New Era (Windhoek)
11 February 2008
Posted to the web 11 February 2008
This year marks a century of diamond mining in Namibia. Since the early years of the 20th century, when these precious gems were discovered on the coast, the diamond mining industry has gone through many phases, starting with labour-based mining methods to highly mechanised and technology-driven operations on land.
Stories abound of how fortunes were made and lost along Namibia's diamond coast. These are tales of romance and adventure, accounts of the activities of those who blazed the mining trail: their hardships, sufferings and disappointments - but also their successes.
The history of the diamond in Namibia dates back to more than a century ago. At that time, Adolph Lüderitz, a merchant from Bremen in Germany, acquired the coastal strip in the southern Namib, roughly from Hottentot's Bay to the Orange River. Lüderitz was never to know what wealth lay under the sand. For in 1886, on a boat trip to the mouth of the Orange, his boat capsized and he drowned. His territorial rights were transferred to a company called the Deutsche Kolonial Gesellschaft für Südwestafrika (DKG).
It is said that after a voyage to the South West African coast in 1897, the master of a sailing ship, Captain R Jones, returned to Cape Town with a parcel of diamonds. He fell ill and died before he could revisit the place where he had found the stones. In 1898 two diamonds were picked up in the interior, near Berseba and Gibeon, but kimberlite pipes in the vicinity proved to be barren. Diamonds were also found near the coast in 1905 and 1906.
However, it was not until April 1908 that significant deposits of diamonds were discovered. The first find was made near the Grasplatz railway siding, some 10 km south-east of Lüderitz. Subsequently, the first prospecting licences were taken out on April 8, 1908 by a railway foreman, August Stauch.
Because of Namibia's unique colonial history, the history of diamond mining is intertwined with the colourful history of the country. Legendary men such as Zacharias Lewala, who made the first diamond discovery in 1908, and Stauch, the enterprising railway supervisor who became a millionaire diamond merchant overnight, add a colourful dimension to the men and women who, in different powerful ways, helped shape Namibia.
A century later, many other dreams have come true. Namibia's natural resources are no longer the exclusive preserve of a few. As one of Namibia's major natural resources, diamonds have created approximately 4000 jobs and contribute around 10 percent to the country's gross domestic product. The industry has brought and continues to bring real improvement to the daily lives of Namibians. In addition, the diamond industry and the Namibian Government have partnered to create a local cutting and polishing industry to further expand the country's economy and provide revenue for more families and communities in Namibia.
Today, diamond-mining operations increasingly focus on the marine exploitation of offshore deposits. This evolution was necessitated by the fact that diamond deposits on land are gradually being exhausted. With the introduction of new technologies, it is now possible to carry out sophisticated offshore mining operations in a cost-effective and profitable manner.
During the early 1900s, German prospectors were the first to attempt diamond exploration south of the Namib-Naukluft Park, a nature reserve Park near the coastal town of Lüderitz.
Lewala, a worker on the Lüderitz-Aus railway line, made the first diamond discovery at Kolmanskop in 1908. Before the impending diamond rush to the area, Lewala's supervisor, Stauch, staked several mining claims there. One such claim, 182 km south of Lüderitz in Ida's Valley (near Bogenfels and Pomona), proved to be a major find.
The German Government branded the area north of the Orange River to Walvis Bay as a Sperrgebiet: "forbidden territory". The small mining town of Kolmanskop (now a ghost town) was established east of Lüderitz, and at its zenith during the mid 1910s, the Sperrgebiet coastline accounted for 20 percent of the worldwide diamond supply.
- In 1920, two years after World War I, Germany relinquished its control of Namibia
to the Government of South Africa. In February that year, acting on behalf of the
Anglo American Corporation, Ernest Oppenheimer acquired control of nine mining
companies including the company owned by Stauch and amalgamated them into
the Consolidated Diamond Mines of South West Africa (CDM).
- In 1923, the South West Africa Administration and CDM concluded the Halbscheid Agreement, which accorded CDM sole mining rights in the Sperrgebiet.
- In 1928, the discovery of Namibia's vast marine-terrace diamond reserves just north
of the Orange River mouth slowed production further up along the coastline, and
by 1956, the town of Kolmanskop had been deserted and replaced by Oranjemund.
CDM then transferred its headquarters from Lüderitz to Oranjemund.
- In 1931, De Beers Consolidated Mines bought out Anglo American's interest in
CDM. By 1975, CDM had become a wholly owned subsidiary of De Beers.
- At the time of Namibia's Independence in 1990, the De Beers Centenary AG
was formed. Based in Switzerland, De Beers Centenary AG headed a group
of companies that incorporated the international interests previously held by
De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd. CDM was one of those companies.
- In 1994, in terms of an accord concluded with the Namibian Government, CDM
was reconstituted as the Namdeb Diamond Corporation (Pty) Ltd, and represented
an equal partnership between the Government and De Beers Centenary AG.
