(Photo essay with Kent Andreasen.)
One man's ghost town is another man's business opportunity. This is the view of Koos van der Merwe, 54, who in 2014 decided to sell his house outside Johannesburg and buy a sports complex in Kleinzee, a defunct mining town high on South Africa's west coast. Together with his wife, Michelle, he converted the abandoned facilities into a resort, accommodating guests on the tennis grounds and serving meals in the old squash club bar. He installed a projector in one of the squash courts to screen children's films and rugby games, hiding the red wall markings with white tape. Michelle, a retired psychologist, started a beauty spa in one of the outdoor storerooms, offering massages, chakra balancing, and reiki.
"You make do with what you have," said Koos, a sinewy retired workshop manager with a military mustache. "We've been willing to try new things."
For more than 50 years, Kleinzee was a thriving private settlement, a picture-book suburb hemmed in by miles of coastal desert. De Beers, the diamond conglomerate that owned and ran the town, spared no expense keeping its workers satisfied, building pools and churches and bars to mask the loneliness of living in the middle of nowhere. At its peak, around 4,000 people filled the town, a community of middle-class mine workers and managers and their families. Residents could choose between more than 25 recreational clubs: snooker, golf, photography, soccer, angling, and more. But diamonds are a finite resource, and layoffs accelerated as production in the mines slowed. In the late 2000s, after a decade of deterioration, Kleinzee emptied.
Today, the streets are deserted. Curtains flap from the broken windows of 1970s homes. Palm trees with manic untrimmed spindles rattle in the wind. "It felt like a zombie town when we arrived, like something from a movie," Koos said. "But it's picking up again. In five years, this place will be a holiday mecca."
Banking on a tourism boom, the van der Merwes see themselves as pioneers charting a new future for Kleinzee. In 2012, De Beers officially pulled out of Kleinzee, handing the town over to the local municipality. In reality, the municipality is bankrupt and couldn't afford the responsibility of a new settlement; for now, De Beers is still paying for the upkeep. Then, in 2013, De Beers auctioned off most of its properties—sports fields, clubhouses, and hundreds of houses. "We're like the American settlers who moved west," Koos said. "We need more entrepreneurs to invest here and boost the local economy."
But older residents, a small number who purchased homes and stayed when mining ended, have mixed feelings about the town changing.
"We have our own way of doing things," said Charles Weyers, a barrel-chested man who was employed as an electrician by De Beers for more than 20 years. "People must respect that we've been here a long time. They can't come in and expect to change the place."
Weyers works contract jobs on oil rigs now and operates a restaurant, the Crazy Crayfish Diner, with his wife, Natalie, who also runs the Kleinzee Caravan Park. The restaurant is inside the old Kleinzee Diving Club, a low, dimly lit building with nautical decorations, including men's and women's toilets labeled "outboard" and "inboard," and a wooden bar, though alcohol cannot be served. This is a common problem in Kleinzee these days: Municipal regulations, which didn't apply when the town belonged to De Beers, prohibit liquor outlets from operating within 500 meters (about 550 yards) of schools, residential areas, places of worship, or public amenities. As a consequence, most clubs are restricted to serving soft drinks. The Crazy Crayfish Diner also has a pool-and-darts room around the back with a big apartheid South African flag on the wall—a political statement not unlike hoisting the Confederate flag. "If people have a problem with it, they can fuck off," Weyers told me.
The liquor store is three times the size of the biggest grocer in town. At 9 AM, a man in overalls hurried inside and took a large bottle of beer from the fridge. "He'll down that before work to kill his hangover," said cashier and longtime resident Bee Swart. "At lunch, he'll return for a fifth of spirits. This evening, he'll switch to wine. Isn't that right?"
The man left, smiling from the corner of his mouth and bobbing his head. "Drinking is a big problem here, especially among the poorer folk," Swart said. "There isn't a lot of work to go around. It's good that tourists have started coming and bringing more money. I suppose I'm just not very comfortable with change. I was so happy the way things were before."
Koos, whose resort was empty when we visited in early January but was supposedly "buzzing" last December, has little time for this sort of nostalgia. "A lot of people are stuck with the old mentality of having things done for them," he said. "Kleinzee needs innovation and fresh ideas. We want to help, to see the town grow. We don't want to take anything away."