Extraction old and new: mining the desert in southwestern Africa
Updated: Apr 19, 2022
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.
Undated anonymous mural in South Africa House, London, depicting Nama people presenting green copper-bearing rocks to the VOC at the Cape.
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 terrain. Journeys like this would have been impossible without their local ‘Hottentot’ (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 still further north, including those in the core Future Pasts study area of northwest 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.
On the annotated map linked below, locations of mining activity are indicated by a red hammer marker, and the pale grey accommodation symbol marks places we stayed at on a journey north to Namibia from Cape Town from August-October, 2017.
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 1660, near present day Citrusdal – there are none there now.
Ilmenite is mined primarily as a source of titanium dioxide, a brilliant white pigment widely used in products from paint, paper, and plastics to food, toothpaste, and sunscreen. Very large areas of sandy coastal habitat are excavated to access and separate underlying heavy mineral sands, which are then processed by acid leaching before being transported south for smelting and export. Mining, processing, transport and smelting all use vast amounts of scarce water and power. The rehabilitation of mined areas involves installing acres of green plastic netting to act as low lying windbreaks and encourage the re-establishment of vegetation and invertebrate biodiversity. As an environmental officer for the mine told us candidly over supper one evening, however, only a fraction of prior numbers of species have returned even to the areas first clad in this way.
Ilmenite mining on Atlantic coastal sands at Brand se baai, the last image showing mined landscapes shrouded in green plastic netting intended to facilitate the return of displaced biodiversity. Photos: Sian Sullivan 060917.
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.
Aerial image of Ilmenite mining at Brand se baai.
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 Northern 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.
Lutzville Bridge and Sishen-Saldanha railway line. More than 1km long, the bridge was built to carry iron ore by train across the Olifants river valley to the coast. Photos: Sian Sullivan 060917.
Not far 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. 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 the country’s primary source of export revenue.
The border area around the Orange River eventually became the epicentre of the industry, once it was realised that in the distant geological past 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.
Diamond diving was once the only way to find marine diamonds, and was carried out by legendary diamond divers such as George Moyses, whose museum at the coastal town of Port Nolloth offers a unique collection of diamond diving paraphernalia. Photo: Sian Sullivan 130917.
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. 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.
The green colouration indicating copper is vibrantly visible at the copper shafts sunk into the Copperberg by Simon van der Stel's expedition in 1685, whose encampment is shown in the second image here. Photos: Sian Sullivan 101017.
In the 1850s much higher grade ores were found nearby. By now the Cape Colony was under British control, and 1830s 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’.
As occurred at the Matchless mine in west Namibia, pursued relentlessly in 1857 by Swedish/British entrepreneur and traveller Charles John Andersson, 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.
Later, and for most of the 20th century, copper was instead hauled by road to a railhead further south at Bitterfontein, where it was loaded onto trains to Cape Town for export. The last pits in the area have only recently ceased production, leaving an essentially devastated landscape of spoil heaps, closed mines, and unemployed communities. Nonetheless smaller companies are still working old mines and spoil heaps using more efficient modern processes, and there are plans afoot for a US-style ‘superpit’ near Concordia.
In areas like this, mining companies come and go over long periods of time as conditions change. These conditions include not only market prices, but also prospecting and extraction technologies, and local factors such as labour costs, tax incentives, environmental regulations and the general compliance (or otherwise) of governments.
Abandoned golf club for the former mining elite at the post-mining town of Okiep. Photo: Sian Sullivan 100917.
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, pictured 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.
Aerial view of Gamsberg in mid-2017, showing recently completed access ramp, v-cut and the beginnings of a very large ‘waste rock pile’. The plateau behind will eventually all be mined to depth, as shown in the Vedanta slide below. Mtpm stands for million tons per month.
The Gamsberg mountain sits within the Succulent Karoo Biome, designated one of the world’s 36 ‘biodiversity hotspots’. The name Gamsberg may derive from ‘ǁgams’, meaning ‘water’ in the click-consonant-rich language of the Nama people who lived there. In the ravines of the mountain are two permanent springs, 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 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 replaced the Nama and grazed their own cattle on the mountain.
Vedanta’s mine will hollow out this spectacular inselberg, which they acknowledge to be ‘the core of the Critical Biodiversity Area determined in the Namakwa District Bioregional Plan’. Direct biodiversity impacts will allegedly be ‘offset’ by enhanced conservation of similar habitats nearby. A worrying element of these offset plans is that Vedanta will take control of further large areas of land in the area. How effectively these areas will themselves be protected from future mining is unclear.
