VIEW: Diamonds of consequence —Saleem H Ali
At the end of the day, the diamonds of Botswana will overcome the ‘resource curse’ if they can support not only prosperity but also pluralism in Africa
As moviegoers flock to theaters to view the new Hollywood blockbuster Blood Diamond, the Kalahari San tribe of Botswana have just won a major judicial victory. On December 13, 2006, a three-judge panel in the country’s high court ruled that the eviction of the San from their diamond-rich game reserve was illegal. Regardless of the merits of the case, this decision is significant insofar as it dispels the cynicism which many Western populations harbour about judicial systems in Africa.
The court parted ways with the government in ways that defy the common perception of judicial cooptation by the ruling elite. More than a thousand San who were moved to urbanised camps reminiscent of Native American internments are now free to move back to their ancestral lands. The government’s case for removal was predicated on grounds of education, health and acculturation that mirrored many of the justifications given by the US and Canadian governments in the nineteenth century. Indeed it is also reminiscent of some arguments being offered in Pakistan for moving communities in Makran. Yet the court in Botswana has averted the forced acculturation predicament whose legacy continues to haunt many Native Americans.
The desolate Kalahari desert has been at the crossroads of the conflict between environmental conservationists, miners and indigenous rights activists. While the outcome of the case in favour of the San is laudable, the conflation of these various conflicts has generated more heat than light on resource policy in Africa. To environmentalists, the Kalahari San epitomised the image of a ‘noble savage’ being driven to the periphery by modernity and consumerism.
An easy target for activists was the diamond giant DeBeers that holds sizable shares in Botswana’s lucrative diamond mines. The checkered history of DeBeers in South Africa and its involvement in antitrust litigation in the United States (which was only resolved in 2005), made the accusations compelling. However, there was little connection between the San removal and diamond concessions. Indeed, as Nicholas Oppenheimer, the chairman of DeBeers, argued in a rare article for The Ecologist, having a local San work force would have helped the company if diamonds were to be extracted across the game reserve. Linking the San case to diamonds was a useful strategy to gain public sympathy, but in the long run it may lead to further confusion about the role of minerals in development.
The allure of diamonds as a fatally precious commodity has been attractive to journalists and must be considered with trepidation. Lootable alluvial diamonds have fuelled conflicts in Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leonne. However, industrial diamond operations such as those in Botswana tell a rather different story. The discovery of diamond deposits transformed Botswana from one of the poorest countries in Africa to one of the wealthiest. While the country has its share of challenges, such as extremely high HIV prevalence of 22%, there is no questioning the positive impact of diamonds on the country’s development trajectory. The literacy rate is over 80% and the per capita income, which tops $6000, is the highest in Africa. Due to its high income and educated establishment, the country was the first to provide comprehensive nation-wide antiretroviral therapy. It is also a leader in biodiversity conservation of rare ecosystems such as the Okavango delta.
Diamonds, while being a luxury item for many in the West, are a source of basic prosperity for the people of Botswana. This is a rare tale of wealthy ‘wants’ in developed countries providing for real ‘needs’ in a developing country. The challenge for mineral economies such as Botswana remains one of wise investment of such windfall capital flows. Developing robust sustainable and diversified economies from diamonds revenues will be the real test of the country’s leadership. As for the Kalahari San, their decision to not embrace modernity must be respected just as much as Americans respect the Amish or the Mennonites for their rejection of creature comforts. At the end of the day, the diamonds of Botswana will overcome the ‘resource curse’ if they can support not only prosperity but also pluralism in Africa.
What lessons might Pakistan learn from the African experience with diamonds? First, we must start to take Africa and its resources seriously and consider establishing better partnerships with our African brethren. China has begun to realise the economic and human value of such relations already by forging better business partnerships in the region. However, across much of South Asia, we frequently hear epithets being hurled towards the ‘habshi’ Africans, despite the strong egalitarian message of Islam which gave Africans special significance since the first Hijrah was to this primordial continent.
Whenever, I travel in Africa, I am amazed also at how many ancient trade connections South Asians share with the people, particularly with regard to trade of precious gems and jewels. Yet many of the South Asians who live in Africa tend to remain aloof from the population and act as a privileged elite, which only fosters further contempt with indigenous populations. A few decades ago this led to the appalling expulsion of Asians from Uganda by Idi Amin. While that era of inveterate hatred between Africans and Asians has thankfully passed, there is simmering resentment on the cliquish behavior of many among the South Asian diaspora that reside in Africa.
As the story of diamonds and development in Botswana shows us, Africans can have mature democracies and perhaps Pakistan’s judiciary may learn lessons from them just as much as we hasten to the halls of Lincolns’ Inn. Botswana’s own founding leader, Sir Seretse Khama, was an inspirational statesman whose legacy is worth emulating in Pakistan as well. Perhaps we should have a chapter on his skills as a leader in confronting the challenges of postcolonial development in our history books. Despite a legacy of racism and of oppression that far exceeds anything South Asia ever endured, Africans are rising to the challenges they face and we must salute them for their courage and determination.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont and a senior fellow at the United Nations mandated University for Peace. He can be reached at email@example.com