At the extreme southern tip of Africa in 1652, the world’s first trans-national corporation began establishing a new port. The powerful Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC) initially just wanted a resupply point for ships rounding the Cape on their long and profitable ‘spice trading’ route to Indonesia. But despite resistance from local people, over the following decades the Cape Colony spread ever further east and north, pursuing a growing hunger for land and resources. Venturing into the interior, the newcomers found riches whose exploitation and export grew steadily under successive colonial regimes, intensifying with each new technological innovation in processing or transport.
In 1685, after green copper-bearing rocks had been brought to the Cape by Nama people, the VOC dispatched an expedition to investigate the commercial viability of mining copper 400 miles to the north, near the Orange River which now forms the border between South Africa and Namibia.
Led by Simon van der Stel and comprising around 60 people, numerous carts and wagons and over 300 oxen, horses and other livestock (for food as well as draught power), this expedition had to find a considerable amount of water every day, in unmapped arid terrain1.
Journeys like this would have been impossible without their local so-called ‘Hottentot’2, i.e. Nama, guides. These guides shared their precious knowledge of tiny springs in the vast dry landscape with the colonisers who would later displace them from their ancestral lands as the colonial frontier advanced. Such displacements were in turn to have major impacts on many other indigenous Africans as far north as the present day Kunene Region of north-west Namibia.
In the course of recent fieldwork researching these historical impacts, we found the routes of the early European travellers peppered with mining sites, both old and new. Bringing together observations and images from this research journey, here we outline mining trajectories for a series of key resources extracted from the desert expanses of Africa’s south-western corner, as we encountered these from Cape Town across the Orange / !Garieb River into Namibia. Key sites visited can be found on this accompanying annotated online map.
Travelling north up the coast from Cape Town, the first major mineral extraction activity we encountered was for ilmenite, mined from coastal sands around Brand se baai, north of the Olifants river mouth. The river was so named by the VOC’s Jan Danckaert, who saw a herd of 300 elephants on its banks in December 1660, near present day Citrusdal. Danckaert writes here of seeing,
between two or three hundred elephant on the banks of a broad river, after the Sonquas (Bushmen) had shown them the footpath across the mountains, approximately where the present-day Piekenierskloof Pass is situated. The local inhabitant called the river the Tharrakkamma or Ruygc River, but Danckaert gave it the name of ‘Oliphants riviere’ [after the elephants he sees there].3
The open-pit ilmenite mines in the Western Cape are operated by Tronox, an American company, and by an Australian firm called MRC, whose controversial operations both on the west coast and elsewhere in South Africa have generated determined resistance from both environmentalists and local people.
Once mined, the ilmenite travels south on the final section of a freight-only rail line built in 1976 to carry iron ore. This line is well-known amongst rail enthusiasts for carrying some of the longest and heaviest trains in the world. Every nine hours, a train leaves the 14km-long pit at the remote Sishen iron ore mine in the Northen Cape, and travels 861km to the deepwater export port at Saldanha, near Cape Town. Each train is four kilometres long, with up to eight locomotives pulling over three hundred 100-tonne wagons full of of iron ore.
Not far north beyond Brand se baai, the increasingly arid coastline starts showing signs of excavations and spoil heaps whose scale and extent dwarf the ilmenite mine at Brand se baai. The next 500 miles of this legendarily inhospitable desert coast have been massively reshaped by over a century of diamond mining, first on the Namibian side of the Orange River and later on the South African side too.
In Namibia before the first world war, German colonial entrepreneurs around Lüderitz were producing a fifth of the world’s diamonds, making a significant contribution to the Kaiser’s war chest.4 Production was consolidated in the 1920s into one South African company. In the 1990s the newly independent Namibian state gained a stake in the industry through a joint venture between de Beers and the Namibian government. Diamonds remain Namibia’s primary source of export revenue.
The border area around the Orange River that now forms the border between South Africa and Namibia eventually became the epicentre of the industry, once it was realised that in the distant geological past the diamonds had washed down the river from far inland. At Oranjemund just north of the Orange, decades of digging have pushed the Atlantic Ocean back hundreds of metres behind giant walls of sand and concrete, allowing the shoreline to be excavated down to the bedrock where diamondiferous gravels are found.
