Diamond mines are not forever

The concrete slab marking the guarded entrance to town is as solid as a headstone. In familiar font it reads: De Beers. A Diamond Is Forever. Namaqualand Mines. Welcome to Koingnaas.

By night, street lamps blaze and the silhouettes of ornamental palms and scraggy bluegums stand dark against the sky. Daylight reveals the massive tailings dump to the west, the scattered mining pits and mounds of earth, the faded industrial signs and the fact that most of the town’s 130 toffee-and-lemon painted houses are empty.

“The years from 2007 to 2009 were the hardest,” says Aletta Wessels, a blue-eyed woman in her 60s. “Every weekend moving vans came and more families packed up and left. And these were our friends and neighbours, people we had known for 10 or 15 years.”

Aletta and her husband, Dudley, live on the outskirts of Koingnaas, with their backs to the town and a view of the strandveld and distant sea from their front porch. Dudley worked on a mine in Hondeklip Baai. Now he and Aletta oversee Noup, a cluster of rustic cottages on the coastline that previously housed diamond divers but are now rented out to tourists.

Dudley is one of the two managers of NMR, an environmental rehabilitation business that employs 15 men who collect seeds, lay wind breaks and replant mined land.

On a Thursday morning a lone bakkie drives through Koingnaas. A preschool lies abandoned, its playground overgrown. A pair of Olympic-sized swimming pools, once filled with heated water, stand empty. The clinic is closed. So too is the recreation club. The rugby fields are turning to sand. Despite the early hour, a pair of double-cabs are parked outside one of the town’s two pubs and inside the cavernous Spar empty sections have been cordoned off. The meagre stock is spread among the few shelves still in use. A display of polonies is on offer in the meat section and, in the freezer, a few packets of prehistoric-looking chicken portions.

Koingnaas and Kleinzee were once flourishing mining towns, but now that De Beers has pulled out, the two Namaqualand dorpies face an uncertain future. Read more about it in this week’s M&G.

There are no children left in Koingnaas and the mine bus that once ferried pupils 65 kilometres daily to Kleinzee, another town owned by De Beers, stopped running three years ago. Kleinzee, with 370 houses, a hospital, primary school and a golf course, is bigger than Koingnaas. But most of its houses are also empty, the town’s population having dwindled to about 400 people, a quarter of whom still work for De Beers in the departments of maintenance and security. In 1989 there were three schools and 651 young pupils. Today the seven remaining company teachers instruct 50 pupils, who still take their swimming lessons in one of the town’s Olympic-sized pools, although it is no longer heated.

Diamond mining started in Namaqualand in 1926 and, after a brief pause during World War II, De Beers bought out the struggling Cape Coast Exploration Company and scaled up operations until they were extracting a million carats a year. At its peak in the Eighties more than 3 000 people were employed in Kleinzee and the town’s population was probably double that. A thousand people lived in Koingnaas.

‘Best years of our lives’
Residents, past and present, describe a paradise, an oasis in the desert, a place where people came for six months and stayed for 20 years. “Die beste jare van ons lewe.” (“The best years of our lives.”) Water, electricity and rent were free. Before 1975 residents were shuttled to work, to shop or to indulge in the company-funded recreation activities. After a generation of living in a closed mining town, some residents are finding it difficult to adapt to life outside.

On a Thursday night at the Crazy Crayfish Diner near the beach a few bakkies are lined up in the car park and a handful of people stand around a fire remembering the old days.

“It was paradise, alright,” says Charles Weyers, an electrician who has lived in Kleinzee for almost 40 years and worked on the mine. “A real fool’s paradise.”

His wife, Natalie, who was employed in the De Beers payroll department until she was laid off in 2009, owns the diner, which previously housed the diving club and now serves simple seafood — and crayfish in season — three nights a week, if you place your order by phone in the afternoon.

