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Barbara Masekela is not what one would consider a standard addition to one of the more staid and conservative chambers of the South African business community--the De Beers boardroom. She is black and she also is female--a first for this traditionally all-male white bastion. "It is my mission to see that De Beers is walking in step with history." That remarkable statement came near the end of a hour-long, one-to-one conversation I had with Masekela in her suburban Johannesburg home.
Her appointment to De Beers' board of directors broke the solid wall of "pale males" as white men came to be known in South Africa after the end of apartheid.
But not only did De Beers break the color and gender barriers with her appointment, they were taking on a long-time freedom fighter, and a devoted member of the African National Congress during the time that organization was totally illegal in South Africa.
She lived as an exile from South Africa for 27 years, having dedicated her life to free her country from white minority rule. That is not the usual resume of a member of the board of directors.
When Masekela joined De Beers two years ago, she plunged immediately into the major issues that confront the company--conflict diamonds, black empowerment, redistribution of wealth, conservation, and the dearth of skilled black professionals. Though De Beers looms large in the world of diamonds, it is actually quite a small company, especially now that it is divorced from Anglo-American.
"It's a global company," she notes, "but in South Africa, we represent only 2 percent of the mining industry. Because of the aura, because of the high risk and high capitalization and the strict international mining laws, and also the activism of the trade unions in this country, we have a very high profile." The company …