Diamonds aren’t forever – not in SA

January 23, 2011

It was announced that DeBeers, the South African Company that dominated the global Diamond Market for yonks has decided to throw in the towel as far as South Africa is concerned and it was no surprise that they sold their second biggest and one of only two diamond mines remaining in South Africa.

The decision to sell Finsch Mine was an easy one. De Beers, years ago decided to get out of the country. Mining, because of labour (COSATU) and government (ANC) became too expensive and the margins to thin. The risks of tenure and other regulatory uncertainties curtailed exploration and the decision was made to sweat the assets and get out leading to the mass sell-off of mines. The Kimberley mines were the first to go with the BEE-company taking them over, KCM – loosely connected to the Zuma clan – recently suspended from the JSE. The Cullinan mine was taken over by Petra and are barely surviving – albeit at a much smaller scale with considerably fewer people than before – thanks to the find of a typically massive and “lucky” gem; luck that cannot continue for much longer.

Finch Mine does not have the luxury of huge and lucky gems. The mine depends on the mass production of cheap industrial diamonds and small low value gems. Petra no doubt will reduce the size of the mine and scavenge dumps and easily accessible ore of which there is little left. Going deeper will require huge investment, investment DeBeers baulked at for good reasons.

The sad thing is that in 2005/6 Finsch Diamond Mine became one of the most technologically advanced hard rock underground mines in the world; a true pioneer. The technology employed at Finsch was critical in ensuring the viability of sustainable continuing operations.

Because of the South African skills shortage it became increasingly difficult to support the advanced mining technology at Finsch mine and future investments in this technology became just too risky given the deviancy of the Department of Minerals. In the end the selling price of Finsch Mine of $200 million hardly equates to the cost of the Mine Automation Project.

Sadly many of the excellent engineers developed in this process have left South Africa. They work abroad for DeBeers and for the companies involved with DeBeers in the development of the technology.

With Finsch gone, Venetia Mine remains the last Bastion of the erstwhile DeBeers South African Empire, in South Africa – an empire destroyed by transformation. The mine will be retained by DeBeers until the easy resources are exhausted, the assets have been sweated properly upon which it will be flung aside to be used by unscrupulous BEE companies, like KCM, to fleece unsuspecting investors.

Resources are not inexhaustible and for that they must be recovered effectively and investments must be made in finding new resources. In South Africa this cannot be done because of inflated labour costs, ineffective training and education, a government threatening ownership, a ruling party prepared to steal mineral rights for the benefit of a select few in the top party echelons.

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