Charles, back from an oil rig in Nigeria, tries to remember the activities of Kleinzee. He uses his fingers to tick off the sport clubs: badminton, bowls, cricket, darts, hockey, netball, tennis, golf, rugby, jukskei, snooker, squash and soccer. Then the camping, caravanning, hiking, angling, diving, hunting and gun clubs. The camera club, chess and bridge clubs and the arts and crafts centre where women were instructed in macrame, batik, fabric painting and pottery. And the riding club, with 20 stables and — at one stage — a herd of Appaloosas.

Doctors, dentists, radiographers and physiotherapists worked at the fully equipped hospital, situated conveniently beside the golf course. Visiting specialists performed surgery, including breast enlargements, babies were born and a plane was on standby for medical emergencies.

There were Christmas trees, fashion shows and ox braais, wine tastings and beer fests. Once a year Nicky Oppenheimer brought in teams of sportsmen — including ex-Springboks — to compete with the town’s club members. The New Year parties were legendary. At one of them a local resident, Johan Stemmet, that perennially well-groomed host of Noot vir Noot, made his musical debut at the age of 11. Musicians like Gé Korsten, Sonia Heroldt and Steve Hofmeyr gave performances. In 1978 the concert by Four Jacks and a Jill was a smash hit.

“There’s even a yacht club,” Weyers says, looking up from his fingers. “One of the general managers liked sailing, so they dug out an artificial sea-water lake, half a kilometre long. The pumps are still running but the water’s very salty.”

After a pause, he says: “Maybe we should turn it into a salt mine.”

In 2007, as the diamond yield fell, De Beers began laying off workers. In 2008 mining operations in the area were halted and, in May this year, De Beers announced the sale of Namaqualand Mines to Trans Hex for R225-million. Trans Hex will buy the mines through Emerald Panther Trading, an associate company in which it owns 50% of the shares. RECM, Calibre and Dinoka Investment Holdings hold the remainder, with the exception of 5%, which was allocated to historically disadvantaged groups not specifically named.

Trans Hex, a small-scale operator with a proposed workforce of 500, will mine the remaining two to three million accessible carats of diamonds at a rate of 100 000 carats a year and will accept responsibility for rehabilitating the extensive environmental damage caused by decades of mining, according to De Beers officials. De Beers has estimated the environmental liability to stand at roughly R200-million, although conservation groups believe the actual figure might be three times that.

Trans Hex will not take over the two towns. With De Beers pulling out and the bulk of the diamonds gone, the few remaining people are looking for an alternative income and for the past three years the word on everyone’s lips has been proclamation.

Mining disturbances
Rob Blake, De Beers’s project manager for town proclamation and local economic development, says that, when mining ceases, all remaining structures, including houses, are classified as mining disturbances. By law mining towns should be bulldozed, buried and planted over.

To avoid this fate an application was initiated in 2008 by De Beers for Kleinzee to be declared a public town aligned to the Nama Khoi municipality.

But cash-strapped municipalities are justifiably wary of accepting further responsibility and local government delays have been exacerbated by a change of the municipal manager in Springbok following recent elections. If Kleinzee is proclaimed, residents will be given the option to buy their Seventies-style mine houses, at prices ranging from R50 000 to R200 000. De Beers has engaged a property developer to refurbish, market and sell the remaining houses, sports clubs and other buildings. Urban designers and architects will work together to create an architectural theme, according to Blake, who oversaw the proclamation of Cullinan, the former mining town near Pretoria.

“Cullinan was a huge success,” says Blake. “Everything was sold within months and a few residents resold their houses within days for double what they had paid for them.”

These are the stories the people of Kleinzee like to hear — but waiting is difficult. Retrenchment packages intended for the purchase of houses have instead been spent on rent and some people were forced to give up and move away. With further lay-offs and the town unable to move forward, the scattering of local businesses face bankruptcy. Some people feel aggrieved at being excluded from the development deal.

At the Kleinzee Golf Club, where the bar is decorated with empty Jägermeister bottles, brandy and Cokes are selling briskly to a handful of club members on a Friday night. An impressive array of beer bellies is on show and the talk, as the ashtrays fill, concerns the latest round of retrenchments and the recent deaths of two illegal miners in a cave-in near Koingnaas. The men are believed to have been from the settlement of Komaggas, where 1 000 workers have lost their jobs with De Beers.