The colourful history of the diamond industry is best captured by a poem Some Dreams Come True by Elizabeth Norton:
Did someone say he'd seen some dreams come true?
Were these the luckless dreams of those who touched
The rainbow's resting place; whose fingers clutched
The empty sky; whose El Dorado blew
Past the horizon's rim where thirsty sand
Makes shifting sepulchres for broken hearts?
Or those of men whose fortune seems to start
Like fountains in a rich and friendly land?
How happy he who knows his dream is true,
And truth his happy dream; who toils and asks,
Receives, and cherishes the prizes won
Nor envies more. And such names being few,
Let us record them, and their chosen tasks,
Their faithful battles fought, their journeys done.
Considering that these were colonial times, it is astounding that Zacharias Lewala's name was mentioned at all. For this piece of honesty we have to thank August Stauch, who clearly was not the type of man to take credit for the achievement of others. He made certain that the correct version was related, and employed Lewala in a prime and highly conspicuous job that of being his carriage driver.
Noli & Katali (1989)
Zacharias Lewala is generally credited with the discovery of diamonds in Namibia. However, very little is known of this legendary man. He had apparently been shovelling sand against the embankment of the line at Kolmanskop, when he spotted a small crystal. One version suggests that Lewala had worked in a diamond mine at Kimberley and recognised the stone for what it was.
According to Olga Levinson in Diamonds in the Desert (1983), after his discovery, Lewala was taken into Stauch's employ as the driver of his horse carriage.
After the First World War broke out, Lewala was repatriated by the Minnenkammer, together with all the other so-called Cape Coloureds employed on the diamond fields. According to Levinson, the Lüderitzbucht Chamber of Mines and the Deutsche Diamanten Gesellschaft chartered the Mincio, a sailing ship, to take around 2500 workers back to Cape Town. It is very likely that Lewala was one of its passengers, but there is no record of this. Sadly, nothing more is known of this important figure in Namibia's history.
The Diamond Merchant
Stauch, having found that thin coarse gritty sands between bedrock outcrops in the area also contained diamonds, pegged off large areas without attracting much attention.
Schneider & Miller, Namibia Review,
In 1907, August Stauch, an employee of the Deutsche Kolonial Eisenbahnbau und Betrebsgesellschaft was appointed Railway Supervisor at Aus to oversee the section of rail between Grasplatz and Kolmanskop. His responsibilities included keeping the line clear of the ever-encroaching dune sand.
Stauch is said to have been deeply fascinated by the desert and its environs. Contrary to popular opinion at the time, he was convinced diamonds were likely to be found beneath the desert sand; so he bought two prospecting licences from the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft für Südwestafrika (DKG).
At one point Stauch is said to have instructed his workers to be on the lookout for 'pretty stones' - in other words, diamonds (Levinson 1983:115). Several days later, one of his workers, Zacharias Lewala, found just such a stone - and it was subsequently confirmed to be a diamond. On receiving news of the find, Stauch went to the site where Lewala had discovered the stone and tested the crystal by successfully scratching the glass of his watch with it - not knowing that glass can be as easily scratched by other crystals.
As rumours of the discovery spread, and encouraged by the find, Stauch quietly pegged off further claims for himself. After the find was officially confirmed, diamond fever raged - and soon the entire area was swarming with prospectors and fortune-seekers.
To increase his capital, Stauch founded a syndicate with two directors of the Railway undertaking, who were stationed at Lüderitz. They advanced the necessary money to form an enterprise styled as Die Koloniale Bergbaugesellschaft, which prospected for diamonds.
Early in 1909, Stauch struck it lucky again. Alerted by a worker who had stumbled on a deposit of diamonds lying as thick as 'plums under a plum tree', he and a certain Dr Scheibe established that there were even richer deposits in the Pomona area, about 150 km south of Lüderitz. The discovery is said to have occurred shortly before dark. The diamonds were strewn around in such abundance that Stauch and Scheibe went on picking them up by moonlight.
Following his sudden wealth, Stauch returned to Germany - only to come back some months later, unable to shake off the lure of the desert and the 'pretty stones'.
At the end of the First World War, South West Africa was no longer a German colony but a mandated territory under the then League of Nations. Due to the changing political environment, and fearing his assets would be confiscated, Stauch decided to sell all his diamond interests to a company that had arisen from the amalgamation of several smaller companies: the Consolidated Diamond Mines (CDM), headed by Ernest Oppenheimer. Diamond mining in Namibia was under the sole control of CDM, and later its parent company, De Beers, until 1995, when a 50/50 partnership was established between the Government of an independent Namibia and De Beers Centenary AG to form the Namdeb Diamond Corporation (Pty) Ltd.
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New Era (Windhoek)