Friday, March 17, 2006

Conflict Diamonds: Africa's Hidden Pain


Nothing shines like a diamond, and probably nothing else in this world is the source of so much greed and misplaced suffering. To examine the whole issue of what has been happening with illegal diamonds is an eye-opnening experience. Doug Farrah's book, "Blood from Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror," is a fascinating expose of the international criminals, moral degenerates and terrorists exploiting the illicit diamond trade in Africa.

Conflict Diamonds: Africa's Hidden Pain

The great reggae artist Peter Tosh was fond of saying, “I am from Africa. I stone you with diamonds. I stone you with gold...” Tosh loved these patois poetic references to Africa, and he was obssessed with the continent’s vast abundance of mineral wealth. In his song “Mama Africa,” he describes the Motherland as “the maker of diamonds, Mama, the maker of gold.” But beyond the profound natural forces that create the mysterious beauty of diamonds and gold are equally astounding transformations in the human world that create the massive demand and multi-billion dollar profits of the global gem industry. Diamonds are cherished worldwide as symbols of love, wealth, power, beauty, glamour and success. But behind all the shine and bling of "ghetto fabulous rappers," traditional Hollywood glitz and the mass appeal of wedding bands, earrings and necklaces—lies the sad fact that over the years conditions in Africa have made buying diamonds a human rights issue.

South Africa – The Beginnings of a New Industry

Driving through Johannesburg, South Africa, one can’t help noticing heaps of artificial hills and small mountain ridges, layered with golden, yellow-hued dust. Along the main highways, or from downtown skyscrapers, a vast series of rolling plateaus—man-made mountains created by the debris of gold mines—can be seen stretching east to west, as the outer, visible signs of the world’s largest gold deposits. It soon becomes obvious to visitors that this ridge that encompasses Johannesburg, Pretoria and many outlying smaller cities fuels the giant economic engine of South Africa.

Some 250 kilometers to the southwest, in Kimberly, near the confluence of the Vaal and Orange Rivers, is the "Great Hole," another man-made oddity protruding from nature. With a circumference approximately one mile wide, and a depth of about 700 feet, the Great Hole was formed with the removal of more than 22 million tons of earth and stands as a monument to humanity’s hunger for the money to be made from mining diamonds. The gaping hole has a frightening and horrid presence; until it is seen, it is hard to imagine that something of this nature can actually exist, and it invokes archetypal fears of falling in pits or caves or being consumed in great darkness.

The gold reefs stretching around Johannesburg and the Great Hole are symbols of Western civilization’s contact with Africa’s hidden treasures. With frenzied fury, white miners, engineers, merchants and financiers began extracting diamonds in what became the Great Hole without any regard for the benefit of the land or its indigenous African people. As capital consolidated all the claims into the De Beers Mining Company, the kings of the new diamond industry experimented with a system of labor where Africans were confined to the most arduous, backbreaking work and were housed in sparse, prison-like dormitories called hostels. The hostel encampments allowed De Beers to maintain strict control of its African workers and created the foundation of the migrant labor populations—in both the diamond and gold industries—that eventually formed the financial backbone of apartheid.

Throughout the 20th century De Beers amassed billions in profits while paying its black workers pittance wages that were carefully calculated to a level just above the subsistence living conditions of rural African communities. With its gigantic surplus value De Beers formed itself into an unprecedented global diamond syndicate, controlling the production as well as the sale, pricing and distribution of diamonds worldwide. The shrewd capitalist elite at De Beers wielded powerful influence on the consumer demand side of the equation as well. The “A Diamond is Forever” advertising campaign—which De Beers started in 1938—is considered one of the most successful of all time. It created the notion that diamonds symbolize marital love and commitment (and thus never to be resold), and craftily identified diamonds as a luxury item synonymous with the glamour of celebrities, movie stars, royalty and high society.

