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Ministry seeks diamond amnesty extension

Bereng Mpaki

THE Ministry of Mining is considering extending the deadline of the amnesty it gave to all holders of illegal diamonds to surrender them to government.

Last November, parliament passed the Precious Stones (Prevention of Illicit and Theft of Diamonds) Regulations of 2020 to allow holders of illegal diamonds to hand them over to the government on or before 31 January 2021 without fear of arrest.

Ministry spokesperson ‘Makananelo Motseko said only 100 diamonds of varying sizes had been surrendered to her ministry since the amnesty was issued.

After being surrendered, the government will then auction the diamonds and pay the former owners of the gems.

But, according to Ms Motseko, things have not gone according to plan. She attributed the lower than expected diamond returns to the impact of the nationwide lockdown restrictions imposed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

A hard lockdown was imposed from 14 January to 3 February 2021 to fight soaring Covid-19 infections and deaths. During that time intra and inter-district movement was banned except for workers in the sectors classified as essential services or for people seeking essential services such as medical treatment or buying groceries from nearby shops.

Although the lockdown restrictions have been eased, intra and inter-district movement is still discouraged.

“So far, we have collected close to 100 stones but this was a less than satisfactory return for what we were expecting,” Ms Motseko said.

“We have since established that diamond owners were not wholly sold on the idea of handing over their gems to the government.

“In addition, many people were not aware of the existence of the law which gave them an amnesty so they were reluctant to handover their stones.”

Ms Motseko said the mining ministry would seek an amendment of the regulations to extend the amnesty for illegal diamond dealers until 31 March 2021.

“We believe that if the amnesty is an extended, things will be a lot better because people are now better informed about the project.

“We will even go back to Mokhotlong where we did not collect anything. We will also go to the highlands of Butha-Buthe where people say they lack transport to travel to the town centre to hand over their diamonds.”

Ms Motseko said apart from Mokhotlong and Butha-Buthe, Maseru, Leribe and Mafeteng were the other districts they were targeting to collect illegal diamonds due to the fact that they had significant kimberlite ores.

Ms Motseko said it was necessary for her ministry to rid the market of illegal diamonds in preparation for the legalisation of small-scale diamond mining by local artisanal miners.

The moves to legalise small-scale artisanal mining are part of efforts to empower locals in an industry dominated by big international players from far-flung countries such the United Kingdom and Australia.

Ms Motseko said unless they were cleared off the market beforehand, illegal diamonds could easily be passed off as gems obtained from artisanal mining operations.

However, the government’s moves are still being viewed with suspicion by some local diamond dealers. A well-known diamond dealer, Mabusetsa Mabohla, expressed his disapproval of the government’s plans to first auction the diamonds before paying dealers later.

He said they preferred selling their diamonds on the black market for instant cash payments instead of waiting for the government to pay them much later after auctioning their diamonds.

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