In its heydays, De Beers had highly trained experts on the ground in more than 20 countries across the globe, spending US$100 million annually searching for diamonds. Today, the search has been narrowed down to just three. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI, reports on the hunt for the next Jwaneng beneath the sands at Tsabong
The four men are most noticeable by the military style leg armour they are wearing – a tough, mesh of material strapped around the leg from ankle to knee, which is also waterproof.
The leg armour is critical in this part of the world, 25 kilometres south-west of Tsabong and deeper into the desert, where all manner of venomous snakes lie in wait, unused to humans and eager to strike out.
“You sometimes get bitten and only realise it when you actually see the snake slithering away. The danger comes when they strike from trees or anywhere above. Even if you’re wearing the leg armour, you have to keep your eyes peeled,” says one of the men.
The four men are part of De Beers’ Botswana exploration team, which since last May has honed its focus on 3,900 square kilometres of ground near Tsabong village.
Last year the diamond giant spent P70 million setting up offices, labs, and on drill work that has thus far targeted 29 of the 80 kimberlites known to exist in the area. Kimberlites are rocks possibly containing diamonds.
The drilling has gone as deep as 700 metres, a challenge faced by previous explorers who also encountered the deep Kalahari sands. De Beers, however, has superior equipment, expertise, capital and experience.
More drilling, sampling, testing and by 2017, the team here expects to have made a decision whether the diamonds found – if any – could justify a mine of the criteria that De Beers’ views as viable.
Every few days, a fixed-wing aircraft equipped with a high-tech airborne magnetic system capable of detecting kimberlite from the air, takes to flight and maps out potential areas of interest.
Each day, the four men gear up, equipped with leg armour, GPS systems and a curious device capable of “seeing” through to the core of the Earth, detecting types of soils, possible content and even the slightest variations.
They traverse the scrubby, desert landscape, mapping their paths in 50 square metres and leave markers for each other with blue biodegradable plastic tied onto whatever shrub is available.
“We are careful about the type of marker used and its size because this area is also used by some farmers who have said their cattle could choke on the markers we leave,” one of the men explains.
Through the airborne survey and the men on the ground, greater details are learnt about the possibility of shiny stones beneath the sands and decisions are made whether to set up a drill site.
According to De Beers’ exploration manager for Southern Africa, Mike Roberts, the diamond giant’s leases in Tsabong are known to contain 80 kimberlites, with many of them bigger than 20 hectares in size.
The area was extensively explored in decades past, starting with Falconbridge in the 1970s and is known to contain the M1 deposit – a massive kimberlite estimated at 180 hectares in size.
With Jwaneng, Orapa and Letlhakane all due to run out of recoverable diamonds in the coming decades, the hunt is on to find the next ‘Big One’, a mine that would yield revenues of more than US$500 million per annum and have a mine life of between 20 to 25 years.
De Beers has strict criteria for developing mines and has frequently walked away from diamond finds it has felt are below its economics. Some of these have later turned out to be highly lucrative, such as the Karowe Diamond mine, originally discovered by a De Beers’ geologist.
Karowe has frequently produced very large stones and last year, it grabbed global attention after producing the world’s second largest complete diamond, now known as Lesedi la Rona.
De Beers, however, rules the roost when it comes to discovering diamonds and has done so since 1870, when diamond industry figures began being collected.
According to De Beers’ head of exploration, Charles Skinner, of the 8,000 kimberlites discovered to date on Earth, De Beers has accounted for 40 percent of these. At least 15 percent of these have been found diamondiferous or diamond-bearing and one percent have been economically viable.
Within this one percent, a fraction have been classified as Tier 1 or deposits that have produced mines such as Jwaneng and Orapa.
For decades, De Beers has been searching the world for diamonds and at one point, it had a presence in more than 20 countries ranging from Venezuela, to Guinea to Zimbabwe, spending US$100 million annually.
The search has been refined to just three: South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, with the latter accounting for most of the budget and area held. Within Botswana, Tsabong is De Beers’ sole focal point.
“The objective is to find a mine that is economically viable for our shareholders; it’s not about having lots of ground,” Skinner explains.
“Before, it was like a betting man putting a lot of bets on many horses and saying one is going to win. You can do that for the first year, then the second, then what?
“You need a very focused area, take it through the process according to information and if you don’t get the results, you walk away.”
Skinner continues: “It’s not about how much ground you hold and how long you hold it for. It’s not about keeping out the rivals. It’s like in football; you don’t win by defending, you win by scoring.”
De Beers’ sharper exploration policy and strict criteria for “mineability” of deposits is good news for Botswana. Unlike the smaller exploration companies that find a small deposit, establish a small mine, employ a few people for a few years, then shut down, De Beers deals in big.
Orapa and Jwaneng typically produce 12 million carats each per annum, Letlhakane 500,000 carats and Damtshaa 350,000. The tailings plant at Jwaneng, which mines the diamond-bearing waste left over from decades past, can produce up to 900,000 carats per annum. By comparison, the two other non-De Beers’ operating diamond mines in Botswana are only capable of producing 1.4 million carats per annum.
Whenever De Beers enters an area for exploration, villagers hold their breath knowing that if De Beers says it has found “something” the mine will be significant, perhaps another Jwaneng.
The last time “something” was found was in 2003 with Damtshaa.
In Tsabong, hospitality providers have spruced up their facilities to cater for the new strangers in town and are beginning to enjoy the windfall. De Beers’ small exploration team has injected life into the dusty village and the expectation is high.
“Re solofetse go le gontsi mogo De Beers. Ba teng, re a bona and gongwe bana ba rona ba tla bona ditiro mo nako e sa feditseng pelo,” says Abigail Tshwenyego, a vendor who sells her wares near the centre of the village.
While the Tsabong soils have been explored for decades, the sense is that if there are any huge diamond finds to be made, it will be De Beers who do it.
“Our forefathers were the people who discovered Jwaneng and Orapa and shaped the future of this country,” says Roberts.
“There are 329 kimberlites that have been discovered in Botswana and 55 percent of these were discovered by De Beers. De Beers invested P3.5 billion in exploration in Botswana between 1955 and 2015, discovering seven mines in total. “Hopefully we will shape the future as well, although there are no guarantees.”
This year, De Beers will spend a further P100 million in Botswana, advancing the exploration work and tightening the area of focus.
Should the ongoing work uncover viable diamond finds, De Beers could develop a mine within five years, a shiny, new Jwaneng rising out of the Tsabong sands.
In the meantime, the men with the leg armour will continue to traverse the desert, shaking off venomous reptiles to mark out areas of interest that may one day be the centre of a new mine.