The day the mining GM teargassed his students

SOME of the recent mining industry mass retrenchments have – on the surface of things – been executed quite brutally. Mining companies, in certain instances, had not even briefed their public relations companies on pending lay-offs – making damage control that much harder in the harsh glare of media coverage. African Angle, By Barry Avery
The day the mining GM teargassed his students The day the mining GM teargassed his students The day the mining GM teargassed his students The day the mining GM teargassed his students The day the mining GM teargassed his students

Carrington Way

Staff Reporter

This disconnect which sometimes occurs between mining companies and their corporate comms consultants sparked the recollection of a painful, yet unrelated, incident in African Angle’ history, while doing PR for diamond miner De Beers in Kimberley – way back in the late 1980s.

There is a street in this diamond mining city called Carrington Way, and all the big fish living in the rather small pond of Kimberley simply had to have their place of residence there. No surprise, therefore, that the general manager of the Kimberley Mines Division of De Beers had his rather majestic home in Carrington Way.

Directly over the road from the general manager’s home on this elegant, leafy and shamelessly colonial boulevard was another rather spectacular mansion. As it had upwards of six or so bedrooms, De Beers had converted it into a graduate student guest house, to accommodate the future generations of up-and-coming geologists, miners and engineers.

It was men only, of course, in those days – remember, it was South Africa, and it was the late 1980s when Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned on Robben Island and then Prime Minister P W Botha was arrogantly and angrily wagging his finger at the world.

But as is natural with energetic, healthy, fun-loving young men, most evenings at the student guesthouse there was a ceaseless flow of beer, 1980s electronica blasting from the stereo, and lots of young lady visitors joining the fun.

One Sunday night, things became a little more boisterous than usual and the general manager, across the road, was not too pleased. His sleep was being disrupted by the raucous revellers.

General manager Jack Forster was a wonderful man and a very loyal De Beers executive who had worked at several other locations for the diamond miner. Of British descent, nearly everyone who worked for Foster liked him as a boss – he was competent, fair and respectful. And these were the qualities he looked for in those he chose to work for him.

But it all became too much for him that memorable Sunday night. Forster asked mine security personnel to politely knock on the door of the students’ residence and ask them to turn down the sound of U2’s Bono wailing out ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’

Emboldened by copious quantities of Lion and Castle lager, the boys told the security men they should go hopping. When the security men persisted, the wayward lads inside simply locked the door, cranked up the volume, cracked open a few more cold ones – and carried on the party.

Reporting back to Forster, the security guards explained the situation. Forster was not pleased, and when things displeased him, he could become very angry. He became very angry that night …

The next day, African Angle received a call from a reporter on Kimberley’s daily newspaper, the Diamond Fields Advertiser.

The reporter said that he understood “there was a problem at the De Beers student guesthouse in Carrington Way last night and early this morning” and wanted details. The reporter believed that teargas had been fired into the student residence by De Beers security staff, smashing through windows into the living quarters.

It seemed unbelievable, but after a quick check with the security chief, African Angle was able to confirm the reporter’s allegations were quite factual. Security men had, indeed, shot teargas canisters through closed windows into this stately old home. (Naturally, this had the desired effect of stopping the party fairly abruptly.)

Reluctantly confirming the details to the Diamond Fields Advertiser, in damage-control mode, African Angle tried to play it down, when telling the reporter: “There wasn’t much damage. No one was hurt, it was just to give the students a signal that late-night revelry won’t be tolerated on De Beers’ property.” Or something equally inane like that.

Not sure how the newspaper was going to play the story, African Angle in desperation phoned the newspaper’s then editor, Tony Ball, to see if the story could be squashed.

Ball, an affable and respected journalist roared with laughter at the plaintive request.

“Come on, Barry, for God’s sake, you’re a journalist yourself, you have to love this story too. ‘De Beers general manager fires teargas at his own elite students’. It is an absolute bloody winner! Sorry, there’s no ways we won’t run this one. But nice try!”

The next day, the story appeared quite unsensationally – and, mercifully, not on the front page. Tony Ball, to his great credit, understood the embarrassment the over-display of such a story could do to damage the reputation of this respected, 100-year-old company.

Ball also knew, only too well, of the good work De Beers had done in the community – and without the four then-operational diamond mines and the diamond sorting office, Kimberley would simply be a quaint little mining ghost town.

Companies love trumpeting their successes and achievements, and they want the media to unreservedly share their happiness. But when things go wrong – accidents, failure, retrenchment, teargas, whatever – they think it is not for the media to know. Or even for their PR spin-doctors to know.

It’s just bad business to try to hide bad news – the truth will, inevitably, come out.