Diamond scandal hits De Beers
Johannesburg - A senior government diamond valuator in Joburg has accused his bosses of blocking his investigation into diamond giant De Beers – and then firing him to shut him up.
Conrad Benn, the country’s first black diamond valuator, has launched an urgent application in the high court in Joburg to challenge the South African Diamond and Precious Metals Regulator’s decision to suspend him in April last year and fire him last month.
Under section 74 of the Diamond Act, De Beers is exempt from getting permission to sell its diamonds overseas – if it can show that for any of its sales exceeding R5 billion, at least 40 percent of it benefited local companies.
Benn said that instead of a total of 11 local companies benefiting, a single off-shore company received the lion’s share.
He has submitted an affidavit from one of De Beers’ other sight-holders, Israeli businessman Erez Daleyot, that De Beers and the Swiss-based, Israeli-owned Steinmetz Group “are working in collusion with (Levy) Rapoo (the chief executive of the diamond regulator) and stealing from the nation of South Africa”.
Rapoo asked Benn to verify the claim. Benn found in November 2013 that De Beers was not complying with the act.
“Of the 40 percent of the gross value of the production cycle to beneficiaries in South Africa, 35 percent was sold to one customer, being Ascot Diamonds (Pty) Ltd. Ascot Diamonds is part of a group of companies owned by a major worldwide diamond entrepreneur, Beny Steinmetz.
“I analysed the 35 percent sold to Ascot Diamonds and noted that it consisted of purchases of ordinary usual diamonds as well as a substantial portion of what is known as ‘exceptional stones’.
“These can be described as large diamonds of good colour and clarity and are the best of any production cycle. They are the cream of the crop,” Benn said.
He said his findings made him uncomfortable and he had made countless efforts to raise it with the relevant authorities in De Beers.
He said that instead of resolving the matter, De Beers wrote a letter to Rapoo accusing Benn of leaking confidential corporate information to a third party.
The regulator then made an “Anton Piller” application, using information given to it by De Beers, said Benn, allowing local law firm ENS Forensics to search Benn’s house and seize his laptop.
Benn was suspended before facing a disciplinary hearing chaired by advocate GJ Fourie, who, Benn told the court, had been appointed by ENS Forensics. Fourie fired him last month.
In his papers, Benn remains adamant that the motive of the regulator was to “get rid of him” instead of probing allegations of wrongdoing by De Beers.
He was the regulator’s senior manager in the valuation department.
Benn worked for De Beers in Kimberley after matriculating at St Patrick’s College in that city. He worked there until 1998 when he joined the regulator, leaving in 2003 to join a private diamond mining company.
He returned to the regulator in 2008 and was later appointed senior manager.
Benn has asked the high court to stop the disciplinary proceedings until his new counsel had familiarised himself with the allegations.
He is adamant that the process has been launched “because I had uncovered the skewed allocation of exceptional stones. The purpose of getting rid of me is to stifle my investigation,” he said.