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Foreigners join Marange diamond rush

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Constant police raids along the highway have not significantly dented the illicit trade as locals continue to advertise and sell their diamonds to motorists at growth points and on the streets in Mutare.

By Tawanda Kanhema

Foreigners from neighbouring countries are swarming Mutare in search of diamonds, turning Marange district to the south and other areas along the Birchenough-Mutare highway – the source of the diamonds – into vending zones for gems at giveaway prices. More than 30 foreign-registered vehicles from at least five countries are observed daily streaming into Mutare – which has become a vantage point for buyers – and roaming the Birchenough-Mutare highway as foreign nationals and Zimbabweans living abroad join the diamond rush, fuelled by the absence of a standardised price for the precious stones. “We have been seeing 20 to 30 South African vehicles daily, about three to four from Zambian, four from Botswana and at least one each from Mozambique and Malawi,” said Retired Lieutenant Colonel Misheck Matsatswa, the chief security officer for Africa Consolidated Resources whose concession for the diamond fields expired in March and was not renewed. Trade in the precious stone has reached fever-pitch, with South Africans leading the pack as they make daily incursions into Mutare and surrounding areas, buying diamonds in rands from villagers and urbanites along the way.

Following the expiry of African Consolidated Resources’ concession, foreigners have been making a beeline for eastern Zimbabwean to try their luck in the country’s new El Dorado and recent visits by Government officials and the media have also put Marange and Chiadzwa under the spotlight as a source of gems at bargain basement prices for resale at highly profitable margins. The price of one clear diamond – of approximately one carat weight – is selling for between R100 and R1 000 for South Africans and between P80 and P400 for Batswana, and is understood to fetch seven to 10-fold in South Africa and Botswana. Buyers from Botswana, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique and Zambia are coming into Mutare every day, and most of them have established sources that fan out into the rural areas to buy diamonds for them. Locals have also started going to Botswana and South Africa to sell their diamonds, mostly bought off from desperate panners for less than $100 000 and resold for over $800 000 in Harare and for even more in South Africa. Diamond tourism has also emerged in Mutare and at Hot Springs Health Resort, which is closer to the diamond fields. The resort has been receiving an increasing number of South African tourists in recent months, presumably coming to look for diamonds.

On a recent visit to Marange on Tuesday afternoon I witnessed the booming illicit trade between South African buyers and local diamond suppliers along the Birchenough-Mutare highway, which has become busy since the tightening of security around diamond fields. Constant police raids along the highway have not significantly dented the illicit trade as locals continue to advertise and sell their diamonds to motorists at growth points and on the streets in Mutare. A South African-registered vehicle scouting for suppliers pulled off along the highway and its occupants talked to a local schoolteacher before making a high speed take-off. The 64-year-old schoolteacher also bolted into the bush before we caught up with him less than 100 metres off the highway. He said the South Africans had asked him where Hot Springs resort was and where they could buy diamonds. He directed them to Chiadzwa, which has been declared out of bounds to foreigners.

Police officers manning the turn-off to Marange along the Birchenough-Mutare road said they would not allow vehicles with foreign registration to proceed to Marange or Chiadzwa unless the driver proved he was from Marange. “We are searching all cars, and will not permit those with foreign registration to proceed unless they prove they are from Marange and produce their Temporary Import Permits,” said an officer manning a checkpoint. They have set up checkpoints on all roads leading to the diamond fields, confining the trade to growth points, the highway, and Mutare urban, where almost every fifth person has a diamond or knows where to get one. A young Zimbabwean woman from Mandara, Harare, said she had come to do “market research” for a Malawian who would fly into the country on Thursday. She had brought along a digital camera, with which she photographed samples of the available gems. Police officers at Chiadzwa said the panning for diamonds had fallen down with increased patrols in the area, but locals who were involved in five months of extensive panning are reported to be stashing small pouches of gems in their homes.

Between the Lines