Namibia: Diamond mine decline

Ian Evans
High rollers long gone: ruins of the casino at Elizabeth Bay.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

ELIZABETH BAY, NAMIBIA – The rows of derelict buildings have long been abandoned. In the distance waves batter the coastline as strong winds drive sand into the empty rooms that once housed the pioneers of Namibia’s diamond mines.

For nearly 40 years, until 1948, Elizabeth Bay was at the center of the diamond industry in this corner of South West Africa, which was colonized and governed by Germany and then South Africa before gaining independence in 1990.

A visit to the ghost town of Elizabeth Bay offers clues to what life was like during the diamond boom in the early 1900s. Visitors need a five-day clearance period before the owners, Namdeb – a jointly owned company by the Namibian government and diamond giant De Beers – will give permission to enter the derelict site.

The dusty road to the settlement still features small cairns with poles through the middle signifying former prospectors’ claims. Hundreds of people lived and worked at the one-square-mile site in its mining heyday, with accommodations split along predictable colonial lines.

Indigenous workers were housed in dorms, middle managers in small houses, and senior management in grander properties. In the center of the site stands a derelict community kitchen and casino, and beyond those the rusting and dilapidated mining equipment.

Right next door to the abandoned site is the modern Elizabeth Bay mine, opened in 1991 when scientists calculated there were still sufficient deposits to make diamond mining viable.

But that was then and this is now. In late July, De Beers recorded a dramatic slump in profits for the first six months of 2009 from $316 million last year to just $3 million this year.

With locals saying production is sporadic and shifts cut, for how long will the modern-day mine avoid its elderly neighbor’s fate?

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