JCK Special Report: Africa Comes to the Oscars

This is a special report from the May 2009 issue of JCK Magazine.

The week before the Academy Awards, the Diamond Information Center usually hosts a lavish suite celebrating diamond jewelry. But this year, it worried that wouldn’t feel right.

Given the worldwide economic downturn, DIC thought a glitzy diamond suite would be out of step with the prevailing mood. So the organization decided on an approach that would target the conscience as much as the desire for glitz.

The result was a (comparatively) low-key dinner and a cocktail party at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles that was filled with celebrities, jewelry, fashion people, and jewelry designers (African students who won De Beers’ “Shining Light Diamond Design” competition). Yet, despite the big names in attendance, the party’s real guest of honor—and in many ways, its reason for being—was a small, serious man who most attendees had never heard of.

He was Festus Mogae, the former president of Botswana, who served for 10 years, until 2008. And he wasn’t there to rub elbows with celebrities. He had a mission: to talk about the benefits the diamond industry brings to his country.

“I want to assure all of you that you must wear diamonds with confidence and pride,” he said in a brief address to the crowd. “Because of diamonds, we have transformed ourselves from the world’s poorest country in 1966 to the middle-income country we are today.

“I want you to continue to buy diamonds,” he added. “Why? Because it is an act of charity, believe it or not. By doing so, you are providing employment in my country.” He closed by saying, “I love you people. You are providing help to my country.”

It was a naked appeal that over the years Botswana has shied away from making. But it grew out of the turmoil currently roiling diamond producers (see sidebar) and the fear that image-conscious celebrities would find it unseemly to wear diamonds in these hard times.

“We were worried that people were going to cut back,” says Diamond Information Center director Sally Morrison, “and that they would not consider it appropriate to wear huge pieces of diamond jewelry, or that it might seem frivolous or insensitive at a time when many people were facing economic hardship.”

So DIC decided to emphasize diamonds’ “greater value.”

“It’s about giving people a justifying narrative about doing these things when they may feel a little sensitive about being frivolous,” Morrison notes.

Mogae’s visit to Hollywood was spurred in part by a DIC-sponsored trip to Africa by actress Julianne Moore. Earlier this year Moore toured South Africa and Botswana and their diamond mines, and she was quite moved by it.

“I think Julianne very much responded when we were down there,” says Morrison. “She saw that the mines were closed. And she saw some of the things that have been done with diamond revenues.”

The journey culminated in a dinner with Mogae. “[Meeting Mogae] really put it into a different perspective for her, because he really does see things on a deeper level,” Morrison says. “She thought, ‘Wow. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get him to talk to people, particularly in Hollywood, where people have been such a strong supporter of this particular product?’”

This could have been a mere pipedream, but the continuing worldwide economic crisis raised the stakes for Botswana and its diamond industry. So Mogae came to Los Angeles, taking in not only the DIC event but also the Independent Spirit Awards (the Oscars for the independent film scene).

“We were thrilled when Mogae agreed to come,” Morrison says. “That was a measure of how seriously he takes this.”

The idea behind Mogae’s Hollywood debut was to have a “bit of a mix,” Morrison says. So people who were already friends of the industry, like Moore and Russell Simmons, mingled with people from the fashion and entertainment worlds who are less familiar with these issues.

There may have been a culture shock or two—Mogae was said to be surprised at the informality of some stars at such a glitzy event. (Russell Simmons came in his trademark baseball hat and sneakers.) But the celebrities that JCK saw interacting with Mogae—including Forest Whitaker, Moore, and Debra Messing (who noted that her father was a jeweler)—seemed receptive to Mogae’s message.

“I think he did a great job, and I think what he said resonated,” says Morrison. “The guests loved him. He basically told people we need your continued support, and that not only is it not a bad thing to wear diamonds, but it’s actually a very good thing because it drives Botswana’s development. I think he was very articulate, and I think they got it.”

Sidebar: Botswana Feels the Impact

Botswana is one of those countries where it could be said, “If the U.S. catches a cold, it gets pneumonia.” And now that the United States has something akin to pneumonia, the impact has been devastating.

De Beers has virtually ceased production at its major mines in Botswana, and overall production is likely to drop by some 40 percent. There have been thousands of layoffs, and the ambitious plans to cut, sort, and polish diamonds in the country have either been slowed down or put on hold.

“Things are bad,” former Botswana President Festus Mogae told JCK. “Activities have been downsized. There will be almost zero new revenues for the government. We are trying to cushion the negative impact, but it is a huge challenge.”

There have been similar cutbacks in other producing countries, like South Africa and Namibia, as well as Third World countries also involved in the diamond industry.

One of the hardest hit has been India. Reports say the crisis has thrown an estimated 100,000 Indian diamond cutters out of work, which has led to more than 40 suicides by unemployed diamond cutters.

Mogae’s successor, Ian Khama, recently told the Financial Times that he’s hopeful things will get back to normal by the end of 2010. Even so, the world financial crisis has dealt a shattering blow to a country that was once the envy of Africa. As a Botswana newspaper put it: “After a long boom, it’s suddenly: Goodbye good times.”

Sidebar: Q&A With Festus Mogae

Before the Diamond Information Center event, former Botswana President Festus Mogae gave an exclusive interview to JCK.

President Mogae, why did you come to Hollywood for this event?

I was invited by Julianne Moore, when she toured southern Africa, and I jumped at the idea. She pointed out that not much is known about diamonds and, least of all, about Botswana. I hope to answer any questions regarding diamonds and assure the American consumer that when they buy Botswanan diamonds, they are putting food on people’s tables and providing education for children. They are providing antiretroviral drugs for AIDS.

Are you worried that, with the recession, people will feel wearing diamonds is frivolous?

Botswana is the largest producer of diamonds by value, and we are also the country most dependent on diamonds. Diamonds provide almost 50 percent of government revenues. The diamond industry employs 20,000 people in Botswana. I hope to assure Americans that, when they buy diamonds, the people who benefit from their purchases are in far worse shape than they are. When they purchase diamonds, they are helping people who might otherwise starve and preventing a recession in countries that are doing far worse than global powers like the United States.

Do you think Hollywood has painted a distorted image of Africa and ignored success stories like your country’s?

It is right and proper that the world’s attention should be pointed towards negative things, but in the case of Africa it results in a very distorted perception. They talk of Africa as if it is one place.

President Mogae, how long do you think this slowdown will last?

We are all hoping that, given the measures that have been taken by the various governments, the impact will become apparent by the end of the year. Full recovery will take four to five years.

As an African, how do you respond to America’s election of a president of African heritage?

We were euphoric. We thought the election of a black president would happen some day, but it happened earlier than expected.

Bush may have been a tragedy for the American people, but he was actually one of the best presidents in American history for Africa. We expect the current excellent relations with sub-Saharan Africa will only be improved.




President Mogae, Julianne Moore, and Sally Morrison enjoy the cocktail party.




Angie Harmon and Camilla Belle at the party.

Debra Messing and President Mogae are flanked by Grace Hanson, Olaulo Obende, and Bhekhithemba Ernest Ngema, jewelry designers who won De Beers’ “Shining Light” competition.




Julianne Moore, shown here with President Mogae, invited him to address Hollywood.

 

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Photos by Jordan Strauss/Wire Image, courtesy of DIC