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Letter From Lesotho: Racism in the Diamond Mine

Desperate for work, the Basotho miners of the sovereign kingdom of Lesotho grudgingly accept the daily degradations of life among the white men.
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Lesotho mountain village.

Lesotho mountain village.

The highest pub in Africa is up through the clouds in the tiny enclave nation of Lesotho, a sovereign kingdom surrounded on all sides by South Africa. The pub is closed to the public, inside a diamond mine, and not in the business of advertising its existence. Beyond the pub are the mine’s two open pits, man-made craters spanning 58 acres, where massive yellow trucks filled with kimberlite ore trundle along the haul roads that rim the pits. Lesotho, home to the Basotho people, has been labeled a Least Developed Country by the United Nations Development Programme. Most of the population lives below the poverty line, and jobs at the mine — which produces the most valuable diamonds in the world — are in fierce demand, with wages well above average for rural Lesotho.

Outside the pub, I watched the sun dip below the mountains with my host, a high-ranking South African mining contractor. I had met him only recently: In a nearby town, he noticed my hat, sporting the logo of his favorite rugby team, and he invited me to the mine to watch a match on television. The facility spread around us like a moon base: Conveyor belts shunted hunks of ore from one corrugated metal warehouse to another, then sent them through crushing units that gradually broke the rock into smaller and smaller pieces to be scanned for diamonds. As darkness fell — 10,000 feet up in Lesotho’s highlands — spotlights illuminated the lunar terrain so dump trucks could continue their journeys through the plant.

We headed inside the pub and joined a group of white men who were sharing tales of the mining industry in southern Africa. A Scottish man claimed to be one of the first people to work at this mine. “When I came here,” he said, “there were four whites and three blacks.” He paused. “Someone had to pitch the tents.” A South African man launched into a political lamentation heavily featuring the words “those people.” Zambia had once been a wonderland, another man ventured, but now had fallen into post-colonial disrepair. “I can tell you why,” he told no one in particular, nodding significantly toward the far end of the bar, where the only two local men in the pub were sitting — two Basotho managers, one rank below the men in my group. “They don’t appreciate anything. This country would fall apart without us.” As the men talked, one of the Basotho managers noticed I didn’t have a stool and wordlessly brought his down to me. I thanked him ornately in Sesotho, the local language, attempting to distance myself from the group — I wanted him to know that I was not one of these men — but from our end of the bar, this distinction felt hollow.

Soon my host and I left to start the pre-game barbecue. He must have sensed my discomfort, because, as we walked, he stressed that he loved his Basotho employees. They were just in need of a little guidance now and then. When we reached his living quarters — a trailer up on supports, furnished with a few spartan bedrooms, a kitchen, a television — he laid out an enormous spread: roasts, chops, coils of sausage, delicate shavings of dried meats, a case of wine.

Outside we warmed ourselves at the grill. As we talked, one of my host’s employees approached in the darkness — one of the local Basotho supervisors. He had come to consult on a logistical question. My host laid a coil of sausage across the grill as the two men hashed out a solution.

“Hey there,” my host said as his employee was leaving. “Pop down and grab me some wood from the hopper.”

The employee and I both looked over to the darkened crawlspace beneath the trailer, and, for a moment, no one said anything. He looked back to my host, smiling, and then cocked his head, unsure he had understood correctly.

“Go on, lad.” My host must have seen me staring. He laughed and patted his ample stomach. “I’m too big to get down there.”

The employee slid into the dirt under the trailer. I turned away. Behind me, the sausage was sputtering and popping on the grill. After a moment, the man passed up an armful of wood, climbed out from under the trailer, and went off to resume whatever operation he was engaged in.

My host took the meat off the grill. “We’ve got good boys around here,” he said. “I’ll send some airtime to his phone later to show my gratitude.”

The next morning, I gathered my belongings while my host was at a meeting. Before I drove out, I ran into a female employee and greeted her in Sesotho. We chatted briefly before realizing we had a mutual friend in the town where I lived. In this stolen moment, I asked what she thought of the diamond mine. “It is difficult,” she said. “We work 14 days and then go home for a week. I don’t want to be away from my family, but I must have a job.”

Later, I interviewed several former employees: No one liked the place, but everyone accepted its inevitability. People in the highlands were desperate for work; they were economic hostages pinned to the mountaintop. A former security officer told me she encountered no grotesque abuses at the mine, just small daily degradations. The Basotho workers, in her opinion, were subjected to lie-detector tests more frequently than the white employees, and could be fired on the spot if they failed any questions. “Something there felt like apartheid,” she said. “But there are so few jobs, so you bow down to the manager or you get fired.”

Later that day, I headed home along roads that were barely roads, the alpine tundra in perpetual assault against anything resembling blacktop. Outside the mine, an enormous deposit of pulverized and processed waste rock loomed, the first peak in a new kind of mountain range. The mine churned away behind me, crushing slabs of earth in search of glimmering rock.