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Nelson Mandela, the Diamond Shill

AFP/Getty Images

After Edward Zwick returned from Mozambique and Sierra Leone this June, he received a letter from Nelson Mandela. Zwick, the director of Glory, had traveled to Africa to film Blood Diamond, the story of the civil war that ravaged Sierra Leone during the 1990s. The movie—which centers around a father and son who are enslaved by rebels and stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a cynical diamond smuggler—is fiction, but the context is historically accurate: From 1991 to 2002, rebel soldiers from the brutal Revolutionary United Front kidnapped civilians, forced them to work in diamond mines, and smuggled the gems they unearthed to neighboring countries. From there, the diamonds were shipped to Europe and sold by conglomerates, such as De Beers. The proceeds filtered back to Sierra Leone, where they paid for even more kidnapping and violence. Blood Diamond is a withering critique of the diamond industry's role in exacerbating a savage war and its callous disregard for human rights in Africa. Zwick had every reason to expect that Mandela—one of the world's greatest living advocates for human rights—would be pleased.

He wasn't. In his letter to Zwick, Mandela wrote that "it would be deeply regrettable if the making of the film inadvertently obscured the truth, and, as a result, led the world to believe that an appropriate response might be to cease buying mined diamonds from Africa. ... We hope that the desire to tell a gripping and important real life historical story will not result in the destabilization of African diamond producing countries, and ultimately their peoples." None of this makes much sense, unless you take into consideration something that isn't widely known about Mandela: The man who ended apartheid and became the late twentieth century's most eloquent spokesman for human dignity is also a shill for the diamond industry.

Mandela's affinity for De Beers and other diamond companies is the result of both geography and personal relationships. South Africa produces more than $1 billion in diamonds per year; and, even though Mandela's African National Congress had significant Marxist and communist elements, the party proved broadly supportive of the diamond industry once it took power. In addition, there was Mandela's friendship with Harry Oppenheimer, the late chairman of De Beers—who, as white South African businessmen went, was relatively sympathetic to the anti-apartheid movement. Oppenheimer encouraged the creation of black trade unions and funded a political party specifically to oppose South Africa's racial disparities. Mandela and Oppenheimer became close before Mandela's presidency and would grow even closer: After Mandela's election, Oppenheimer frequently hosted him at his luxurious estate. Mandela was also known to bring De Beers representatives on foreign trips.

By the late '90s, political pressure was mounting on De Beers—which, at the time, controlled 70 percent of the world diamond market—to stop the flow of "conflict diamonds" from Sierra Leone. (The phrase typically refers to diamonds whose sale is used to finance warfare.) Conflict diamonds had already helped fund Angola's bloody civil war, and they began to play an equally devastating role in Sierra Leone. (In 2000, Ryan Lizza documented in these pages the Clinton administration's bungled efforts to broker peace in that West African country.) Human rights organizations called for steps to ensure that conflict diamonds did not reach the world market.

Still, Mandela spoke up for diamond manufacturers. "The diamond industry is vital to the South African and southern African economy," he said at the time, echoing De Beers's statements. "We would be concerned that an international campaign on these issues did not damage this vital industry." Moreover, Mandela made clear that the industry's stance on human rights should be taken through its "own initiative." When, in 2000, U.S. Representative Tony Hall pushed a bill that would have forced all diamonds sold in the United States for more than $100 to be accompanied by a certificate naming the country of the stone's origin, a diamond executive testifying before Congress used Mandela's words to argue that such a measure would harm diamond-producing countries. "Former President Nelson Mandela has expressed concern that his nation's vital diamond industry is not damaged by `an international campaign,'" Eli Haas, president of the Diamond Dealer's Club, told a House subcommittee.

Eventually, in 2002, under an agreement known as the Kimberley Process, diamond companies agreed to ensure that all diamonds came from legally mined fields and that the proceeds did not go to fomenting civil wars. But it remains unclear how much good the Kimberley Process is actually doing. A recent U.N. report found that conflict diamonds from Cite d'Ivoire are entering the market through Ghana and Mali, and a study by usaid estimates that as many as half of the diamonds emanating from Sierra Leone are still being smuggled out illegally. The problem, according to experts, is that the Kimberley Process does not have any independent verification or enforcement mechanisms. "The diamond industry doesn't ask many questions," says Corinna Gilfillan of Global Witness, an NGO focused on natural-resource exploitation. "They're just looking to get the best deal."

And yet, Mandela has continued to lend his support. He recently penned a note praising De Beers on its community service work. "I congratulate De Beers, a world leader in diamonds, with its roots in South Africa, for the way it continues to demonstrate its credentials as a good corporate citizen in so many areas of concern," he wrote. The letter, unsurprisingly, appears in De Beers's corporate brochures.

The diamond industry's campaign against Blood Diamond is just the latest phase, then, in an ongoing fight to stave off bad publicity and increased scrutiny. Zwick (who once interned at The New Republic) received a letter earlier this year expressing concern about the project from the chairman of the Kimberley Process and the head of the World Diamond Council (WDC), an industry group that represents major diamond companies. The WDC also hired Sitrick and Company, a p.r. firm that specializes in crisis management. And, in June, a Los Angeles Times blog reported that Sitrick had enlisted—surprise—Mandela to respond to publicity generated by the film's release. (A spokesman for the WDC disputes this, saying that the former South African president is speaking out on his own.)

Mandela's pronouncements on behalf of the diamond industry are, at some level, perfectly understandable. After all, he was president of South Africa, and part of any president's job is to look out for his country's economy. But Mandela is not regarded as one of the twentieth century's heroes because of his diligent pursuit of South Africa's narrow national interests; rather, he owes his stature to his decades-long campaign against apartheid, a campaign that appealed to universal values like human rights and freedom. By covering for the diamond industry during the '90s--at a time when diamond producers were helping to fund brutality in Sierra Leone—Mandela was putting his country's narrow interests above these universal ones; and, today, he continues to do the same. "Truth and reconciliation—it's all rubbish," says DiCaprio's character to an idealistic journalist in Blood Diamond. Of course, Nelson Mandela wouldn't agree. But, by shilling for the diamond industry, he is enabling those who do.