London-based Gemfields collects billions of rands from its ruby, emerald and amethyst mines in some of Africa’s poorest areas. Much of this wealth is funnelled through opaque offshore companies before going on to fill the vaults of people such as South Africans Christo Wiese, the Shoprite founder, and former BHP Billiton chief executive Brian Gilbertson. Gemfields chief executive Ian Harebottle is also South African.
The press ombud has directed Mail & Guardian to apologise to mining company Gemfields and its Mozambican partner Montepuez Ruby Mining (MRM) for this editorial. Read the full apology here.
With the globe at Gemfields’s fingertips and wealth at hand, it is easy for such distant men – suited, grey portraits in annual reports – to broadcast their version of the company to the world’s rich. On the back of blood-diamond scandals in West Africa and the horrors of Zimbabwe’s Marange diamond fields, Harebottle and company present themselves as the clean-cut new generation of miners. Their glossy documents proclaim: “Gemfields is the world’s leading supplier of responsibly sourced coloured gemstones.”
They employ Hollywood actress Mila Kunis as their brand ambassador and trot her out, glittering with gems, to say ridiculous things, such as this summation of African people: “Their concept of happiness is so different from ours. As long as they have shelter, sunlight and some clean water: happiness.” Or she coos that Gemfields takes “so much pride in how socially and ethically responsible they are. I do believe that they believe it. They don’t just say it for the sake of saying it.”
At the company’s ruby fields in northern Mozambique, however, the picture does not gleam.
In a frontier mining environment, good information and clearly apportioned blame is hard to come by, but villagers repeatedly told us stories of how the men who protect Gemfields’s mine allegedly beat, shoot and kill them. One man took our reporters to his young son’s grave and described how he was allegedly shot and left to die because he had dug for rubies in Gemfields’s concession.
Local officials, including a policeman and the district prosecutor, described the same broad picture; the prosecutor could point to four cases in which convictions were secured against men who were protecting Gemfields’s asset and, in the process, shot and killed artisanal miners. The convicted were three state officers and a Gemfields contractor. The prosecutor referred to many other cases but said evidence was still being collected.
In most cases, it is not clear precisely which security agency is to blame – there are four separate forces protecting Gemfields’s rubies – but what is clear is that the situation is costing desperate people their lives.
Wiese and Gilbertson would not answer our questions. Gemfields and Harebottle, who did answer questions, would not shoulder responsibility. They pointed to smugglers peddling unfair rumours and killings by “drunken” agents of the state. They exonerated their own contractor, saying he acted in self-defence, in one incident, and otherwise claimed ignorance.
This does not present a picture of a transparent and ethical enterprise. Kunis and her employers need to know that an African person’s version of happiness involves respect, not having to fight life-and-death battles to feed their families and, yes, for some, “shelter, sunlight and some clean water”.