The massive diamond mining land operations are now winding down as the focus shifts to marine mining. Most Namibian diamonds are now mined from the seabed off the southern coast. Further north, similar suction dredging technology will soon be controversially employed on a larger scale to mine phosphate.
Back in the seventeenth century, Van der Stel’s expedition did find copper, near the present-day town of Springbok in the Northern Cape. His exploratory diggings, still visible today, burrow into a rocky outcrop that is indeed remarkably green, as shown below. But the ore he found was not of high enough quality for the economics of the day to support the establishment of a mining operation.
In the 1850s much higher grade ores were found nearby. By now the Cape Colony was under British control, and reports from a British army captain and explorer named James Edward Alexander had rekindled interest in in the idea of extracting copper ore in the area, smelting it near the mine and transporting copper ingots to the coast.
The copper boom of the 1850s saw entrepreneurs scrambling to establish new mining companies, raising large amounts of investment capital on the Cape and London markets. Many prospects in South Africa were highly speculative and some downright fraudulent, but others quickly became seriously profitable. Okiep, near Springbok, became known as ‘the richest copper mine in the world’.5
As occurred at the Matchless mine in west Namibia, pursued relentlessly in 1857 by Swedish/British entrepreneur and traveller Charles John Andersson6, Cornish mining engineers built pits and smelting works at Okiep, and, with a largely indigenous workforce, production was soon booming. Getting the copper out of this remote area, however, was a major challenge. Ox wagons, the main mode of heavy transport in Southern Africa at the time, could not cope with the mountain passes. An attempt to build a road with convict labour to the coast at Hondeklip Bay was eventually abandoned in favour of a 91-mile narrow gauge railway out of the mountains and across the sands to a new harbour at Port Nolloth. But steam locomotives couldn’t cope with the gradients, or the sand, and also needed more water than was easily available. So for over 20 years, the copper trains from Okiep to Port Nolloth were famously pulled by mules, as shown below.
A hundred miles east of Okiep near Aggeneys, however, mining is currently booming. The existing Black Mountain mine here has been producing zinc, copper, and lead since 1980, all of which are exported via the Sishen-Saldanha railway line shown above. Mining is now being greatly expanded with the opening of the neighbouring Gamsberg zinc mine. Driven by a buoyant global market for zinc, Indian owners Vedanta have begun working a rich zinc deposit found 40 years ago. They plan to extract 214 million tonnes of ore over a 30 year period.
The Gamsberg mountain sits within the Succulent Karoo Biome, designated one of the world’s 36 ‘biodiversity hotspots’. The name Gamsberg may derive from ‘||gams’, meaning ‘water’ in the click language of the Nama people who lived there. In the ravines of the mountain are two permanent springs, very rare in this arid landscape. The pastures of the mountain plateau, described by a 19th century Cape government surveyor as ‘excellent’, were used by Nama pastoralists in centuries past as part of a longstanding system of transhumance, alongside highly seasonal grazing on the surrounding arid plains. Later, and as the Cape frontier expanded, farmers of European descent displaced the Nama and grazed their own cattle on the mountain.7
There are currently two other active uranium mines in Namibia. Adjacent to Rössing on the other side of the ephemeral Khan river is the new Husab mine, which opened in 2017 and will soon become the world’s second largest uranium minez. Husab is majority-owned by the China General Nuclear Power Corporation, representing the single largest Chinese investment in Africa to date. Since this company primarily supplies the Chinese market on behalf of the Chinese state, it is largely unaffected by global market price fluctuations. Paladin, the struggling Australian owners of the Langer Heinrich uranium mine in the Namib Naukluft National Park, are currently expected to sell their majority stake to another Chinese company.
Impacts, Benefits and Politics
Effective scrutiny of all this requires asking in each case not only what the impacts are and what revenue is generated, but also exactly what purpose the material being mined serves, how much of it is really needed, and who benefits from its extraction. To take a few of the cases mentioned here, the extraction of copper and iron has devastating environmental impacts, and the scale on which these are now consumed seems clearly unsustainable. But these metals at least are arguably genuinely useful, and both have long been part of human civilisation in Africa, as elsewhere. The same is not obviously true of ilmenite, diamonds or uranium. The fact that mining something is profitable does not in itself make doing so a good idea.
