Dispatches from the Motherland:Africans want to make Jewels from Minerals they produce Date: Tuesday, September 28, 2004 By: KENNETH WALKER, BlackAmericaWeb.com
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Daniel Webb is typical of the growing number of American blacks living in South Africa. "When friends and family come to visit," he told BlackAmericaWeb.com "they want to know, ˜where they can get good prices on gold and diamond jewelry?'"
With considerable embarrassment, Webb and other American blacks here have the same response: "You'll probably find better deals in New York."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Kenneth Walker, an award-winning print and broadcast journalist from Washington, D.C. now lives in South Africa. He will write occasional stories from Africa exclusively for BlackAmericaWeb.com.
The natural assumption is that any country that produces much of the world's diamonds and precious metals would have great deals on jewelry.
But the diamond cutting capital of the world is in Antwerp, Belgium. The renowned masters of jewelry design reside either in New York or various European capitals.
African intellectuals and governments are increasingly focusing on global commodities markets as the most important single answer to many of the continent's economic and trade problems.
African raw materials are the fuel of the global economic engine. Much of so-called Western civilization depends on resources from Africa – everything from the coltan in cell phones, to the other ores and metals used to drive the world's industrial processes.
These resources are largely controlled by multinational corporations, which pay African countries a relative pittance. The goods are then processed in American, European and Asian countries into finished products that are then sold for a relative arm and a leg.
Nobody puts it better than Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. He recently gave a Washington audience several examples of the trade trap in which many African nations find themselves.
"If I export a kilogram of raw cotton," Museveni told the prestigious Center for Strategic and International Studies in the U.S. Capitol. "I am paid $1.20. If I make yarn, I get three times that. If you weave, the value goes up six times and if you make the garment the value goes up ten times."
And while Uganda is the fourth biggest coffee exporter in the world, Museveni insists that his country has become, in effect, a "donor" to Western nations. "Uganda donates $15 and creates jobs overseas for every kilogram exported as a raw material," he said.
"If we are too clever and try and make chocolate, the U.S. slaps a 25-percent tax on the imports. If African countries are foolish enough to sell their raw materials, they are welcome. If they are clever enough to add value to your exports, you are shut out," he said to a standing ovation.
Museveni has announced a "trade war" with coffee giant Nestle for refusing to build processing plants in Uganda. He promises to set up structures to sell Ugandan coffee directly to the world's biggest market in the U.S.
Recent travels across the continent have produced talks with government, business and academic officials who were unanimous in the view that as long as Africa continues to sell raw commodities without beneficiation, the continent stands no hope of development.
These questions also lie at the heart of the current debate over beneficiation – taking the raw materials and manufacturing them into finished products – in South Africa's mining industry.
The Minister for Minerals & Energy Affairs, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, seems to have ruffled a lot of feathers in the mining industry by announcing a draft Precious Metal and Diamonds General Amendment Bill (the so-called beneficiation bill) for comment by role players. This draft bill stipulates that a percentage of minerals mined in South Africa must have value added to it while still in the country.
The reaction of Anglo Gold Ashanti Chief Bobby Godsell was typical, when he warned of the dangers of what he called a "crude and narrow understanding of the mining industry.
"The possession of a natural resource gives you no guarantee that you can produce a product," he said. "That is an absurd notion. Access to steel does not mean you can produce cars, and access to leather does not mean you can produce shoes. That is fundamentally flawed logic."
Leaving aside for the moment Godsell's apparent lack of faith in South Africans' ability to cut and polish diamonds and design and manufacture world-class jewelry, his statement goes to the heart of multinational attitudes in the commodities sector that have ensured African economies remain mired in poverty.
Brenda Joyce, an American black businesswoman in Johannesburg, has been laboring in the vineyards of minerals beneficiation for quite a while now. Joyce is the owner of First World Jewelry, which focuses on selling African-designed and manufactured jewelry into the export market. Joyce has plans to open a chain of First World Jewelry Stores in the United States.
Joyce, a Pittsburgh native, created the King Shaka medallion that King Goodwill Zwelithini has presented, among others, to Nelson Mandela. She is also working with the Ghanaian government to produce a legal tender gold coin named for the late President Kwame Nkrumah.
"There's not one black master goldsmith in all of South Africa," Joyce said. "It takes many years of training. Same thing goes for a master diamond cutter. You just don't produce those overnight. But they've got to start sometime. They've got to start somewhere.
"I'm just trying to make a way out of no way, for my people" -Modejeska Monteith Simpkins