Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version Lwanga visits the DeBeers Venetia mine complex in South Africa and comes away impressed by their social programmes for employees.

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of visiting DeBeers Venetia Mine in the Limpopo province at the invitation of a colleague Mr Khathutshelo ('K2') Mapasa, the Ore-Processing Manager at Venetia Mines. K2 and I met in 2005 when we were graduate students in Boston, where he was pursuing the Executive Development Program at Harvard Business School. Since then, we have stayed in touch and exchanged views on the behaviour of corporate entities and corporate social investment/responsibility. Since I was going to South Africa on vacation, K2 proposed that I visit Venetia Mine to get a visual tour of diamond mining, understand DeBeers’ corporate working world and its contribution to the communities where Venetia Mine is located in Musina, and Blouberg, which is also a major labour-sending area to the mine. This visit was a timely follow-up to my previous response to Del Hornbuckle’s review of the film Blood Diamonds in Pambazuka News () which I actually watched on my British Airways flight into Johannesburg. from a social activist/scholarly research background, I must say that the visit to Venetia Mine was an eye opener. I had the opportunity of interacting with K2’s colleagues at Venetia in the Financial Management department, the Public and Corporate Affairs (PCA) and the HIV/Aids programme. I spent most of the day with two ladies, Tebogo Rametse and Nicolette Willemse of the PCA Department at Venetia Mine who took me on a whole day trip into the mine, and to Mapungubwe National Park that DeBeers supports to preserve.

We toured the open–pit mining operations at Venetia Mine, observed the process of extracting kimberlite from the ground, and the entire treatment plant complex where machines crush, re-crush, refine and liberate the diamonds from the kimberlite. Mapungubwe National Park has a wide variety of game including varieties of flora useful to the local inhabitants for medicinal purposes. Within Mapungubwe Park sits the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape and the Mapungubwe World Heritage Site discovered in 1933, and the royal tombs of the K2 People (no relationship to K2 Mapasa) preserved by the South Africa Department of Arts and Culture.

Apparently, three different groups are claiming rights to the Mapungubwe Archaeological site, including the land on which Venetia Mine is located, allegedly because each of them lived in the area at the same time. The Mapungubwe collection consists of a variety of materials, including the famous golden rhino, gold sceptre, gold bowl, other gold ornaments, copper, iron, ivory, trade glass beads, Chinese celadon and ceramic ware is on permanent exhibit at the Mapungubwe Museum at the main campus of the University of Pretoria. North of Mapungubwe Park is the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers where the southern most tip of Botswana and Zimbabwe meet the North of South Africa at the Limpopo River. Here, many Zimbabwean migrants, afraid of being intercepted by the South African border police, swim across the Limpopo River braving the crocodiles, and traverse Mapungubwe National Park at the risk of being eaten by lions, to enter South Africa.

After our tour of the mines and the National Park, I chatted with Kefilwe Mokgoko, in-charge of the HIV/Aids programme at Venetia Mine to learn about DeBeers HIV/Aids policy, in light of my professional work on HIV/Aids and higher education in African universities. DeBeers has an impressive HIV/Aids and ARV programme, which is perhaps the only comprehensive programme established by any corporate entity for employees and their spouses/life partners. DeBeers began its engagement with HIV/Aids as a 'morally right' thing to do. The programme has since evolved into an economic investment in its employees’ welfare given the impact of consistent sickness and absence from work on mining operations. In 2005, Venetia Mine started its HIV/Aids Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) programme, and 95 per cent of the workforce has since benefitted. All employees that are tested HIV positive including their spouses and life partners are offered free ARV treatment and counselling. The challenges are to monitor adherence to treatment for HIV positive employees and their spouses/life partners, ensure that HIV negative employees remain so, and fight stigma, myths and negative beliefs surrounding HIV/Aids. Steps have been taken to train HIV/Aids peer-educators who then conduct HIV/Aids education sessions during working hours. Ultimately, the team at Venetia Mines plans to roll out the counselling and testing programme as part of the usual medical procedure all Venetia Mine employees undergo.

There is also high emphasis on safety and security of employees, particularly in the operations of the mine, not only because every accident hurts the productivity of the mine but also because it hurts the family fabric that Venetia Mine sees itself. The management team endeavours to plough back financial rewards for high performance with the team instead of banking all of it into shareholders’ pockets. K2 explained to me that in February 2006, the company declared a gainshare or bonus of 94 per cent of annual benefit value income for all employees due to outstanding performance of Venetia Mine in 2005.

Employees testified that there were able to meet those needs they had put off for a long time, and some were able to build or complete their houses. Besides participating in research and preservation of Mapungubwe National Park, Venetia Mine also supports education programs, teacher training and retention in local schools, skills development and community health and welfare. For instance, the company provides matching grants to strengthen learning at Early Childhood Learning Centres in Musina and Blouberg municipalities. There is a concerted effort of recruiting labour from surrounding communities, unlike most mining operations that create 'mining towns' and import labour from far. As one management staff explained to me, not only do most employees come from within the Musina and Blouberg towns, but also for the first time a member of the Venetia Mine Management Executive - the Ore-processing Manager Mr. Mapasa originates from the surrounding region of Venda.

At the end of my trip, I suggested to the Venetia Mine PCA team to increasingly engage the public and social activists with information on DeBeers’ social investments/response. This is particularly important for the diamond industry where we hear less about the 'unbloody' diamonds mining and mostly about the cruel mining conditions, conflict diamonds and corporate greed. To date, DeBeers has kept an internal communication strategy and shied away from making public statements about their social engagements to avoid being seen as bragging about their social investments. Fortunately, this attitude is changing within the company and PCA team is designing more strategies to bring its 'corporate social facts’ to the public. To its credit, Venetia Mine won the National Productivity Award in 2006 from South Africa’s National Productivity Institute. It is ranked the biggest diamond producer in South Africa and the third producer for DeBeers globally after Orapa and Jwaneng in Botswana. As for the intersection of diamonds with my professional work on higher education in Africa, the Oppenheimer Foundation, in partnership with Ford Foundation office in Southern Africa, has ploughed some profits from DeBeers diamonds to create an Endowment Chair for the Centre for Human Origins at the University of Witwatersrand.

* Doreen Lwanga’s writings focus on the intersection of African political, human and economic security and pan-Africanism.

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