The 1990’s: The Emergence of “Conflict Diamonds”

By the 1990s--just over a century since its inception--the De Beers diamond industry cartel remained more or less intact, controlling some 60 to 80 percent of the world diamond trade valued at more than $8 billion annually. After the freeing of Nelson Mandela and the dismantling of apartheid, the outcry over the plight of African diamond and gold miners in South Africa subsided and their oppression was more or less forgotten, or perhaps even legitimized—in all its racial ugliness and sad injustices—with the birth of the “New South Africa.” With the low-wage, hostel migrant labor systems firmly entrenched in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana—and with high consumer prices maintained at inflated levels by the De Beers cartel—the tradition of African exploitation by the diamond market forces morphed into new frontiers. As quickly as apartheid seemed to fall apart, various rebel groups, militia leaders and warlords across Africa suddenly discovered the military hardware, wealth and power that diamonds could bring them. In Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, civil wars and regional conflicts were fomented by arms merchants who used the diamond trade to bankroll local armies while making fortunes through subterfuged networks of front companies and transnational corporations. The profits also filled the coffers of Al Qaeda, and possibly Hezbollah–terrorist organizations notorious for their violence and human rights abuses.

In Angola, the infamous UNITA rebel strongman Jonas Savimbi—who previously had been supported by the apartheid government—found in the trade of “conflict diamonds,” a new source of wealth to sustain his guerilla movement. Despite a negotiated peace settlement and years of UN economic, military and diplomatic sanctions, Savimbi and his UNITA forces were able to re-arm and resume the Angolan civil war based on the proceeds of diamond sales from UNITA-held territories. While the resumption of the Angolan civil war in 1998 first drew the attention of the United Nations Security Council to the issue of conflict diamonds, it was not until Savimbi, along with two of his senior brigadiers, was ambushed and murdered by government forces in February 2002 that UNITA was finally disbanded and its diamond trading activities ceased.

While Savimbi’s violent intimidation and megalomania was legendary—it seems the worst conflict diamond abuses occurred in Sierra Leone. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel force headed by strongman Foday Sankoh, waged a civil war in Sierra Leone for 10 years by controlling the diamonds fields on Sierra Leone’s eastern region bordering Liberia. Unfortunately for the people of Sierra Leone, the diamonds there are of very high quality and can be found on the earth’s surface, accessible to anyone with a few basic hand tools. Much like Savimbi, Sankoh was brutal in suppressing anyone who opposed his rule; but Sankoh’s trademark tactic was to amputate the hands of locals to terrorize them into working the diamond fields. Amnesty International estimates that the RUF eventually mutilated about some 20,000 people, hacking off hands, arms and legs and otherwise maiming or butchering their victims with machetes and axes. Working in alliance with Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, Sankoh pushed his blood diamonds on to the world market, exchanging them for weapons and cash that sustained their political power. The RUF’s reign of terror finally came to an end when British and Guinean special forces invaded Sierra Leone in May 2000 and crushed the rebel army. Sankoh was arrested and eventually died in captivity while being tried for war crimes, including crimes against humanity, rape, sexual slavery and extermination.

Conflict diamonds also created problems in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation that had finally witnessed a rebel movement overthrowing Mobuto Sese Seko, a dictator siezed power in a coup in 1965 and ruthlessly pillaged his country of billions of dollars. But shortly after coming to power in 1997, the new government of Laurent Kabila began to experience a wave of insurgency in its eastern regions. Once again, the same pattern evidenced in Angola and Sierra Leone emerged in DRC. The eastern diamond mining regions of the DRC were overwhelmed by rebel factions, primarily the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo, or FDLR, which were being supported by neighboring Uganda and Rwanda. The sale of diamonds from the FDLR on the international market provided resources for unending geopolitical conflict between various rebel factions, DRC and Uganda and Rwanda. Despite periodic negotiations and peace agreements, the fighting continues, resulting in the forced displacement of Congolese people living the mining areas, as well myriads of human rights abuses.

