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Hope Comes to Lesotho

In this tiny, diamond-rich African nation ravaged by AIDS and poverty, Laurence Graff has brought his Midas touch to a charitable organization to help the local children.

By Ettagale Blauer
The earth giveth and now Laurence Graff, who has profited enormously from the treasures taken from the earth, is giving back. In March 2010, Graff’s FACET Foundation — the charity takes its acronym from the phrase “For Africa’s Children Every Time” — opened its first Leadership Centre in Leribe, a tiny town in the Kingdom of Lesotho, in Southern Africa. Lesotho’s King Letsie III and Queen Masenate Seeiso, a patron of the foundation, took part in the colorful, traditional African dedication ceremony.

A Difficult Life

In spite of the small nation’s extreme isolation — it is a landlocked, mountainous enclave entirely surrounded by the Republic of South Africa and very difficult to reach by road — it is cursed with the world’s third-highest percentage incidence of HIV/AIDs. This huge problem leaves in its wake hordes of orphaned children who have virtually no resources, and no relatives to call upon for food, shelter and guidance.

“Lesotho has given us some of our most incredible rough diamonds,” says Graff. “I hope that through the first Graff Leadership Centre we shall give the kingdom’s children opportunities to learn and acquire skills that they can use to improve their situation. We would like to give something back to the country that gives us our remarkable diamonds. There is such appalling poverty and hunger in Southern Africa, yet with more help from donations, the situation will begin to improve.”

The Diamond Connection

Graff has been a long-time client of Lesotho’s remarkable and singular diamond mine, Letseng-la-Terae. The mine, perched high up in the Maluti mountains, has had a checkered history, in spite of its propensity to yield enormous, high-quality diamonds. After diamond pipes were discovered in1957, the mine was worked informally by local, small-scale miners. There followed a brief foray by mining giant Rio Tinto, which did some underground exploration and then left in 1972. In 1975, De Beers began serious operations there, balancing the high cost of operating the mine against the expectation of finding 100-plus-carat diamonds.

In 1978, Keith Whitelaw, the mine manager, proudly showed visitors to the mine a diamond weighing some 130 carats, absolutely colorless and looking very much like an ice cube in size and shape. It would sell for enough money, he said, to run the mine for a year. Nevertheless, De Beers gave up in 1982, and closed the mining operation. In 1999, mining rights transferred to Letseng Diamonds and then, in 2007, the mine was acquired by Gem Diamonds, at which point Whitelaw returned as chief executive officer (CEO).

In time, the mine did indeed prove to be that 100-plus-carat producer, almost routinely turning out large stones. Approximately 15 percent of the production is larger than 10 carats and 1 percent of the output is stones larger than 100 carats. The headline-making 603-carat Lesotho Promise, acquired by Graff for $12.4 million in October 2006, was followed the next year by a 494-carat, exceptionally white diamond that was named Letseng Legacy. Considered the eighteenth-largest diamond ever found, the Legacy was sold to a partnership of Graff and the South African Diamond Corporation (SAFDICO) for $10.4 million in November 2007. Thanks to its 30 percent ownership of the mine, plus taxes paid on the recovered diamonds, the government of Lesotho gets considerable revenue from this unusual mine.

In spite of the tremendous wealth generated by this one resource, Lesotho’s young population — 63 percent are under 24 years of age — has very few personal resources and little family support. Besides the mine, there is still very little industry in Lesotho. Although the Lesotho government had planned to offer free schooling and assistance to AIDS orphans, it does not have enough funds to keep up with the enormous need. Unlike most African nations where populations are exploding, the population of Lesotho is stable at about 2.1 million. However, life expectancy is extremely low, robbing the nation of the wisdom of its elders.

A Helping Hand

Graff’s Leadership Centre will sponsor an annual leadership camp for 250 orphans and youth at risk. The center also provides a library that focuses on African materials, no small achievement for a former British colony. The center offers information on HIV/AIDs, sports and culture programs, and training for children, young people and adults in programs that include pre-employment skills. The Graff Leadership Centre is seen as the first in a series planned throughout Southern Africa and SAFDICO already is actively discussing a second center to be located in Botswana, the world’s largest producer of diamonds.

The second floor of the Lesotho center is a hostel for 50 young Basotho women, chosen from the country’s dominant Basotho ethnic group for their leadership potential and enrolled as high school freshmen in the Basotho Girls’ Leadership Corps program. Plans are for the girls to receive leadership training, be taught to perform community volunteer work with the elderly, disabled and orphaned and to share what they learn with their peers in their communities. They are meant to act as mentors for the thousands of orphans who have lost not only their homes and their families but the support of their extended families, once the essence of life in this region.

Life is difficult in this remote nation even for the healthy. The high elevation gives Lesotho a harsh climate with extremely cold nights. Traditionally, people wrapped themselves in wool blankets, instead of coats, and weaving was the best-known local craft. Basotho tapestries depicting scenes of village life still are being produced for sale to tourists.

With little employment available in Lesotho, men traveled, and continue to travel, to South Africa to work in the mines. There they often acquired “local wives” and with them, HIV/AIDS. Upon returning home at the end of their contracts, they brought this scourge with them and it quickly ran through the population. In some regions of Lesotho, 40 percent of the children have been orphaned by AIDS. Graff’s FACET Foundation will help alleviate some of their suffering and provide sorely needed education, training and the support that disappeared along with their parents.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - May 2010. To subscribe click here.

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