CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Almost 130 years after diamond giant De Beers emerged from mines around the dusty South African town of Kimberley, the company is going back to its roots with a clutch of exploration permits to prospect for gem deposits near the place of its birth.
South Africa is hardly virgin territory for mineral exploration: over a third of the gold ever produced in history has been extracted from beneath its soil, and industrial-scale diamond mining goes back over a century.
But Phillip Barton, the chief executive of De Beers’ South African operations, said the company believed that South Africa still had potential for new diamond finds.
“We believe that South Africa is a prime exploration destination,” he told Reuters on the sidelines of the Investing in African Mining conference in Cape Town.
“We have had 52 exploration applications outstanding for a long time and now we’ve had 16 of those 52 licences granted and we are working hard to get the others approved.”
All 16 are in the Kimberley area over 400 kms (260 miles) southwest of Johannesburg. De Beers, a unit of Anglo American (AAL.L), completed the sale of its Kimberley mines and assets two years ago as it focuses on its $2 billion Venetia project in South Africa’s Limpopo province.
“One of the strengths that we’ve got is that we have a database with fairly reliable information from about the mid-1950s onwards,” Barton said.
“Using that database we then apply the latest thinking and the latest technology. So a lot of our focus is around Kimberley where we used to mine. All the easy diamond deposits around the world have been found and that’s why you need to use new technology.”
On the Venetia project, Barton said that it was 35 percent complete and slightly under-budget, with first production still expected in 2021.
South Africa accounts for about 9 percent of global diamond production and is ranked 5th behind Russia, Botswana, Canada and Angola.
De Beers was founded in 1888 by buccaneering businessman and British imperialist Cecil Rhodes. His statue was removed from the University of Cape Town in 2015 after it became a focal point for protesters who said it was a relic of the colonial past.
Editing by Catherine Evans