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CR: The New Centennial Review 3.2 (2003) 219-240

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The "Kimberley Process"
Literary Gems, Civil Wars, and Historical Resources

Barbara Harlow
University of Texas at Austin

THE "KIMBERLEY PROCESS" NAMES THE FORMULA AGREED UPON—AND DISAGREED with—to determine the origin of diamonds on the world market and to create a "full-fledged, global diamond certification system." Why a certification system for these gems? Because what had come to be called "blood diamonds" and "conflict gems"—the minerals that were providing the financial support for Africa's "civil wars" and "ethnic conflicts"—were flooding the market and, with the consciousness-raising of various human-rights organizations, diamond sales were being scrutinized even by the fiancées and their suitors who contemplated consummating their union with the proverbial diamond engagement ring. "A diamond," after all, as the De Beers slogan goes, "is forever." But why "Kimberley"? Diamonds were found in South Africa in Kimberley in 1867 and spawned a "rush" to the area of speculators and squatters who dug there a "big hole." The discovery of diamonds in Kimberley was followed by the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand—and eventually, as some critics argue, the Anglo-Boer War (or rather, the South African War) was fought over these precious mineral resources. Fortunes were made by mine magnates, and lives were lost—the lives especially [End Page 219] of the African migrant workers in the mines—to this underground wealth. And South Africa, it is contended, was made from these resources in the early twentieth century, while at the other end of that century, the diamonds to be found from South Africa to Sierra Leone were funding the civil conflagrations that rifled the continent. But there were other options that the diamonds offered: Sol Plaatje, for example—a founder of the early African National Congress (ANC)—was born in Kimberley. Olive Schreiner's brother Will worked the mines there. "Diamonds are trumps," as Phileas Fogg insisted in Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days, and so popular culture, from Daphne Rooke to Ian Fleming and Wilbur Smith, followed suit. Indeed the history of De Beers, no less than that of South Africa itself—and by extension, that of the continent too—could be said to lie buried in Kimberley. Colonial narratives, civil wars, and historical resources are embedded—and reset—in the designs of those Kimberley stories, the literary gems that underwrite a process: the "Kimberley Process."

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"Kimberley"—the name that has since come to identify an international and multinational "process"—was attached to the place itself only well after diamonds had been discovered there in 1867, and only after an increasingly populated, ever more contentious, highly prized, over-priced, and growing commercial urbanity had begun to emerge at the site. "Kimberley"—the name that still designates the South African city—was taken from the nomen of the then British secretary of state for colonies, one Lord Kimberley, who oversaw the annexation of those territories by British interests in southern Africa. Louis Cohen, an early denizen and chronicler of the city, attributes various terms (that just as variously describe) to the cross section of history and geography: Vooruitzight—the (for him) unpronounceable Afrikaans name for the original farm; New Rush—the designation of the locale as the early endpoint of so many ambitions of wealth, fame and still another name and fortune to be made; CarbonCity—for the make-up of the minerals that made for those fortunes; Diamondopolis—there were gems, in other words, to be found in this otherwise desiccated territory, a terrain [End Page 220] despaired of by so many of its transient visitors and that led to the despair of so many others of its predatory trespassers and despoilers.

Louis Cohen arrived in Kimberley in 1872, in the company of his cousin Lewis Woolf, from a Liverpool birthright and a London East End upbringing, bound on winning either fame or fortune, if not both, from the territorial underground. His Reminiscences of Kimberley ([1911] 1990), written in the "sacred cause of financial...