Since their arrival in the late 1800’s, German colonials heard rumours about diamonds in Namibia, but none had been found. One day in 1907 in southwest Namibia, a German railway worker, August Sauch, had one of his men bring him a brilliant, shining stone, clear as ice. Once the rock was confirmed to be a diamond, Sauch resigned from the railway and began a focussed search for diamonds. So the mad, richly rewarded hunt for diamonds in Namibia was on.
As far as geologists can determine, beginning sometime during the Jurassic Age, the diamonds that wash up in Namibia were pushed to the surface by Kimberlite Pipes about 800 kilometers to the east, along what’s now the Orange River. (View of Orange River from my flight to Windhoek below.)
The biggest, heaviest diamonds were gradually pulled down river by currents and then eventually into the sea in Namibian coastal waters. The tides are now slowly pushing them back onto land.
This radar image from the Jet Propulsion Lab at Cal Tech shows Namibia diamond deposits. It covers a portion of the Richtersveld National Park and Orange River (top of image) in the Northern Cape Province of the Republic of South Africa. The Orange River marks the boundary between South Africa to the south and Namibia to the north.
No Blood Diamonds
Namibia has seen little of the vicious feuds for “blood diamonds” in other African countries. That’s largely because Namibia’s prized diamonds literally wash up to shore like seashells and would be a beachcomber’s delight if access to prized areas such as the Sperrgebiet (The Forbidden Area), in the Namib Desert were not controlled.
The Forbidden Area stretches from the Atlantic to about 100 km inland and covers an area of 26,000 square km. The German colonial government closed the area and handed the mining rights to Deutsche Diamantengesellschaft (German Diamond Company), who mined over 7 million carats of diamonds. Cecil Rhodes, a Brit whose family sent him to South Africa due to his ill health, and who would go on to become Prime Minister of South Africa and a great proponent of British imperialism, founded de Beers in 1888 and over the next two decades gained near-complete domination of the world diamond market. After WWI, when Germany was forced out of Namibia, DD sold its interests to De Beers, which went on to mine roughly 65 million high quality carats until Namibia’s independence in 1990.
Namibia’s diamonds are among the world’s largest and most beautiful gems. Millions of years of sea currents gradually polish these raw stones to a state of unusual clarity and brilliance. “Namibia’s diamonds fetch the highest prices because they are of high quality, pure carbon, spotless and they don’t disintegrate,” said the country’s Diamonds Commissioner Kennedy Hamutenya, according to Bloomberg.
Namibia Takes (Partial) Control
Namibian independence markedly altered the bargaining power and interests of both Namibia and De Beers. Independence gave Namibia the power to enact legislation and economic structures to limit and guide its domestic diamond industry. Following independence, the government needed De Boors for its technology, investments and access to international markets to provide the state with export revenues and provide Namibians with salaries.
At the same time, changes in the international diamond world, particularly the growing challenge from Russia and international pressure to stop the De Beers’ monopoly on the market, weakened De Beer’s bargaining power. In the 1994 Namibia-De Beers Agreement, Namibia purchased a 50% interest in Namibia’s diamond mining industry and created jobs for Namibian workers.
De Beers helped the country set up local diamond manufacturing operations. In 2007, De Beers and Namibia formed another joint venture, Namibia DTC. NDTC supplies diamonds to local companies for local manufacturing. Over the years, diamond manufacturers repeatedly reported losses until they were authorized to export rough diamonds unsuitable for local polishing to other countries, such as India and China. Today, NDTC supplies 11 manufacturers with rough diamonds in Namibia.
Raw Namibian diamonds sell for around $1,000 a carat, at least triple the price of the high-quality stones mined in Botswana, and well over 10 times the price of most other rough diamonds.
Now, the partnership is moving its sights offshore. There is a vast store of diamonds on the seabed just off Namibia’s west coast. Almost 10% of Namibia’s economy, estimated at $2.5 billion, comes from the Namibian government’s share of the money collected from selling sea diamonds.
De Beers’ just-announced submarine expansion came in the form of the SS Nujoma, a 2.3 billion Namibian dollar ($166 million U.S.) custom-built exploration and sampling ship, which arrived in Cape Town from Norway in August. De Beers says the ship will almost double the number of seafloor samples unearthed daily. De Beers claims there is no damage to the environment because everything goes back into the sea except the diamonds, but there is little research to date about how this scale of sea floor intrusion affects marine life.
Just as valued as back in 1907 when the first diamond was discovered and The Forbidden Area established, security on the new ship will be tight. Within its recovery room, diamonds and other gems will fall into X-ray machines like coins into a vending machine. Cameras are everywhere and vetted employees will pass through card and fingerprint readers to gain entry. The diamonds will then be poured into what is a container and sealed, then placed in a vault. A helicopter will come a few times a week to fly the diamonds to Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, for sorting. Employees leaving the facility will be subject to “rigourous scrutiny” (manual body searches and x-rays).
With over $1 billion worth of annual diamond production, Namibia is the world’s sixth largest diamond miner by value, according to Kimberley Process 2014 figures of $1.92 million in rough production of 1.92 million carats and $1.16 billion; and $1.11 billion in rough exports of 1.97 million carats. De Beers is still picking diamonds from the coast and from the sea at a rate of more than a million carats every year. Though the resource is finite and land sources are nearly depleted, De Boors’ subsidiary, Debmarine, estimates at least 62 million carats of diamonds still lie on ocean’s shore.
🇨🇦 Canadian Connection
De Beers is involved in Canada’s diamond mining industry too. It started by hauling 45-gallon drums of rock samples for transport to South Africa. Canada became the third largest producer of diamonds, but its run is already nearly deplete. De Beers has flooded one of its huge Canadian mines; the other, Gahcho Kue, took 21 years to reach production and is now turning out stones worth far less of poorer quality than it hoped.
Benefits to Namibia
With the new technology and its rich diamond resource, Namibia’s diamond industry is thriving for now. Beyond searching out opportunities in downstream business, the government is also trying to use its diamond resource as a means of achieving social equity through creating racially balanced employment and creating employment based on revenues from the industry.
NamDeb is a prominent philanthropist in Namibia and is proud of the number of Namibians that work in the company, from the managing director on down. With a work force of 1,800, it is now focussed on attracting women to this traditionally male industry. Part of the joint venture’s mission is to make a lasting contribution to Namibia. It will fall to the government of Namibia to do its planning for the future day when this beautiful, precious resource does run out.