Thursday, October 22, 2009

Holding Back The Ocean Chapter Four

DECEMBER 7, 1978

The geopolitics of diamonds forges unlikely alliances in Africa. Only some seventy years earlier, German troops had nearly wiped out the Hereros as a race in Namibia. Now I watched the descendants of the original German settlers urging the Herero tribesmen to vote for their Democratic Trunsthale Alliance. It was a gay, festive atmosphere, with a crowd of Hereto women, wearing red turbans and long Victorian dresses, lined up to vote at a polling booth in Namibia's capital city of Windhoek.

Namibia was still under the firm control of South Africa, which had administered it since 1915, and the election was clearly sponsored by South Africa. Nevertheless, it was the first election in Namibia's history, and considerable efforts had been made to win the support of chiefs of the Herero and Ovambo tribes, who constituted the vast majority of the population. There had been massive rallies, torchlight parades and tribal festivals staged by the South Africans to encourage the black population to vote. The South African army even provided trucks to take the Ovambos from their rural kraals to the polling booths. During the week-long election there had also been scattered assassinations and acts of sabotage attributed to the SWAPO guerrillas. SWAPO had demanded that blacks in Namibia boycott the election.

South Africa, in turn, had invited journalists from all over the world to witness this extravaganza. The purpose was to demonstrate to the United Nations, and the media, that SWAPO could not effectively speak for or control the black population of Namibia. It was, in short, a contest of terror, and the measure of success was the percentage of eligible voters who participated in the election. Those who abstained voted in effect for SWAPO.

I was told, according to the latest tally, that nearly 8o percent of the eligible voters in all of Namibia had cast their vote, which was a resounding victory for South Africa. Returns coming in from the rural Ovambo villages close to the Angola border, where SWAPO guerrillas had their bases, showed that go percent or more of the Ovambos were voting, despite SWAPO threats of assassination.

After making the rounds of polling places in Windhoek, I flew across the Namib desert to Oranjemund, which is located, as its name implies, at the mouth of the Orange River. Even though the election was in its final day, this immaculately clean city was strangely silent. Unlike Windhoek, there were no boisterous rallies or blaring sound trucks in the palm-tree-lined streets. The polling booths were nearly deserted. Although this was the second largest city in Namibia, with more than 7,000 eligible Ovambo tribesmen, all the blacks seemed to be abstaining from the plebiscite. As it turned out, Oranjernund was the only city in all of Namibia that had, through its massive abstention, "voted" in effect for SWAPO.

The difference between Oranjemund and the rest of Namibia was that it was not under the control of the South African army. It was, and had been since its inception in 1936, the private preserve of De Beers and its wholly owned subsidiary, Consolidated Diamond Mines. Oppenheimer's father had built the entire city from scratch after he had obtained exclusive rights to the adjacent 200 miles of Namibian desert called the Sperrgebeit, or forbidden zone. Cordoned off from the rest of Namibia by two barbwire fences, it has continued to live up to its ominous name. No one, not even army or government officials, is allowed into the forbidden zone without the express permission of Oppenheimer's diamond company.

I was not surprised to find that De Beers had not cajoled or even encouraged its black workers in Namibia to vote. Since Namibian diamonds constituted the single largest source of profits for De Beers, Oppenheimer had to carefully weigh any intervention into Namibian politics. Not only the United Nations but five western powers-the United States, Britain, England, France and Germany-were demanding that South Africa relinquish its control over Namibia. The alternatives that were threatened were United Nations sanctions, which could include the severing of all telephone, mail, and air services to South Africa, and conceivably an oil embargo. Under these circumstances, there was the distinct possibility that South Africa would yield and SWAPO would come to power in Namibia. Oppenheimer would have then to renegotiate his subsidiary~ s concession to mine the diamonds of the forbidden zone with SWAPO.

I recalled Oppenheimer's confidence about Namibia. Whether or not he had already established contacts with alterative governments there, it was understandable why he would not want to offend gratuitously the leaders of SWAPO by pressing the diamond workers to vote in this election. He might have to deal with them in the foreseeable future for Namibia's diamonds.

The forbidden zone was a world unto itself. The only means of entering it was the Ernest Oppenheimer Bridge, which spanned the Orange River frontier between South Africa and Namibia. Armed guards manned barricades at both the South African and Namibian ends of the bridge. Before I was permitted to pass into the forbidden zone, I had to be met by an escort from the diamond company and issued a plastic security badge.