Global Activism and Global Action

During most of the Sierra Leone civil war, the international community was somewhat unaware of or indifferent to the atrocities committed by the RUF. Thanks to blistering international human rights campaigns by Amnesty International and Global Witness, public knowledge of the abuses increased, and grotesque pictures of amputated arms and hands threatened to tarnish idealized consumer images of diamonds as symbols of purified marital love. The Amnesty International and Global Witness “blood diamonds” campaigns, along with appeals by the United Nations, had a strong impact on the international diamond industry, which began discussions in 1999 on developing a regulatory framework to trace diamonds from their point of origin. Fuel to the fire was added by a November 2001 Washington Post investigative report by Doug Farrah linking $20 million in conflict diamonds sales to al Qaeda, and a Lebanese diamond dealer associated with Hezbollah. Farrah's expose demonstrated that al Qaeda was transforming its capital assets into hard-to-trace mineral commodities, particularly diamonds and tanzanite.

The industry negotiations culminated in the formation of the World Diamond Council, composed of representatives of diamond traders and diamond manufacturers and government observers, as well as the Kimberly Process, a new certification and paper identification process tracing rough diamonds to their place of origin. Established in November, 2002, the Kimberly Process requires diamond producing countries to provide a Kimberly Process Certificate verifying the origin of all rough diamonds mined within their borders; the certificates must also accompany the sale of diamonds at all subsequent export and import transfers. While the organizational structure and regulatory framework of the Kimberly Process is impressive, some NGOs have complained that the process is flawed as it relies too much on industry self-regulation and is susceptible to corruption at the government certification level. Nonetheless, the attempt at regulation of the massive diamond industry represents a step forward in stemming the dangerous trafficking of blood diamonds.

Sadly, diamond mining in Africa—and the massive profits of the diamond industry—have always been associated with the exploitation and hidden pain of African people. But with the most grevious abuses of the sales of conflict diamonds abating, and the diamond industry moving into a new era of regulation, at least some of Africa’s suffering is being reduced. Newlywed couples admiring the gleaming beauty of their wedding rings seldom give thought to the hapless miners who live and labor in horrible conditions so that comfortable Westerners can enjoy these “precious” gems. African Americans themselves rarely contemplate these connections, or the fact that the high demand and supposed “scarcity” of diamonds has been artificially manufactured by the De Beers cartel. Rappers sporting their bling have unconsciously bought into the De Beers hype, propagating their egos on the twisted machinations of an elaborate profit-making scheme of distorted value.

Undoubtedly, activists have changed the problem and perception of conflict diamonds, causing consumers to look beyond surface appearences into the some of the forces behind the mining and distribution of diamonds. Activists have forced more regulation, more conscience, more concern and compassion on the industry. Perhaps with time, people around the world will also learn to see more of the mystery and humanity of Africa itself in the magnificent reflection, brilliance and beauty of the Motherland's gemstones.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Dreaming the Motherland: A Student in Africa

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The city of Durban, on the east coast of South Africa.

Not many people know a lot about the port city of Durban, in South Africa, but then again, South Africa itself is quite confusing and mysterious to people who have never visited there. Talking with Liz Andrews was intruiging because of her intuition and her power of introspection. Liz was able to analyze and process many layers of her impressions and encounters from her study abroad experience in Africa, and it changed her as a person.

Dreaming the Motherland: Students in Africa

Liz Andrews has discovered Africa. Her journey began in the South African port city of Durban and ended half a year later in Soweto, where she received a grant to study attitudes on HIV/AIDS in the Black township. Experiences – with her host families, her fellow students and people in the various ethnic communities changed her view of herself and awakened a new awareness of her own spirituality.

Andrews, who completed her study abroad experience during her senior year at Wesleyan University, organized her program through the School for International Training (SIT). She earned a full semester’s credit for her field study project from Wesleyan, which also arranged her travel, food, lodging and program expenses. Her academic credits did not apply to her American Studies major, but Andrews said that her experience in South Africa gave her even more insight into the American social justice issues she had been immersed in for years at Wesleyan.

“I was really interested in going to Africa for personal reasons, and also to be a ‘world citizen’,” Andrews said. “I feel obligated to travel and learn as much as I can about the world and share those experiences.”

