Crumbling cabins, collapsed roofs, sand-buried roads, and all forms of abandoned places dot Namibia’s landscape. Winds from the cold Benguela currents blow across dilapidated guano production facilities on islands near Luderitz. Razor wire encloses diamond mines like Kolmanskop, all locked up while sand fills the deserted buildings. Ships wrecked on a beach, now sit a hundred yards from the ocean. Miles of pipe, neglected and broken once provided essential water to miners of mineral explorations deep in the desert. The bones of the past are scattered across the landscape turning a nation-state into a graveyard.
Henno Martin, a German geologist, describes this moonscape in The Sheltering Desert. Martin and fellow pacifist-scientist Hermann Korn decided to avoid WW II and elude the internment many Namibian Germans faced by hiding in the desert in what was then called West South Africa. Seventy years ago, the two faced harsh conditions that are unchanged today. Martin’s memoir, made into a 1992 film of the same name, reveals a Namibian desert teeming with life camouflaged to humans and predators who don’t pause to look closely.
Tourists head to Namibia for the surfing and dune-climbing. The planet’s oldest desert is a UNESCO protected site filled with life one could not imagine from an airplane. Oryx, springbok, ostriches, baboons, foxes and more can be seen in solitary pursuit of grasses and water. These critters have found a way to survive grazing solo without herds because of the limited grass. They never eat down to the roots, giving plants a chance to grow again in a delicate balance so all life can survive.
Mine workers gathered in the bar at the Walvis Bay airport on their way to a remote mine where they will spend months working with little but alcohol and playing cards to occupy their off-duty hours. George who drives a shuttle, brushed off their dreary lives, “It’s work isn’t it?”
Getting work is on everyone’s mind. Twenty-something Antoine works as a bilingual guide in Soussevlei in the desert and tells of Herero ancestors who were persecuted during apartheid. His nine brothers and sisters all work in professions from teaching to engineering. Antoine said, “Education lifted us up. My dad was a security guard and insisted we go to college. If you graduate, you will have work.”
Walvis Bay driver George was worried. “The Chinese are taking over. The Chinese prime minister just arrived.”
Ask a driver to get the latest news on who is coming in and out of the airport. In this case, the Chinese offical was a special envoy, not the prime minister who visited to attend the installation of new President Hage Geingob.
The Chinese have a vision that like the desert animals’ grasses,Namibia still has roots and other riches beneath the soil that can and will drive a new economy. Uranium tops that list of precious resources.
George responded to a question about why the Chinese.“They helped us win the war.”
He didn’t specify which war; there have been a few. Caught between Angola and South Africa, Namibia had the US’s attention when the Cuban troops supported rebels in neighboring Angola and the DRC. Decades of conflicts with the South Africans followed. After Namibia achieved independence and recognition by the United Nations, the Namibian South West Africa People’s Organization, SWAPO, dominated every national election. SWAPO appreciates their Asian allies’ support and snuggles up to the Chinese who are not shy about asking for payback.
The Chinese have invested over $4.6 billion. Billion with a ‘B.’ Photos of Namibian and Chinese dignitaries cutting ribbons on railroads and highway projects and holding big checks for youth development programs appear in the African press.
These valued infrastructure projects are minor compared to the Chinese’s motivating interest to become a huge producer of uranium. A joint venture between Chinese state-owned company China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGNPC) and Namibian state-owned mining company Epangelo Mining has been finalised. Epangelo acquired a stake in the Husab Uranium mine. This mine will make Namibia the second largest uranium producer in the world, providing 6000 new jobs and contributing at least 5% to the Namibian GDP. Uranium mean nuclear capability in power and warheads.
“Uranium doesn’t worry me,” George says, “not as much as the deal that was made for a Chinese naval base.” A Chinese naval base in Walvis Bay, would create a strategic presence on the Atlantic Ocean for this communist nation. News reports confirm serious discussions and site visits for a base with capacity for six Chinese warships are moving ahead.
The Chinese declare openly the goal to protect (or is it control?)South Atlantic shipping lanes around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn in South America. Rumors about Chinese alliances with the Argentines eyeing the oil reserves off the Falkland Islands circulate among geopolitical watchers.
Is anyone paying attention?