Duncan Miller

"Their dress consists of all kinds of beautifully prepared skins...gorgeously ornamented with copper beads...Their locks they thread with copper beads, covering their heads all over.  Around their necks they have chains, slung round them 15 or 16 times.  Many have round copper plates suspended from these chains.  On their arms they have chains of copper and iron beads which go round their bodies 30 or 40 times.  Their legs are encased in plaited skins, ornamented with beads...Their only industry is working in copper and iron, from which they make very neat beads and chains."  (Pieter van Meerhof, 1661, describing the Namaqua to Governor Jan van Riebeeck.)

There is no archaeological evidence that the Namaqua actually mined and smelted copper ore, but they obviously worked the metal, possibly relying on the plentiful native copper metal found until recently in large lumps in the Richtersveld.  Nevertheless, their fateful meeting with Pieter van Meerhof eventually led to the establishment of numerous copper mines and towns in Namaqualand.  From 1681 to 1684 several expeditions sent out from the Cape failed to locate the source of Namaqua copper, but in 1685/86 the governor Simon van der Stel himself led a large expedition to the "copper mountains".  This was a grand affair, with the governor riding in a carriage with six horses, taking along two cannons to impress the locals, a boat to explore the coastline, and teams of oxen to draw six wagons.  The expedition was successful in locating a weathered outcrop of copper ore, into which several holes were dug.  These prospecting pits, now a national monument, can still be seen outside the town of Concordia.  The remoteness, steepness of the terrain approaching the coast, lack of a nearby harbour, and lack of local fuel meant that nothing much happened for nearly 200 years.

Springbok in 2007. View from the Blue Mine

Serious interest picked up only in the mid-nineteenth century, with the formation in 1846 of The South African Mining Company.  A flurry of share trading and skulduggery followed, and by 1848 The South African Mining Company had fizzled.  More skulduggery ensued, and in 1850 the Cape Town firm of Phillips & King took ownership of the farm Springbokfontein, on which a deposit of copper ore had been identified.  The Phillips and King Mine, now called the Blue Mine, was the first commercial mine in South Africa, exporting its initial 11 tons of ore in 1852.

The Blue Mine’s National Monuments Council Plaque

A view of inside the Blue Mine

In 1853 rich copper ores were found at Spectakel and at Tweefontein, later called Concordia, and other discoveries followed shortly.  By 1854 the settlement at Springbokfontein, now called Springbok, was described by A.G. Bain as an expanding village, and by 1866 it had a church, a magistrate's court, and a smelting works.  The town went through the normal ups and downs of a frontier mining town, first losing many of its people in 1877 to the newly established Okiep, with further losses reducing the total recorded population in 1907 to only 67 people.  Somehow the town reinvented itself as a local centre, the role it occupies today as the unofficial capital of Namaqualand.

The now empty pit at Tweefontein

Entrance to the Spektakel mine
“Decline” is an unfortunately prophetic name

For the duration of the early flurry of copper mining, from 1852 to 1872, Hondeklip Bay acted as the main port for the Namaqualand mines, with ore transport to the coast by road down the Messelpad.  This route was superseded with the building of a narrow-gauge railway line from Port Nolloth to Okiep, completed in 1876.  Hondeklip Bay collapsed as a commercial centre.  The same thing happened at several of the mines themselves.  In 1871 Spectakel mining village had a population of some 600 people; then went through a series of ups and downs, with the village itself ceasing to exist around 1900.  Nababeep, Concordia and Okiep fared somewhat better, and still exist as towns.  With the recent closure of the smelting works at Nababeep, there is little to keep this town going, and its buildings are rapidly falling into disrepair.

The entrance to the old Nababeep smelter

The Nigramoep Decline

The railway too has not survived.  In 1882 the carriages were still drawn by mules, with steam engines introduced in 1886.  It was only in 1893 that the whole line was converted to steam, while mules were still used for drawing passenger traffic as late as 1896.  The line suffered considerable damage during the Anglo-Boer War, when Okiep was besieged for a month.  A series of company closures plunged Namaqualand into poverty in the 1920s and 1930s, but the railway continued running, to be taken over in 1937 by The O'okiep Copper Company.  It last ran in 1942 and was scrapped in 1944.  The rail bed and carefully built stone bridges can still be seen in places, along with the cylindrical stone-built bases of the water tanks which stood along the route.