Plans for Gamsberg also include trucking millions of tonnes of zinc concentrate several hundred miles through rugged desert landscapes for processing at Vedanta’s Skorpion Zinc refinery near Rosh Pinah, a small mining town across the border in southern Namibia. There are two existing large zinc mines at Rosh Pinah. One, incorporating the refinery, is owned by Vedanta. The other, approaching the end of its life, was recently sold by the Swiss conglomerate Glencore to the Canadian firm Trevali. A wave of redundancies preceded the sale, prompting strikes and allegations of racist management practices. Such tensions are rarely far below the surface in post-apartheid Namibia and South Africa.
National borders and long distances are not major obstacles for globalised mining companies. Vedanta’s proposals for bulk movement of zinc concentrate between South Africa and Namibia appear relatively local compared to the activities of Dundee Precious Metals (DPM), the Canadian owners of the Tsumeb copper smelter in northeast Namibia. This plant, again initially constructed to serve an adjacent mine, processes around a quarter of a million tonnes of copper ore concentrate a year – but very little of this is now Namibian. Half is imported from DPM’s mine in Bulgaria, and most of the rest comes from Chile and Peru.
The Tsumeb smelter specialises in producing copper from ore containing high levels of arsenic and sulphur, a process banned in many countries on environmental grounds. Arsenic trioxide is stockpiled in the open air. A separate plant processes the sulphur into sulphuric acid, which is shipped by the trainload to Rössing for use in leaching uranium ore.
Namibia is one of the world’s top five producers of uranium, and Rössing has produced more uranium than any other mine in the world. The main pit at Rössing, now majority owned by Rio Tinto, is 3.5km long and 400m deep. It was opened in 1976, while Namibia was under South African control. The apartheid regime’s desire to access nuclear power and weaponry while under sanctions led it to exploit a low-grade ore body that might have otherwise been uneconomic.
In 2016 Rössing mined 24 million tonnes of rock, of which eight million tonnes were uranium-bearing ore. Processing this ore into 1850 tonnes of uranium oxide or ‘yellowcake’ (the basis for nuclear reactor fuel) required 2.6 million cubic metres of water, as well as two hundred thousand tonnes of sulphuric acid and other chemicals. Radioactive dust, chemical pollution, water use and energy demand all pose significant challenges in this fragile arid environment.
Uranium mines in the Namib: Rössing (above) and Husab (below).
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. 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.
While the anticipated ‘uranium rush’ was considerably slowed by the slump in uranium demand after the Fukushima reactor meltdown in 2011, there are nonetheless at least fifteen further uranium prospecting and mining projects at various stages of development in the Namib desert.
Looking to the future, the next mineral rush in Namibia may well be for the more ‘exotic’ rare earth minerals used in electronics and modern batteries. Several viable deposits of tantalum and lithium have been identified. Gold mining is expanding rapidly, and offshore oil drilling is also imminent – the subsea geology of the Atlantic Ocean off Namibia is similar to that of productive oilfields off neighbouring Angola.
Impacts, Benefits and Politics
To observe large-scale mining close up is a sobering experience for anyone with environmentalist leanings, especially when coupled with the knowledge that globally, the mining industry is in a phase of rapid expansion to which there is no obvious end in sight. Namibia's arid landscapes constitute just one of many mining frontiers, the potential scale of which is indicated by the cadastral mining maps shown below. Meeting even current timid global targets on carbon emissions and biodiversity conservation will surely be impossible if this trajectory continues.
Mining companies and their political allies often respond to criticism by pointing out that pretty much everything consumed in the modern word is either farmed or mined, and that environmentalists also have lifestyles which rely on mining. Increasingly however, in Namibia and elsewhere, a more sophisticated argument is deployed. Revenue and sponsorship from mining and other extractive industries is presented as a - even the - key source of conservation finance.
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.
In both South Africa and Namibia, post-apartheid governments see international mining companies as welcome agents of growth in their mineral-rich but cash-poor countries. Well-intentioned legislation, aimed at ensuring that not all the profits are exported, obliges foreign companies to operate through joint enterprises with minority local partners. Sometimes these local partner companies are state-owned. Often however they are privately owned by members of new elites, frequently relatives and friends of prominent politicians. Allegations and suspicions of corruption are widespread. Even without any dubious practices, however, both versions of this model effectively ensure that the priorities of governments remain closely aligned with the priorities of powerful mining companies.
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 VOC or the British Empire. A closer reading of historical processes of extraction, then, may help make sense of what is happening in southwestern Africa today.
Diamonds are forever - but diamond mining is not. The emptied town of Kleinsee on the diamond coast of the Northern Cape, South Africa. Photo: Sian Sullivan 110917.
A slightly shorter version of this text has been published as Hannis, M. and Sullivan, S. Mining the desert. The Land 22: 46–49.
 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'.  In December, near present-day Citrusdal, Danckert sees, '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]. 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. 2008 Life and Travels in the Northwest 1850-1899: Namaqualand, Bushmanland & West Coast. Yoshi: Cape Town.  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.