On April 14, 1908, Zacharias Lewala, a black labourer toiling on the railway just outside Lüderitz, discovered a rough diamond and showed it to his foreman, August Stauch. History doesn’t relate what happened to Lewala, who had acquired his keen eye for the mineral while working in Kimberley, but Stauch quietly resigned his position with the railway and set himself up as a diamond prospector, becoming very rich almost overnight. The Germans immediately declared the 320km stretch of coastline (extending 100km inland) from Lüderitz to the Orange River, a Sperrgebiet (Forbidden Area) – which in practice remains in place to this day – so as to control the diamond rush that ensued. Namibia was soon producing 1 million carats (200kg) annually, accounting for 20 percent of world diamond production, and helping German South-West Africa to turn a profit by 1913.
Following German defeat in World War I, the country’s diamond mines, mostly along the Orange River, came under the control of Ernest Oppenheimer, founder of Anglo American, and the man behind De Beers, who maintained a monopoly on the Namibian diamond trade right through the apartheid era until the 1990s.
Since 1994, the diamond trade has been controlled by Namdeb, a company set up by De Beers and the Namibian government, who each have a 50 percent stake. Although not found in such quantities as in neighbouring Botswana and South Africa, diamonds continue to be a mainstay of the Namibian economy, with Namdeb, the country’s largest taxpayer and biggest foreign exchange generator, contributing a fifth of the country’s foreign exchange.
Namibia’s diamonds have traditionally been found in alluvial and coastal deposits. Washed downstream over the centuries, into the sea and then back onto the coastline’s raised beaches and sand dunes, the diamonds are small but crystal clear, the result of centuries of erosion and weathering which have weeded out the imperfect stones. As a result, some 98 percent are of “gem quality” (the highest proportion in the world) and are highly valued compared to diamonds from the land-based mines of South Africa.
Over the last decade, the biggest challenge for the industry has been the depletion of land diamonds, which are likely to run out completely in the next 15 years, and the increasing reliance on marine diamonds, which are now being dredged up from the bottom of the ocean at depths of over 120m. Debmarine, Namdeb’s offshore arm, is now its most important asset. The major downside to this marine mining is the obvious negative environmental impact of sucking up the sea bed, sifting it for diamonds and then spewing the remains back into the sea, though the industry argues that such activity is restricted to a relatively small area. The other threat to the diamond market is the arrival of cheaper synthetic diamonds of gem quality – industrial diamonds are nearly all synthetic now, but the gem-quality synthetic diamonds are now so good, it’s impossible for experts to tell the difference without the help of expensive technology.