Sign seen near Nigramoep

Until the recent closure of all its mines, the blister copper produced by The O'okiep Copper Company was transported by road to the railhead at Bitterfontein, and then by rail to Cape Town for shipping.  In 1975 J. M Smalberger wrote (pp .125 & 126): 

"The O'okiep Copper Company has been one of the Republic's most important producers of copper ore.  In Namaqualand the company forms a bulwark against retrogression.  A large number of [people] are employed by the company.  The market these people provide for the produce of local agriculturists is most important.  The farmers of Namaqualand are too distant to supply national markets; should the mine fail, they would be severely affected.  For the large number of [...] persons employed, the failure of the mines would be disastrous......total dependence of a community upon a wasting asset is not a desirable state of affairs.  In the past Namaqualand has experienced the poverty and hardship resultant upon closing down of the mines.  Let us hope that she will not go through this process again in the near future."

Well, this state of affairs has come to pass.  How are people coping?  The poor and unemployed are battling.  The Northern Cape is the poorest of our provinces, with an estimated 60 % unemployment.  Whole extended families live on government grants, or remittances from working relatives who have migrated to Lamberts Bay, Saldanha or Cape Town.  Locally there is hope that some of the mines may be re-opened, possibly by the Chinese.  I am not convinced that this would be in the best interests of the currently unemployed.  Chinese traders already compete very successfully with retail businesses in Namaqualand towns.  Little benefit appears to flow to the local population, except perhaps access to cheap goods.  Some skilled and semi-skilled labour has migrated east to the copper/lead/zinc mines of Black Mountain and Gamsberg, where the town of Aggeneys is completely dependent on these mines.

Basil at his claim

Small-scale mining would seem to be an option for some people.  There are literally thousands of so-called pegmatites in Namaqualand, very coarse granitic bodies which contain not only rare minerals like tantalite, but also economic quantities of feldspar, a crucial ingredient in conventional ceramics.  Until its recent closure, Blesberg mine, north of Steinkopf, provided all of South Africa's feldspar needs.  Recently only one small deposit was being worked near Henkries.  

The problems with pegmatite mining are the start-up cost and marketing of the product.  It has been estimated that about R4 million is needed to start such a mine, which includes a hefty amount to be paid to the government in terms of license fees and remediation guarantees.  This is completely beyond the reach of most small-scale miners, and particularly those with no assets against which to secure bank loans.  South Africa has a limited market for feldspar, and local small-scale miners would find it difficult to locate overseas customers.

Granite quarries at Nababeep, top, and Concordia, bottom

At least two local granite quarries are in intermittent operation, one outside Nababeep and the other near Concordia.  But the huge blocks of granite are transported by truck to the railhead at Bitterfontein, for railing to Cape Town and shipment overseas.  By the time these blocks reach Cape Town they reportedly have already cost some R8000 in transport.  I suppose we could continue to export granite indefinitely, and I am sure there are immediate economic benefits, but selling unbeneficiated raw material seems short-sighted when surrounded by unemployed labour.


Tourism is a potential major source of revenue for the region.  There is certainly plenty to see, and plenty of very affordable accommodation, and Springbok is just about half way between Cape Town and Windhoek.  Local tourist-based businesses do market themselves energetically, but if tourism is to become big business in Namaqualand it needs visible official support and more effective, co-ordinated marketing.  The seasonal spectacle of Namaqualand flowers is justifiably famous, but it is a short season and one cannot build a business on this alone.  There is some potential in marketing the history of the region.  There are numerous disused mines that could be visited; several historic buildings, many of them the legacy of Cornish miners; and an excellent mining and geology museum in Nababeep.  In the long term, geotourism has great potential because of the rich mining heritage and the fascinating local geology.  Geotourism is a novel concept in South Africa, but is well developed in some other countries from which we could learn.  Investment is needed in developing the geotourism industry in parts of South Africa, like Namaqualand, which have served their time in terms of generating material wealth for the country.  They now need to see some return in terms of a viable industry for the descendants of those who did all the hard work of extracting ore from solid rock.

Smalberger, J.M 1975. A history of copper mining in Namaqualand:1-152. Cape Town: Struik. This is an excellent historical account of the Namaqualand towns, and I have drawn heavily from it for this article.

Jowell, P. & Folb, A. 2004. Into kokerboom country:1-160. Cape Town: Fernwood Press.  This is a lavishly illustrated history of Namaqualand's Jewish pioneers.

The text of this article first appeared as Miller, D. 2010. Boom and bust: the copper mining towns of Namaqualand. South African Lapidary Magazine 42(3):34-39. All photographs are new and © Jo Wicht.