As a result, environmental, social and labour issues arising from mining perhaps tend to be approached in ways broadly agreeable to the companies involved. Tax revenues, while substantial, are often reduced by the companies’ ability to use their influence to negotiate favourable terms. All too often the lion’s share of the profits goes abroad, just as it did in the days of the Dutch East India Company / VOC or the British Empire. A closer reading of historical processes of extraction, then, may help with making sense of what is happening in southwestern Africa today.
- Waterhouse, G. (ed.) 1979 Simon van der Stel’s Journey to Namaqualand in 1685. Cape Town and Pretoria: Human & Rousseau.
- There exist various explanations for this appellation. Colonial philologist Theophilus Hahn (in Tsuni-||goam: The Supreme Being of the Khoi-Khoi. London: Trübner & Co., 1881, pp. 4-6) observes the confusion which the term has generated. He reaches back to eyewitness accounts reported in the work of the Dutch physician and scholar Olfert Dapper (in the late 1660s) asserting that the name ‘Hottentot’ was given by the colonial Dutch ‘to the natives they found at the Cape of Good Hope, on account of the curious clicks and harsh sounds in that language’ which the Dutch perceived as similar ‘to one who stammers and stutters too much with the tongue’, which was also described wih the derogatory Dutch word ‘Hottentot’. Thus as John Cope (in King of the Hottentots. Cape Town: Howard Timmins, 1967, p. 25) writes, it ‘derived from Hüttentüt, meaning stammerer, because of the incomprehensible, staccato click-language the indigenous brown men spoke’.
Hahn, however, also quotes John Sutherland’s 1846 Memoir respecting the Kaffers, Hottentots, and Bosjemans of South Africa (Cape Town, Pike & Philip, p. 2) who claims that the term ‘is either an original native appellation, belonging to some tribe farther north or north-east (which tribe is apparently lost), and applied to the inhabitants of the neighbourhood of the Cape by the early Portuguese settlers on the coast; but the meaning of the term it would seem almost impossible to trace, as hitherto its roots have not been found either in the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Hottentot, the Arabic,or the Sichuana languages … Yet the Arabic word oote, to strike with a club, and again the word toote, a missile or projectile of any kind, referring to the well-known weapon of the Hottentotas well as of the Kaffer, may favour the idea of its Arabic origin, to which the Dutch might have added the Holland, for it is sometimes found Hollandootes. … Hence, perhaps, the corruption Hottentootes. Hollondootes would thus mean, of course, a people struck down conquered by Holland’.
Today the term is not used as it is considered derogatory, but when it remains salient when it appears in historical texts as it clarifies that the peoples thus denoted speak a languages with click consonants.
- From journal kept by the Under-surgeon Pieter van Meerhoff, 166l. Original Day Journal, 1659-61, Vol. C. 585, Cape Archives, quoted in Mossop, E.E. (ed.) 1931 Journals of the Expeditions of the Honourable Ensign Olof Bergh (1682 and 1683) and the Ensign Isaq Schrijver (1689). Cape Town: The Van Riebeeck Society, pp. 115, 117.
- Schneider, G. 2008 Treasures of the Diamond Coast: a Century of Diamond Mining in Namibia. Macmillan Education Namibia.
- Smalberger, J. 1975 Aspects of the History of Copper Mining in Namaqualand 1846-1931. Struik: Cape Town.
- Lau, B. (ed.) 1987 The Matchless Copper Mine in 1857: Correspondence. Charles John Andersson Papers Vol. 1. Windhoek: Archeia 7, National Archives.
- Moffat, R. 1858 Journey from Colesberg to Steinkopf in 1854-5 by Robert Moffat, Esq., F.R.G.S., Government Surveyor at the Cape, pp. 39-67 in Schaefer, A. (ed.) 2008 Life and Travels in the Northwest 1850-1899: Namaqualand, Bushmanland & West Coast. Yoshi: Cape Town.
- As detailed in Gabrielle Hecht’s brilliant analysis Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2012.
- MME 2010-11 Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment (SEA) for the Central Namib Uranium Rush. Windhoek: Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME), South African Institute for Environmental Assessment,and the German Federal Ministry for EconomicCooperation and Development; see discussion in Sullivan, S. 2013 After the green rush? Biodiversity offsets, uranium power and the ‘calculus of casualties’ in greening growth. Human Geography. 6(1): 80-101.