Inside the forbidden zone is the city of Oranjemund, with its own food-producing farms and reservoirs. The vast mining area runs alongside the Atlantic Ocean. To enter into the mining area, one has to insert his plastic security badge into a slot in the wall and wait for a door to slide open automatically. The central computer, which opens and closes these passageways, tracks the comings and goings of everyone in the mining area. De Beers' helicopters constantly patrol overhead, and closely monitor the activities of the fishing craft that pass by in the ocean (even though the enormous waves would make landing a boat on the beach all but impossible). Behind the beach, a pack of Alsatian guard dogs patrol the no-man's-land between the two barbwire fences. And behind the barbwire fences is the Namib Desert, one of the most inhospitable areas on earth. It is made impenetrable by 1,000-foot-high sand dunes and 120 degree temperatures.

The extraordinary security procedures are considered necessary in Namibia because what is recovered from the 200 mile-long beach is not kimberlite ore but pure gem diamonds, which can be easily pocketed by anyone. In one small crevice in a rock outcropping, some 15,000 carats of sparkling diamonds were found on this beach some years ago.

The mine, if it can be called a mine, is actually the continental shelf of the Atlantic Ocean. To get at the richest lodes of diamonds, the ocean must be literally pushed back and held back long enough to dig out the diamonds. The mechanism for holding back the pounding surf is a ten-story high mound, which, 600 feet out in the ocean, runs parallel to the beach.

Standing on this sandy mound, I looked down into the "mine," which was actually the exposed floor of the ocean. It was an incredible sight; a full-scale battle between man and nature.

"You are looking at the largest construction project in the Southern Hemisphere," observed Clive Cowley. Cowley had been the editor of Namibia's leading newspaper, the Windhoek Advertiser; now he was the chief public affairs officer of De Beers in Namibia. He pointed to the thousands of workers and machines below. Giant bulldozers were belching smoke and scraping the ground with their blades like some kind of prehistoric animal. Powerful pumps were sucking the water out of the mining area through hoses as fast as it sprayed in over the barrier. Ovambo tribesmen, knee-deep in pools of water, were frantically sweeping the gravel off outcrops of rock on the ocean's floor as if they feared that at any moment the barrier might give way, like a sand castle on a beach, and the ocean would come flooding in.

In the center of all this activity was an enormous piece of machinery, more than a football field in length and two stories high, mounted on caterpillar tracks. A continuous belt of steel buckets traveled around it, like cars on a ferris wheel, scooping up sand at one end and depositing it at the other end. It was the largest machine I had ever seen.

"That's the bucket wheel excavator," Cowley explained. "It cost $3.5 million to build, and it can move 1,800 tons of sand an hour." The sand must be stripped away before the workers, called lashers, can get at the diamond-rich gravel.

The Ovambo tribesmen worked with their primitive tools in the shadow of this colossal machine. The contrast between tribal and modern technology was striking. Ironically,, as Cowley pointed out, it was the tribesmen, not the multimillion-dollar machine, who recovered most of the diamonds. These Ovambos had been recruited to work in the ocean mine in the jungles of Ovamba land, a thousand miles to the north. According to Cowley, they usually received eight month contracts from the diamond company. They would board a Hercules cargo plane, leaving their families behind on the kraal, and fly to Oranjemund.

"They have to be literally fought off the plane," Cowley said. For just sweeping the gravel from the rocks, they received $200 a month. For driving trucks and other more skilled jobs, they earned up to $450 a month. This salary is completely exempt from taxes. Their own expense for their eight-month stay at the mines is $22 a month for their dormitory room and food. "By the time they return to Ovamba land, they have enough money to buy cattle, land or even a wife," Cowley concluded.

Suddenly, a tractor the size of a locomotive came racing toward us. As it passed, an Ovambo waved from the cab. He then maneuvered the vehicle precariously on the edge of the mound, which was only about sixty feet wide, and dumped a load of dirt on top of it. Cowley explained that these tractors wage an around-the-clock battle with the Atlantic Ocean. Waves constantly rip away the sand, and these tractors, each of which carries a thirty-five-ton load of sand, constantly fill the breeches in the barrier. If an opening were not immediately filled, the ocean would break through and submerge the entire mine under fifty feet of sea water.

Every day, more than 100 million pounds of sand and gravel are dug out of the ocean mine. From the massive moving of the earth and holding back of the ocean, about two and a half to three pounds of diamonds are recovered each day. "All this effort, and more, purely for the vanity of women," Cowley added, with an edge of irony in his voice. That irony was only compounded by the fact that De Beers had millions of dollars invested in advertising to take advantage of this vanity.

When I viewed the day's catch in the sorting house, which was that day about 6,ooo carats, I saw that unlike in Botswana and Lesotho there were no black or discolored diamonds in the tray. These were clearly not industrial-grade diamonds, but white, well-formed gem diamonds.

"These aren't the same sort of diamonds that come out of a pipe mine," Cowley said. "They have been pounded by ocean waves for millions of years. The inferior diamonds have been smashed to bits eons ago. Only the fittest survive, and these are pure gems."

