Diamonds to dust: the ghost town of Kolmannskuppe
In April of 1908, Zacharias Lewala, a worker on the railway line between Luderitz and Aus in what is now southern Namibia, picked up a shiny stone and showed it to his supervisor, August Stauch. Recognizing the find, Stauch got himself a prospecting license and then presented the stone for verification. State geologist Dr. Range confirmed it was a diamond, and within months the diamond rush was on around the site of Kolmanskop, 10 kilometres inland from the coastal town of Luderitz. Early documents record the amazing sight of lines of men crawling through the desert on their bellies under the light of the full moon, sifting the sand for glimmering diamonds.
By September 1908, the German colonial government had declared a "forbidden zone", or "Sperrgebiet" from the Orange river in the south (now the border between South Africa and Namibia), 360 kms north and 100 kms inland from the coast. The Sperrgebiet was designed to give the government control over the region thought to contain diamonds. To this day, the Sperrgebiet is still a forbidden area, and harsh penalties are inflicted on those who wander into the area without a valid permit. During the post-war recession, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, chairman of the Anglo-American Company bought up all of the small diamond companies operating in the Sperrgebiet and combined them to form the Consolidated Diamond Mines (CDM). CDM / DeBeers controlled diamond mining until 1995 when it joined with the new government of Namibia to form NAMDEB.
In the 1920s, Kolmanskop was a booming centre of diamond mining activity and serviced the needs of expatriate miners and their families. A hospital, gymnasium and concert hall, casino, bowling alley, school, butchery, bakery, and power station was built in the desert village of Kolmanskop. Many of the professionals in Kolmanskop had lavish homes constructed and the hospital had the first x-ray machine in southern africa. Almost everything was imported to Kolmanskop, including fresh water from Cape Town in South Africa. One of the earliest power plants in the region was built to provide electricity for the residents and the mining machinery. The extreme wealth of Kolmanskop during the 1920s made it one of the richest communities in Africa. Despite the wealth of the 300 Germans, 800 Oshiwambo labourers did not share in the riches. Clearly the racist colonial government, who orchestrated a genocide against the Herero of eastern Namibia, were not interested in sharing the wealth with the indigenous people of the region.
Even for the German miners of Kolmanskop, the boom didn't last long. By 1928, larger diamond deposits had been found elsewhere south of the village and prospectors began to leave. The last residents of Kolmanskop left finally in 1956 and the village has been deserted ever since. When the community left, the sand moved in and, together with the wind, has begun to swallow up Kolmanskop. Visually, Kolmanskop is fascinating as the movement of the sand dunes both exposes and conceals evidence of human presence there. Objects emerge or are buried by the daily winds. Kolmanskop challenges the visitor to think about the temporality of human presence both in terms of specific place but also in relation to the immense power of the natural world. As I photographed various doorways and windows, rippling shadows on the dunes and interior streams of light, I realized that the rooms of Kolmanskop are far from "empty". Perhaps this is why it is fittingly referred to as the Kolmanskop ghost town!
Kolmanskop is representative of many mining towns: the boom-bust cycle merely reflecting market forces. In southern Namibia, external demand for crystal carbon pulled miners to the desert in search of small glimmering stones. How did the "value" of this rock develop? How did a piece of stone become so valuable that people would build casinos in inhospitable deserts in the 1920s?
Since 1980, Kolmanskop has been open to visitors as a tourist site near the mining town of Luderitz. A desolate and isolated ghost town is all that now remains of one of the richest communities of the 1920s.