Ambivalence feeds Zimbabwe’s diamond tyranny

Why is South Africa enabling corrupt and thuggish elements of Zimbabwe’s government to benefit from ill-gotten diamond revenues? The question is being asked after South Africa snubbed a recent emergency meeting in Dubai of the Kimberley Process, the initiative that regulates the trade in the world’s rough diamonds and ensures they are “conflict free”.

Zimbabwe has since rejected the agreement reached there in April.

The meeting was called to find a way forward on regularising diamond production in Marange in eastern Zimbabwe, where state-sponsored human rights abuses and smuggling have been rampant since 2007. Late last year legal exports of Marange diamonds were restricted because of a lack of consensus within the Kimberley Process in measuring Zimbabwe’s progress in meeting agreed benchmarks.

South Africa’s absence from Dubai was a departure from its past role as an anchor nation of the Kimberley Process, including having chaired it in 2003. Its absence was also sharply at odds with its rebuke of Zanu-PF at the recent Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in Livingstone. There President Jacob Zuma’s tough position was informed by some hard truths: Zanu-PF’s failure to keep its side of the global political agreement that underpins the national unity government, increasing evidence of Zanu-PF leading the intimidation and attacks on the opposition, and a concern shared with other SADC countries that, if left unchecked, Zanu-PF’s lawlessness could spill over Zimbabwe’s borders.

Diamonds underlie much of Zanu-PF’s misbehaviour. The finance ministry is now controlled by the Movement for Democratic Change so Zanu-PF found a game-changer in Marange — it provides riches to a coterie of military and political insiders with which they can fund off-budget activities such as intimidating political opponents.

Hence the disconnection in South Africa’s diplomatic logic. It criticises Zanu-PF’s misdeeds but looks the other way when it comes to what fuels much of that behaviour.

Perhaps one reason for this is that South Africa’s Kimberley Process representation has been politicised. South Africa was represented by civil servants from the department of international relations until earlier this year when they were replaced by Susan Shabangu, the minister of mining. She immediately took to parroting her Zimbabwean counterpart, Obert Mpofu. Both insist that diamond production in Marange has been deemed compliant with the “minimum requirements” of the Kimberley Process and should be given the green light for export.

The result has been to confuse South Africa’s message and diminish its resolve to rein in Zanu-PF — Zuma’s facilitation team reads them the riot act, Shabangu offers them a tissue and sympathetic words of encouragement.

Shabangu’s defence of Zanu-PF’s operations in Marange is also a selective interpretation of the facts. A Kimberley Process review mission last August did find evidence of some progress (notably a drop in state-sponsored violence against artisanal miners and improvements in the internal operations of two South African companies in joint-venture agreements with the Zimbabwe government) but it was far from a clean bill of health.

Military and police involvement in mining syndicates and smuggling remain a serious problem. The compliance of one of the joint ventures, Canadile, was also thrown into doubt late last year after it imploded amid allegations of corruption involving Mpofu and many of the company’s directors. Compounding matters were revelations by Tendai Biti, Zimbabwe’s finance minister, that as much as $300-million in diamond revenues failed to make their way to government coffers in 2010.

Which brings us back to efforts to regularise mining activity in Marange. One Zimbabwean told Partnership Africa Canada during a recent visit there: “The poachers are in charge of the zoo. Unless the Kimberley Process gets serious with Zim, its reputation will be destroyed and the entire African diamond trade will go down the toilet.”

Unlike other examples of rogue behaviour that the Kimberley Process has faced, Marange is not just a matter of weak internal controls, corruption or even violence in the diamond fields. Ultimately, it is a political problem that demands a political answer. In this respect, the Kimberley Process should not be the only, or even primary, vehicle to adjudicate the issue. South Africa needs to step up its political engagement with Zimbabwe over the matter. The parallels between the Kimberley Process and SADC’s long, frustrated experience with Zanu-PF are instructive. Left to its own devices Zanu-PF will stall, obfuscate and do business as usual.

South Africa and SADC cannot ignore the tight link between Zanu-PF’s political behaviour and its control of Marange. South Africa cannot turn a blind eye to the murky role its citizens are playing in Marange’s joint ventures and in smuggling. For Zuma, the stakes are high — failing to accept these realities will derail his new-found activist policy on Zimbabwe before it gets away from the station.

Alan Martin is the director of research for Partnership Africa Canada, which undertakes research and policy dialogue on natural resources, conflict, governance and human rights. In 2003 it was co-nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for its work in exposing links between conflict and diamonds in several African countries

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