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Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: Tribe Accuses ANC Of 'Diamond Apartheid' by Tim Butcher

The African National Congress government is using colonial-era principles to justify refusing to hand back a lucrative South African diamond mine to tribesmen who originally lived on the land.

In a case with huge constitutional and financial implications, the Nama community has accused the government of being as racist as the whites who created apartheid.

The Nama once lived at Alexander Bay, on South Africa's north-western coast, but were evicted from the land after diamonds were discovered there in 1925.

Since then the mine has produced millions of carats, and the tribe is demanding compensation which could run in to billions of pounds.

But lawyers representing the ANC in court cited an old, colonial-era principle, claiming that the Nama were so "uncivilised" that they could not enjoy any land rights.

Citing the British principle of terra nullius, empty land, the lawyers argued that even though the Nama lived in the area they were so backward that they did not warrant ownership rights.

ANC backers said the party remained committed to land restitution but the case of the Nama people must be opposed because it threatened to "open the floodgates" for countless frivolous claims.

Gert de Wet, the chairman of the Nama community, said: "I use this word carefully but I am accusing the ANC government of being racist."

Like many peoples whose roots reach back to the first bushmen of southern Africa, the Nama have felt persecuted by white and black alike.

"In my view the people of the Richtersveld, the Nama people, are not black enough to be treated fairly," said Mr de Wet.

"All we are saying is that after being dispossessed of our land so long ago, is it not time that we shared in the wealth of our land, a wealth that has made so many other people wealthy?" For nearly 80 years home for the Nama community of 2,200 people has been in the arid, mountainous wastes of the Richtersveld, on the border with Namibia.

Originally a goat-herding nomadic community, many still know how to make the collapsible, grass matjie huts that were once their home.

But modernisation forced them to settle in four poor villages in the Richtersveld comprising tin huts and without running water, electricity or basic amenities.

"Life has been tough for us," said Gert Domroch, 73, one of the oldest land claimants, in the village of Kuboes. "We always felt like second-class citizens whether under the British or under apartheid." Mr Domroch lives on a pension from his work as a mine company labourer.

Things were as tough but much more lucrative at Alexander Bay, where prospectors in the 1920s found diamonds on the sandy beaches of the Atlantic foreshore. They were alluvial diamonds, panned naturally through the workings of the Orange River, which had deposited the gems over the aeons near the river mouth.

Surface diamonds were soon snapped up, but geologists found deposits of gems on the bedrock of the beach. They were obtained by stripping away the sand or diving in the shallow water.

A beach front 60 miles long and six wide was unilaterally claimed by the South African government and nearly 80 years later the state-owned mine Alexkor is still producing diamonds.

A 111-carat gem was found this year and sold secretly for a price believed to be more than 2 million. Once run by whites, Alexkor now has non-white executives who argue against the Nama regaining their land unconditionally.

"This government wants to help communities like the Richtersvelders, but we still have a responsibility to all the people who work in the mine and their dependents and their future must be taken into consideration," said Rain Zihlangu, the chief executive officer. "It would be much better if this matter could be settled out of court, but we made them a very generous offer but unfortunately they did not accept it."

The offer, of a minority shareholding in the firm, was dismissed as "pathetic" by Henk Smit, the human rights lawyer who prepared the land claim case on behalf of the Richtersvelders.

He said the company, which has suffered from bad management and theft, had made losses in five of the past six years.

Under South Africa's Land Restitution Act, passed in 1994 after the end of apartheid, those dispossessed of their land because of racial discrimination between 1913 and 1994 could claim for either the land back, financial compensation or land of equal value elsewhere.

Rather than return to Alexander Bay, the Namas want to use a share of the diamond wealth to provide training, jobs and opportunities for sustainable development, mainly in agriculture and tourism in the Richtersveld.

Legal sources said the Nama claim is unprecedented in modern South Africa. If the land claims court decides that the Nama must be compensated for every carat taken from their land, damages could run into billions.

Both sides argued before the constitutional court this week and its 10 judges are expected to rule on the validity of the claim next month.

"The Land Restitution Act says the sins of the father will be visited on their sons, on any son who benefited from expropriated land," said Mr Smit.

Note: This article first appeared in the September 13th issue of The Telegraph

Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2003

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

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