Polishing a rough diamond

8 November 2004

South Africa’s diamond industry has excellent long-term prospects – but needs to polish up its value chain. That’s the word from the Diamond Board of South Africa, which recently tabled its 2003/4 annual report in Parliament.

The R7.8-billion industry is the fourth-largest in the world, with only Botswana, Russia and Canada producing more diamonds each year.

It has an output of around 13-million carats, and employs 28 000 people. Nearly half of those (13 000) are in mining. The second biggest employer is jewellery retail (9 000), followed by jewellery manufacturing (3 000), cutting and polishing (2 100) and sorting and valuing diamonds (900).

South Africa’s world-class mining sector forms the cornerstone of its economy. It is the world’s biggest producer of gold and platinum and one of the leading producers of base metals and coal. Mineral commodities are exported to 80 countries, and the country’s mineral deposits are only matched by a few states of the former Soviet Union.

Tabling its annual report, the SA Diamond Board said that South Africa was a “solid diamond trading country” with a complex value chain. It forecast a shortage of diamonds, and a consequent rise in prices, in the long term.

Creating a value chain
But it also noted one of the key challenges facing the industry – creating a high value chain. South African still predominantly exports rough diamonds.

“Our major challenge is to grow and advance South Africa’s cutting, polishing and jewellery manufacturing capacity in such a manner that it positions South Africa as a globally competitive diamond-producing country”, the board said.

De Beers – which commands 90% of the diamond output in South Africa – estimates that the global retail market for diamond jewellery grew from US$20-billion in 1980 to more than $56-billion in 2003, with sales of diamond jewellery pieces tripling in the same period.

However, De Beers tends not to use South Africa to add value to locally mined diamonds. Instead, it prefers to export rough diamonds to London, where – along with rough diamonds from other parts of the world – they are offered to clients.

Critics say the local industry should be given the opportunity to build secondary and tertiary value-adding businesses – something De Beers seems keen to avoid. This is one of the reasons that has led to a review of the Diamond Act, which may insist on the conglomerate offering rough diamonds for local cutting first.

Another challenge to the industry is the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act of 2002. The Act, together with the Socioeconomic Empowerment Charter, passed at the same time, seeks a more equitable mining industry, one of the bastions of privileged economic power during the country’s apartheid past.

Through the Act, mineral rights are transferred to the state over a period of five years. The empowerment charter requires mining companies to have 15% black economic empowerment equity ownership within five years, and 26% within 10 years.

SouthAfrica.info reporter