Gondwana's Newsroom

Oranjemund opens its doors to the world

Avatar of inke inke 20. October 2017 - Tourism, Economics


On 21 October 2017, the diamond mining town of Oranjemund will open its doors to visitors for the first time. Up until now, the small town, hidden in the Namib Desert close to the Orange River mouth, has been a restricted mining area.

From then onwards, the once secluded settlement in the former ‘Sperrgebiet’ (forbidden area) will become like any other town in Namibia. Anyone will be able to enter, or drive over the impressive Sir Ernest Oppenheimer Bridge to Alexander Bay on the South African side. This opens huge economic prospects for this hidden gem in the Namibian Desert, including tourism. 

Ancient times


In ancient days, antelope, rhino and even elephant roamed the area around the perennial Orange River, close to the coast. Hunter-gatherer communities lived near the river mouth, braving the harsh climate, rough seas and cold, gusty winds.

The Orange River, the longest river in South Africa, forms Namibia’s entire southern border with South Africa. The river is about 2,090 km long, flowing from its source in the Drakensberg Mountains to its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean near Oranjemund.

Before colonisation, the river was known as ‘Gariep’, the name given to it by the early inhabitants, who were mainly of Khoi-San origin. An early Dutch name for the river was ‘Groote Rivier’ meaning ‘Great River’. The river was named the Orange River by Colonel Robert Gordon, commander of the Dutch East India Company garrison based in Cape Town. Gordon undertook a trip into the interior in 1779. When he reached the river, he named it in honour of the Dutch king, William V of Orange.

Diamonds found

In 1926, diamonds were discovered just south of the Orange River. The South African government prohibited private diamond mining in February 1927. Experienced prospectors, like Solomon Rabinowitz, and German geologists, like Hans Merensky and Ernst Reuning, were convinced that there could also be diamond deposits on the northern bank of the Orange River near the river mouth. This proved to be true and in May 1928, rich diamond deposits were found by Werner Beetz and Gustav Knetsch. Both geologists were employees of Consolidated Diamond Mines (CDM) Ltd, a subsidiary of diamond mining giant, De Beers. They tackled the roughly 300-kilometre distance from Lüderitz to the river mouth in a big lorry, loaded with oil, petrol, water and food rations. ‘The epic journey took them seven gruelling days,” writes Alison Corbett in her book Diamond Beaches – a History of Oranjemund 1928-1989. Their small tented camp later became known as Oranjemund.

Early days

By 1928, regarded as the year Oranjemund was founded, more tents were pitched and black contract workers arrived to accelerate the search for diamonds. However, in 1929, the New York Stock Exchange crashed, precipitating the Great Depression, which affected the world’s economy. By 1935 the economy had improved and diamond mining started up again in the Sperrgebiet, including Oranjemund. In the next year, some 50 small wooden buildings were erected. They were dubbed ‘pondoks’, an indigenous word for traditional dwellings. A shed served as a mess hall, serving hearty meals. A small two-roomed building, constructed out of mud bricks, served as home for the section manager. One small corrugated iron building with the word ‘Store’ written on a signboard sold basics like soap, tobacco and shoes. There was even a little ‘Post Office’ – a room where the letters and parcels for the staff were sorted, stored and distributed. Twelve years later, post boxes were installed.

Police patrolled the vast restricted area on camels in the early days, keeping a look out for diamond thieves. Police were also needed to guard the goods transported on the barge used to cross the Orange River. Some houses in kit-form were shipped from Germany to Oranjemund to house married couples. In 1938, a pondok served as a school for 12 pupils. It was only in 1944 that the first brick house was constructed - for the general manager. A small power station was also erected and a small building became the town’s hospital. 

After World War II, a cricket club opened; later other sports like rugby, soccer, boxing and tennis were included. Several social clubs also sprang up. In 1950, a concrete bridge was constructed across the Orange River. It was inaugurated in 1951 and named ‘Sir Ernest Oppenheimer Bridge’. The same year, the name of the town, which had in the interim years been known as Orange Mouth, reverted back to its original name - Oranjemund. In 1953, Namibia’s first ever grassed nine-hole golf course opened in Oranjemund!

Opening up

In the fifties, some 363 permanent employees and 2,840 migrant workers lived in the mining town. Since the town belonged to the CDM diamond mining company, housing, electricity and water were free of charge. However, the residents could only leave the town for their holidays during Easter and Christmas. In 1975, more freedom of movement was possible. Security was set up at the diamond mine, but residents could now leave Oranjemund - after being searched, of course - in their own cars via the bridge across the river. Until then the whole town had been fenced off. Up until October 2017, visitors still needed to comply with the strict security measures, including a police clearance certificate. The majestic gemsbok that have been lured to the lush gardens of the town since it was opened in 1975, have not been subject to that regulation.

Future after diamonds

Onshore diamond reserves in the area are now dwindling, and mining has been downsized. Oranjemund is preparing for the post-diamond era. By 1994, about twenty company-run services like sports clubs were put in private hands. The successor of CDM, Namdeb, still provides health services and housing, as well as the primary school. In 1997, the Oranjemund Town Management Council was set up to prepare the future for the current 9,000 inhabitants. In 2011, Oranjemund was declared a town. A year later the first municipal elections took place; seven town councillors serve on the town council. Henry Coetzee was elected the town’s first mayor. 

An alliance

The Oranjemund 2030 (OMD2030) Alliance was established to facilitate the smooth transition from a company-owned mining town to an independent municipality. Steered by Namdeb, various government ministries, investors and residents are involved in OMD2030. About ten to fifteen years are required to transform the town. “We need to normalise our town. After 27 years of independence, Oranjemund is the only town that people cannot enter freely,” says Mayor Henry Coetzee. 

According to OMD2030, the opening of the town will create a new economic zone approximately 300 kilometres around Oranjemund, on both sides of the Orange River. Keetmanshoop, Rosh Pinah and South African towns, Springbok and Port Nolloth, are to benefit from Oranjemund being a key connector for tourism and trade. An economic diversification programme has been drawn up with strategic frameworks outlined for tourism, renewable energy, seawater farming and agriculture.

Tourism

The former Sperrgebiet was proclaimed as a national park a few years ago. Construction of the tar road between Oranjemund and Rosh Pinah will be completed by year-end. As the barriers fell on 14 October 2017, plans are underway to open up the Tsau//Khaeb National Park into various concessions for guided tours by concession operators. This will include a concession for the Chamais Road, connecting Oranjemund and Lüderitz. The existing Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park could be extended to the Sperrgebiet National Park. 

In 2008, Namdeb workers made an exciting find at a mining area near the town: a Portuguese shipwreck, thought to be the ‘Bom Jesu’, which sank in 1533 near the Orange River mouth. Archaeologists found hundreds of gold coins, cannons and navigation instruments among the wreckage. A museum exhibiting some of the treasure is planned for Oranjemund.

Brigitte Weidlich

New comment

2 comments

Cliff

23. October 2017

Philipus is also a colonial name, you should change it.


hailonga philipus

21. October 2017

mr

If the name Orange River is linked to colonial regime, why don't we rename it back to the original name given by the Khoi-sans?


Stay up-to-date with our monthly 'Gondwana Tracks' Newsletter Sign up Today