Years ago, studying abroad meant a semester or summer in France, Spain, Germany, Italy or England for wealthy or upper class students who were fortunate enough to have the resources to indulge their interests. Oddly enough, this typically Euro-centric college tradition never really included an idea that there was a whole world of cultures and philosophies that were profoundly different.

Today, African American students who want to see the world can study in Africa, with all the weighty encounters, subtleties and complexities that could entail. For an African American student in Africa, study abroad inevitably means much more than completing term paper assignments and writing reports. A trip to the “Motherland” is an intense, almost revelatory experience, and is bound to touch on personal questions and emotions that transcend classrooms and ivory towers.

African studies have changed dramatically, along with the development of new educational opportunities. We have gone from pushing universities to create Afro-American studies courses to establishing legitimate departments and re-evaluating what a degree in African American studies might mean in our fast-changing world. Study in Africa has also become more feasible because tuition costs have risen to the point that travel and room and board fees can be accommodated in one semester’s college expenses.

I experienced a sign of these changes when I ran into a White student from Purdue University who was doing an internship at a community computer education center in Dobsonville, Soweto. It was strange enough that I met this White American in Soweto, but I was even more surprised when I learned that this nerdy-looking dude had no real interest in computer science but was majoring in African American studies. I knew from experience that it is not unusual for White Americans to take an academic interest in Africa, but I couldn’t help thinking that this young, easy-going college student and his motivations reflected a deeper generational change among Americans. As rap and hip hop blend into advertising and broader pop culture trends in language, music and fashion, suburban culture is evolving with an influence that Cornel West describes as the “Afro-Americanization of America’s youth.”

African American students are also seeing more opportunities and more ways to experience Africa than their parents could ever have imagined. They see rich possibilities for learning, self-examination and building a sense of identity and connectedness in a world where globalization is inevitably creating new ties between Africa and the Diaspora.

Andrews chose Durban because Johannesburg seemed too overwhelming, “like going to live in New York City, but in country you’ve never been in before.” She was also fascinated with its large Indian community, which was brought to South Africa to labor in the sugarcane fields in much the same way that African slaves were brought to work in the Americas. Moreover, the trip was a roots experience, allowing her to explore her ties to Africa through her father’s African American heritage. Her mother, who is adopted, is of racially mixed but unknown ancestry.

Andrews has a curly, auburn red Afro and reddish-brown complexion, with a kind-hearted smile and compassionate, emotional eyes. Andrews’ voice rose with energy as she described a turning point when she visited Wentworth, a mixed-race “Coloured” township near Durban where she felt an immediate connection. Andrews originally planned to do her research project on water delivery in a rural African village; she suddenly changed her mind and decided it was more important to be in Wentworth.

“We had been in South Africa for two and a half months at that point, but I had never had much interaction with groups of ‘Coloured’ people. When I got there I was blown away,” Andrews explained. “All of these people looked like me, and so many things about them reminded me of Latinos in this country, their position in society, their attitudes and so on.”

Her research project – which she undertook during the last three weeks of her stay – involved developing a needs assessment for Women of Wentworth, an non-governmental organization that empowers women through education, training, counseling and job placement. Throughout the week Andrews left her North Durban beachfront apartment, headed into downtown Durban and caught communal “combis” – rickety old vans that typically stuffed 12- 15 passengers and served as an informal public transport system for Africans and Coloureds since the beginning of the apartheid era.

Women of Wentworth had funding to open a community center, and Andrews’ task was to find out what programs, services and activities the Wentworth community would like to see in the center.

Andrews said Wentworth seemed like a déjà vu of ghettos in America, with similar pathologies and social patterns.

“The one thing people said they wanted the most was a place for their kids to go,” Andrews pointed out, explaining that many people felt their youth needed positive alternatives to dangerous distractions like gang violence and crime. “The Wentworth community is similar to any township ghetto community anywhere in the world, in that there is a lot of prostitution, drugs, alcoholism and violence.”

Andrews said she was amazed at the power of African American images and ideals of beauty in South Africa.

“When you first drive into Soweto you drive around this round-about and there is a three-sided billboard and on all three sides it has Dark ‘N Lovely,” she said. “This is the ‘Harlem’ of South Africa and the first thing I see is straighten your hair? It was very interesting. Now that I’ve been there, it makes a lot of sense. But beforehand, there was no one to tell me things like that.”

