The Cape Times

The ghost suburb in the middle of nowhere is carefully guarded. A boom gate prevents access. To enter Koingnaas, a relic diamond-mining town on South Africa’s Namaqualand coast, you exchange identity documents for official stamps of approval. With luck the boom is raised, and you are allowed inside.

Dusk is falling yet the windows of the square houses are dark. The empty streets glow orange in the streetlight. Nobody is to be seen.

The mine dump, a monolithic heap of sand and gravel, rises steeply above the town. It dwarfs the cluster of buildings at its base. The haul of diamonds it represents—fewer than twenty carats per hundred tons, or roughly one millionth of one percent—seems incomprehensibly meagre. Yet the polished stones were valuable enough for De Beers to bankroll two bustling settlements in the region (nearby Kleinzee being the other) for more than 40 years.

Things have changed. Diamonds are a non-renewable resource, and have been steadily diminishing since mining began in 1928. Extracting them profitably—by stripping away huge quantities of earth to reach the thin diamondiferous gravel layer beneath—has become more difficult as previously lucrative deposits get used up. For De Beers, it is no longer worth it: production in their Namaqualand mines ceased in 2010, and the sale of the territory to a consortium of smaller companies that includes Trans Hex, a major local player in the industry, has almost been concluded.

In the meantime, however, Koingnaas stands in limbo. The shelves in the supermarket are eerily bare; the bottle store next door seems to fare better, packed with rows of hard liquor. Driving around feels like cruising an evacuated security estate: the verges are neatly trimmed, but nobody is home.

Some 2500 people were laid off between 2006 and 2009. Besides emptying the streets, this has had more sinister consequences: illegal mining by retrenched workers, who dig tunnels into the loose walls of abandoned pits, has expanded to fill the void. The risks are immense—a single accident this May claimed at least ten lives. Yet as long as the perception exists that there are still diamonds to be found—and there are—strong incentives will remain for impoverished Namaqua folk to seek their fortune below ground.

Conservationists, meanwhile, worry about the environmental legacy diamonds will leave behind. Strip mining has been more widespread than most people realize: a mosaic of heavily scarred surfaces stretches half the length of South Africa’s entire west coast. This happens to overlap with some of the richest plant life in the country—the Succulent Karoo, of with Namaqualand forms a large part, is regarded by botanists as a global ‘hotspot’ of biodiversity. In Namaqualand alone there are some 3500 plants species; a quarter occur nowhere else on earth. Yet diamond mining cuts swathes through their natural habitat and scatters their seeds to the wind, causing severe damage that can last for decades if not remedied.

Legally, mining companies are required to ‘rehabilitate’ these degraded landscapes by filling in disused pits, re-seeding them with indigenous vegetation and erecting windbreaks to prevent everything from blowing away. But the task is a Herculean one, and expensive to boot. Some have interpreted De Beers’ decision to sell their concession, which is Namaqualand’s largest, as an attempt to walk away from the problem. Will this set a precedent, with environmental responsibilities getting palmed off every time an unprofitable mine gets sold?  

Since 2007, companies run by local community members undertook restoration work on De Beers’ behalf. Although this agreement appeared to provide a neat solution to the twin problems of degradation and unemployment, it will probably be discontinued when the sale goes through later this year. A fraction of the job has been completed, and thousands of hectares remain. Quite how the new owners will tackle this problem, when their core business strategy revolves around trimming overhead costs and maximizing efficiency, is yet to be clarified.

Whilst at Koingnaas I visited the heavily restricted mining zone, a high fence and another series of checkpoints away. Getting in entailed obtaining police clearance and passing a battery of drug tests administered by a flustered young guard; inside, our group was accompanied at all times. In places we saw plucky shrubs growing on slopes that were barren five years ago, with rows of shadecloth stretched between to catch the wind. In others we stood beside pits the size of cricket stadiums, with sheer clay walls gullied by erosion and not a single plant growing.

It felt like standing on the moon.