and there are plenty of savings we can make before we get to salary cuts. We will do all we can to avoid reducing labour numbers.”

Nationally, the NUM estimates 20 000 mining jobs have been lost since October. The union is critical of the investor-friendly policies of the former president Thabo Mbeki’s administration. It is part of a strong left-wing alliance, including the unions and the Communist party, who hope that President Jacob Zuma will adopt worker-friendly policies.

Hlalethoa said “De Beers was better because they were like a government”, by which he meant the mining conglomerate had a decades-old paternalistic employment policy born out of the moral burden of its exploitative role in the apartheid years. Where paternalism fell away after the end of apartheid in 1994, the African National Congress government has not stepped in to protect workers. Petra, a new company with Saudi Arabian backing and five mines in South Africa, has no apartheid baggage.

Dippenaar said that, in the decade preceding his company’s purchase, the villagers of Cullinan were constantly worried about the future. “The mine is relatively small by global mining standards. We are confident that we are going to conduct operations at Cullinan for 40 years. We are committed to helping the village to be reborn and to maximise its tourism potential. Our style of management gives a small mine such as this one a chance,” he said. -

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