African Studies Quarterly

In the Company of Diamonds: De Beers, Kleinzee, and the Control of a Town. Peter Carstens. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2001. Pp. 257.

Sierra Leone: Diamonds and the Struggle for Democracy. John L. Hirsch. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2001. Pp. 175.


These two books act as reverse images of each other. The cleverly titled In the Company of Diamonds goes into great detail about the "closedness" of a diamond mining town in southwestern Africa from the early 20th century until the recent past, but offers scant insight into the politics of the area. Conversely, Sierra Leone covers much political territory but, despite its title, barely touches upon the diamond trade, both the legal and illicit, occurring in that country.

Carstens' book illuminates the conditions of the workers who have worked for De Beers in Kleinzee, a company town that is, for most intents and purposes, cut off from the outside world. While Carstens shows the disparity in the wages paid to whites, Coloureds, and blacks working in the diamonds mines, but fails to follow through on the data by showing the impact on purchasing power among the groups involved. Ironically, Carstens' study of the De Beers operation in Kleinzee is as hermetically sealed as the town itself. Although he gives the reader a sense of the claustrophobic conditions in the company town, he pays little attention to the world outside the compound.

Carstens successfully reveals to the reader the minutiae of workers' lives, but he does not step back far enough to provide substantive analysis, and the reader is left to ponder many details without the benefit of a consistent, thought-provoking framework. Carstens shows how the workers in southwest Africa have been under constant and close scrutiny to prevent the smuggling of diamonds and how the lack of privacy and the provision of only the bare necessities (clothes, shelter, food) by the company seem harsh when compared to the amenities of life outside the town.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of In the Company of Diamonds is the author's notion of "obligated loyalty" to the company from the workers. "At Kleinzee," Carstens writes, "the company establishes a hegemonic grip over the workforce by sending out to employees (via management) various signals and messages. The thrust of these messages... is that De Beers is the most moral, most respectable, most generous, most accident-free, and cleanest of companies. Thus the hegemonic process complicates class, status, and ethnic differentiation; it gives rise to a complex cognitive system in which employees express obligation to the employer, communicating a vague sense of loyalty that they seem seriously to believe they owe to the company."

What Carstens shows strongly is that the pragmatic altruism of De Beers has gone a long way towards keeping its workforce moderately comfortable. Workers have a sense of community, they have free housing, good schools, etc. So it seems the desire on the part of workers to live in a clean and safe community dovetails nicely with De Beers' desire to have an orderly and relatively happy workforce.

A vastly different picture is presented in Sierra Leone. Hirsch, a former United States ambassador to Sierra Leone, has written a lively account of the conflict in this small country, which has fallen from the heights of being considered the "Athens of West Africa" at the time if its independence in 1961 to its current status as a nation ravaged by conflict much like Somalia and Rwanda. Hirsch points out that the diamond-rich areas in that country are controlled by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and that villagers and those in rural areas are terrorized. Many people have had limbs amputated with machetes wielded by RUF members.

While the title of the book is misleading (Hirsch only mentions diamonds a few times in the entire book), it reads well and brings the reader close to the conflict which has torn Sierra Leone apart for more than a decade. For example, in his postscript, the author mentions that the United Nations Security Council has adopted an embargo on so-called "conflict diamonds" (also known as "blood diamonds"), the sale of which helps the RUF and Liberian President Charles Taylor fund their military campaigns. A book devoted solely to Sierra Leone's and Liberia's diamond trade would work well with Hirsch's study, which focuses on the politics and players in the Sierra Leonean conflict.

After reviewing the occurrences of the past decade in Sierra Leone, Hirsch recommends three strategies for the immediate future: (1) strengthening of UNAMSIL's (United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone) command structure and resource base, (2) military and political pressure to deny the RUF and its external supporters continued access to the diamond fields, and (3) an effective disarmament process as the precondition for the next elections.

"The political and economic processes in the country are in the midst of a long-term transition," Hirsch writes, "The ultimate outcome of which remains to be seen. In the short term, there is a strong regional and international commitment to support the peace process. On the other hand, those who derive profit from conflict remain in place."

But, Hirsch argues, all is not lost if there is a resolute international force committed to united regional diplomacy, reconciliation with those in the RUF who truly desire peace. As the author writes, "the international community--and especially the major powers--must move to a higher level of early preventive action and sustained engagement in intrastate and regional conflicts." Rebuilding Sierra Leone promises to be a long and arduous prospect, Hirsch maintains, in part because of the RUF's "continuing support from Liberia, Burkina Faso, and perhaps Libya."

These two books, taken together, shed light on the realities in Africa today. In the Company of Diamonds follows the evolution of diamond mining in colonial and postcolonial southwestern Africa while Sierra Leone paints a picture of corruption and power-mongering by local and regional elites.

Sean Murphy