The issue of African American media images and stereotypes arose again later in conversations she had with her Zulu “home-stay” family in suburban Durban, where she lived for six weeks. The head of the family was the spokesperson for the African National Congress (ANC) in KwaZulu Natal province. They lived in a beautiful house, in an exclusive neighborhood, with a swimming pool and a Mercedes. The 16 year-old son loved rap music, and the lyrics.

“He idolized Black American rappers, which is a pretty common thing, I think,” she explained. “He was always going around saying, ‘Nigga, blah, blah, blah’ and I would tell him ‘that’s not really a cool word to say – I definitely don’t say that.”

Andrews continued, with a hint of exasperation. “He thought that was a really cool thing to do, and that was how you were cool as a Black person. I told him that’s a really horrible word, and he was like, ‘I understand what you’re saying, but I’m still going to us it.’”

Andrews also noticed that a lot of parents and older-generation Africans hated rap and hip-hop, and they had formed negative views of African American culture as a result.

“I didn’t realize how internationally powerful anything that we put out there is. The media is a very tricky thing. It’s an amazing resource as far as progress, and technology goes,” Andrews said. “It’s amazing that we can reach one another in so many ways, so quickly. But it also means that everything and anything that we put out there is going to influence on the world. Not just whoever you want it to influence, or whoever you think it’s going to influence, but it could potentially be seen by millions of people.”

Andrews found grappling with media images, perceptions and identity difficult in more ways than one. The dissonance surrounding her earliest experiences in Soweto motivated her to apply for a research grant and to experience the community in a more intimate, authentic way. The sanitized “half-day” Soweto tour organized by SIT seemed very distant and was decidedly uncomfortable, she said.

“For the most part I felt very disconnected and almost oppressive, because we were there on this air-conditioned tour bus and we were looking at people who live in Soweto, who are not benefiting financially from us having access to their lives and their community.” Andrews explained. “So I really wanted to go to the community in a more responsible way – not that doing research is always or by any means the most responsible thing – but I wanted to be more engaging with people.”

Andrews’ return to Soweto opened her eyes to a new way of thinking. Her research focused on HIV/AIDS education for high school students, evaluating their struggles, feelings, ideas and attitudes towards the spread of the disease. South Africa has one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the world, with some estimates indicating that as much 20 percent of the adult population is living with the virus.

Andrews was surprised to find that despite generally successful dissemination of information about AIDS, many were still unwilling to use condoms and practice safe sex.

“The one thing that struck me the most was this idea that they’re going to die anyway, so it doesn’t really matter,” Andrews pointed out. “People will say, ’I might get shot today. I might get hijacked tomorrow. I might get stabbed. I might get robbed. A lot of things can happen to me. You’re telling me I might die 10 or 12 years down the line – who cares?' ”

Andrews found this attitude was hard to accept, but when she tried to put herself in their shoes, she couldn’t help concluding that there was certain strange logic, and although she didn’t condone it, she felt she understood the young Sowetans. While understandable, their attitudes also reflected something of Soweto’s history of deprivation and a subsequent devaluing of life.

Throughout her Africa experience, Andrews moved between different people and communities that were far removed from her own background, yet she found ways to identify with and understand them. In South Africa, people commonly speak about the African ideal of "Ubuntu," a feeling of oneness and community that is intrinsic to African culture. Ultimately, study abroad in Africa gave Andrews her own personal experience of Ubuntu that transformed her feelings about herself and her outlook on life.

“Being in Africa helped me realize on a personal and societal level, how much power I have. And just how important it is to make every decision in your life a good one,” Andrews says. “Selling yourself out in any way influences the world. Selling your people out is really detrimental to everyone. It’s like the whole idea of Ubuntu – interconnectedness – everything you do effects everyone else.”

She realized the nature of the challenge. It was a powerful, life changing realization. What more can a college student expect from a study abroad program in this daunting new world of global possibilities?