When club members speak of the old days, they remember the parties, the sense of community and the safety. Once the town is proclaimed, people say they want to keep the boomed gate and 24-hour guards.

On Wednesday and Friday nights in Kleinzee, when the Crazy Crayfish Diner is closed, Koos “Oom Polony” Coetzee, the town’s part-time butcher, braais steaks and sosaties at the golf club. There is a third restaurant in town — the Desert Rose Bistro, owned by Andrew and Mildred, a couple who asked that we use only their first names.

Before the lay-offs Andrew and Mildred worked in the De Beers canteen, preparing several hundred meals a day for the workers. At first Andrew was excited at the prospect of running his own restaurant. He was tired of canteen food and wanted to be more creative. He and Mildred rented the empty recreation club and renovated a section — they hung gauzy red curtains and fitted the bar with mirrors and glass shelving. Andrew took a bartender’s course in Cape Town and installed an Italian espresso machine. His dream was to serve sophisticated cocktails and “provide seriously fine dining”.

So far, with the shrinking population of Kleinzee, this has not panned out and the Desert Rose Bistro is open by arrangement only. When he has guests, Andrew arranges fresh flowers and lights candles. To pay the rent he has secured a contract providing canteen food for the crew of temporary workers currently dismantling the old mine plants to recycle the metal.

Koingnaas, to the south, falls under the municipality of Kamieskroon and was proclaimed a public town earlier this year. Nine of its 130 houses were sold to retirees, contractors and a few De Beers employees. But nothing much has happened since. However, Blake believes both towns — and particularly Kleinzee — are on the up. He might be right about Kleinzee.

He has a list of 160 former residents looking for houses and a few factory owners want to relocate from Gauteng. A tourism industry is being nurtured, with hikes, hunting and 4×4 trails. A wind farm is in the wings and an ambitious project to cultivate abalone is under way. There are plans to turn the deeper mining pits into dumps for hazardous waste. A proposal is in place to transform the old migrant-worker hostel into a 1 000-bed prison.

Conservationists would like to see environmental rehabilitation added to the list of sustainable work opportunities. Since 2007 De Beers has fully restored only 500 hectares of damaged strandveld using NMR contractors and their 15 local men. That contract runs to April 2012. With somewhere between 5 000 and 17 000 hectares of land still to be fixed, a committed rehabilitation effort could employ hundreds of people. It remains to be seen whether Trans Hex will pick up the ball, as it is obliged to by law.

It is easy to take in the facts about Kleinzee — the environment laid waste, resources exhausted and the evidence of past excess and unsustainability — and from them fashion an allegory for man’s shortsightedness and greed. But there are also signs of human ingenuity and resilience.

In a mined-out area near the beach, Quiryn Snethlage, a former diamond diver, is quietly farming oysters, turning empty pits into ponds and using old mine pumps to circulate the sea water. A third of the oysters that reach the restaurants of Cape Town spent their infancy at this modest enterprise in Kleinzee.

“Namaqualand is perfect for mariculture,” Snethlage says, “sun to grow algae and strong winds to oxygenate the ponds.”

He looks around at the denuded landscape. “Although, for some reason,” he says, “the authorities wanted me to do an environmental impact assessment first.”

As for proclamation and the real-estate boom, Snethlage is pragmatic. “There’s always been a lot of talk in this place,” he says. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Meanwhile, in Limpopo, where De Beers’s mine Venetia is extracting more than five million carats of diamonds a year, the company has opted to transport its workers 80 kilometres from Musina rather than build another settlement. The days of the private mining town, it would appear, are over.

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Martinique Stilwell
Martinique Stilwell works from Cape Town, South Africa. Writer, doctor, surfer, sailor. Thinking Up A Hurricane. Martinique Stilwell has over 238 followers on Twitter.

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