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Voorspoed — Another word for prosperity.

By Ettagale Blauer and Jason Lauré

Miners walk under structure of processing plant at Voorspoed diamond mine. Huge pile of tailings is seen in background. All photographs by Jason Lauré.

For a traditional company with more than a century of mining experience, De Beers has a way of surprising observers with moves that seem out of sync with its staid reputation. When the company made the decision in 2003 to start mining Voorspoed, a dormant 30-acre South African property it had owned for 100 years, there were two surprises: first, that it was pumping $170 million into a mine known to have some of the hardest rock in its portfolio and second, that it was planning a workforce that would be one-third female.
   When Voorspoed finally reopened in November 2008, after six years spent preparing the site for a modern mining operation, it was the first major new De Beers Consolidated Mines (DBCM) diamond mine in South Africa since Venetia started operations in 1992. The name means “prosperity” in Afrikaans, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages. The mine is located in the Free State Province, midway between Johannesburg and Kimberley.
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   The preparatory work for reopening Voorspoed involved not only preparing the pit for blasting and recovery but also assembling a workforce. Traditionally, throughout the mining world, men are the miners, the truck drivers, the people who scoop up the diamond-bearing ore. In line with its newly stated corporate objectives, De Beers set about seeking qualified employees among the 50 percent of the population that had been virtually ignored during mining’s long history in South Africa — women.
   In a groundbreaking move two years after the mine’s reopening, DBCM appointed Mpumi Zikalala as general manager of Voorspoed, the first woman and the first black South African to hold that position. Zikalala’s association with De Beers began in 1996, when she was “headhunted” by the company and offered a scholarship to study chemical engineering. Shortly after she completed her studies, Zikalala became manager of the Premier Mine, later renamed Cullinan. That was followed by a stint as general manager at the legendary Kimberley mine. After both mines were sold to Petra Diamonds — Cullinan in 2007 and Kimberley three years later — she became general manager of the new operation at Voorspoed. It was a position she held until May 2013, when she was appointed vice president of De Beers Sightholder Sales South Africa. In July 2014, she also became a member of the board of DBCM.
   Today, the mine’s general manager is Benford Mokoatle. Like Zikalala, he is a black South African, a segment of the population locally considered “historically disadvantaged.” Mokoatle is well aware of the changes wrought in South Africa by the end of white-dominated rule, marked by the election of Nelson Mandela as president in 1994. Mokoatle’s resume includes 18 years of mining experience with Anglo America and DBCM.
   Of the mine’s approximately 430 full-time employees, 88 percent are black South Africans and the same population group represents nearly three-quarters of the management-level staff. Fully one-third of the workforce at Voorspoed is made up of women, who are employed throughout the operation as technical, professional and managerial staff, as well as miners and drivers. The senior forewomen in Voorspoed’s mine pit are Chante Zaaiman and Theresiah Zwede. Martha Polasi works at maintaining the heavy mining equipment. No job at the operation is off-limits for women.
   The workforce at Voorspoed also reflects De Beers emphasis on employing only those who have their “matric,” the South African equivalent of a high school diploma. The workforce is not only well educated; it is also much younger than at other mines. The average age at Voorspoed is 32; in older, traditional mines, the average age is about 40 to 45.
   Seeking educated people was crucial since the labor pool in the immediate vicinity of Kroonstad, the town nearest the mine site, had neither mining backgrounds nor operating skills. According to the De Beers website, “Every employee at Voorspoed has completed secondary school and some have had tertiary education.”

Uniquely Challenging
   Voorspoed is unique today among mining operations for its diverse, inclusive, educated and young workforce. It also was unique from the very beginning in its operational challenges and the stones it produced.
The mine’s history dates back to 1906, when it was owned by Voorspoed Diamond Mining Company. According to De Beers, “Difficulties were experienced mining the hard kimberlite” at the site with the equipment available at the time.
   The property was mined to an approximate depth of 115 feet before the company shuttered it in 1912 and sold it to De Beers. But, even without modern equipment, the mine was known in its early history to produce special stones — special at Voorspoed meaning pinks. That is one reason it was considered worth the investment. The mine is also known for occasionally popping out a very large stone. According to De Beers, mine production records confirm a number of exotic and occasionally large diamonds recovered at the site.
   Since it restarted production, Voorspoed has yielded 3.3 million carats, averaging 600,000 to 800,000 carats a year. In 2008, its first year of production, during which it operated for only part of the year, the mine produced 89,000 carats. It is estimated that 10 million carats will be produced over the life of the mine. Under current forecasts, the mine will operate only until 2021. This end date is somewhat flexible because a mine only reveals its riches as the ore is removed and processed. Assessments of its continued viability will be made periodically as the mine reaches its planned depth of 1,200 feet to 1,400 feet.
   The mine produces 18 carats to 20 carats of diamonds per 100 tons of treated ore. While this is a relatively low output compared to the company’s other mines, Voorspoed’s management is counting on those highly desirable pink diamonds to make it pay.
   Diamond mining has come a long way at Voorspoed since the mine’s original owners tried to extract diamonds from the area’s unyielding rock — and gave up. Fast-forward 100 years to today’s advanced recovery methods. The primary crusher reduces the blasted ore to approximately eight inches before it travels to a secondary crusher. There, it is reduced to less than two-and-a-half inches. Further processing and screening separates the diamonds from the surrounding material.
   Additional value is being extracted from the tailings left behind when the original mine was closed a century ago. Modern methods have made it possible to extract small treasures from those old piles of discarded ore. Today’s market for very small diamonds and the ability of cutters in the Far East to polish such small stones has given value to melee that was once considered economically unfeasible to mine.

Continuing Commitments
   South Africa’s long history of assigning black students to inferior schools, which in turn limited the jobs for which they were qualified, encouraged De Beers commitment to education. Its motivations aren’t entirely altruistic. A better-educated population assures a continuing flow of well-educated applicants for Voorspoed. As part of that effort, the company works in partnership with the South African Department of Education to improve the school pass rates in math and science. It has created support programs for rural schools as well as higher education, and provides financial resources for students at higher levels of education.
   The results of both the government’s and De Beers efforts can be seen in the broad spectrum of skilled workers employed at Voorspoed in jobs that were, until recently, the province of white men. In its inclusiveness, its diversity, its support of education and its commitment for the long term, Voorspoed stands as a new mine that truly reflects and exemplifies the post-apartheid South Africa first envisioned by Mandela.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - September 2014. To subscribe click here.

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