Pointing to the container of diamonds that had been recovered from the ocean floor that day, he continued, "There are probably more pure gems in that dish than have been recovered today in all the pipe mines in South Africa combined." Cowley estimated that this single day's production would bring in over $1-5 million when they were sold by De Beers in London.

The profits on these Namibian diamonds were enormous. It cost no more to mine and separate these gem diamonds than it did for the industrial-grade diamonds that constituted the bulk of the production of most other mines. Yet these gems sold for one hundred times the price of industrial diamonds. From the four-hundred million dollars in revenues it took in the preceding year for these Namibian diamonds, De Beers realized a net profit of more than two hundred million dollars, making Namibia De Beers' money spinner.

After we left the sorting house, Cowley took me over to see an extraordinary scrap yard. It was enclosed by barbwire ; and filled with enough antique machines to stock a museum. "Once a vehicle or piece of equipment ever enters the mining area, it is never allowed to leave," Cowley said. He explained that this prohibition was necessary in order to prevent anyone from smuggling diamonds out concealed in a piece of equipment. Since it was not practical to attempt to search for an object as small as a diamond, De Beers simply assigned all the vehicles and machines, when they became outmoded, to this graveyard.

This tangle of relics encapsulated the history of the Namibian diamonds. There was, for example, a train of turn-of-the-century railroad cars with German markings. "Namibia was a German colony when diamonds were first found here at the turn of the century," Cowley said. He explained that the diamond fields were then about 100 miles north of Oranjemund. To mine the diamonds, the Germans had built Teutonic towns at Pomona and Kolinanskop, complete with beerhalls and skittle alleys. "The Germans had the blacks sweep the streets every day to keep the sand out of their houses. When they could no longer find ;my diamonds on the beaches they abandoned these towns to the desert. It has become a ghost town; the beerhall is now filled with sand, sand comes halfway tip the walls inside the houses..."

There was also an ominous looking World War 11 battle tank with a British insignia on it. A huge steel blade had been welded in front of the gun turret. "De Beers converted these tanks to bulldozers after the war," Cowley continued, "because there was no bridge across the Orange River then and it was next to impossible to float heavy equipment across on barges." It took until the mid nineteen-fifties before the bridge was built.

Since De Beers' geologist found that most of the diamond lodes were on the ocean floor, a method had to be devised of holding the ocean back, Cowley explained. Assisted by oceanographers at the University of Capetown, engineers initially experimented with the idea of altering the ocean's current so that it would rip up the beach and redeposit the sand farther from the shoreline. This would create a natural barrier behind which the workers could sweep the diamonds out from the bedrock. To shift the direction of the ocean current, they dug a channel across the beach. Unfortunately, the ocean refused to follow the predicted course, and the engineers gave up on the attempt to harness the sea.

Next, the engineers attempted to erect an earthen dam in the ocean at low tide and cover it with a gigantic canvas tarpaulin before the tide returned. They postulated that the tarpaulin would prevent the ocean from dissolving the dam. Working in a rising tide, it took nearly two hours to lash down this cover. Less than an hour later, the waves ripped the tarpaulin to shreds.

The De Beers engineers had to return to their drawing boards. Finally, in the early 1960s, they came up with a system for building a series of dams that would be replenished with sand from the mine as fast as the ocean could strip it away. "After a good deal of trial and error it worked Cowley concluded.

Leaving the mining area, we had to pass through a long narrow building. Along one wall were large mirrors, which, Cowley explained, were two-way glasses through which security guards observed everyone passing through. At the end of one maze-like corridor, there was a turnstile that led to two closed doors, side by side. We went through the turnstile, waited; then a buzzer sounded, and the door on the right opened. "If the other door had opened, you would have had to undergo both an X-ray and body search," Cowley said. He explained that the selection of who gets searched is completely at random. It would be medically dangerous to subject workers to constant dosages of X-rays, therefore only a small percentage of those who passed out of the mining area each day were actually searched. "Everyone from Harry Oppenheimer to Ovambo workers have to pass through that turnstile, and they never know which door is going to open," Cowley added, as he again inserted our security badges into the slot at the end of the passageway.

The last door buzzed opened, and a moment later we were walking down a suburban street in Oranjemund. The transition from the moonscape-like mine to the familiarity of the modern city was somewhat unsettling.

We dined that evening with a group of De Beers executives at the Hexen Kcssel. The decor and cuisine were meant to evoke an "Old World" European spirit, but, like everything else in Oranjemund, the restaurant had been designed and built by De Beers. As far as the De Beers executives were concerned, the Namibian diamond mining operation was a reality that had been created by De Beers. If a revolutionary government ever forced De Beers to relinquish the concession, one executive suggested that mines would be flooded by the ocean in a matter of months, and no more diamonds ever would be recovered. So the forces of nationalism in Namibia would have to come to terms with the diamond cartel.

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