Diamonds Nam's best friend

2004-11-12 15:18

Windhoek - Namibia's diamond industry, the sixth-largest in the world, will remain the backbone of the southern African country's economy for years to come, but the government is looking at other options to pry itself from dependence on the mining sector.

Last year, Namibia produced around 1.46 million carats of the precious stone, bringing in some US$450m that accounts for 40% of the gross domestic product.

"Diamond mining is still regarded as the backbone of the Namibian economy," said Klaus Schade, an economics researcher at the Windhoek-based Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit (Nepru).

"But the country is looking at various other options to diversify including further development of industries such as aquaculture within fishing and drawing more tourists towards the country," Schade told AFP.

With unemployment at between 30%-40%, job creation is one of the biggest issues as almost a million Namibian voters go to the polls on Monday and Tuesday for the country's fourth presidential and national elections.

Like other sectors, the mineral-rich country's diamond industry has been hit by a strengthening in the local currency, the Namibian dollar, which is pegged to its big brother, the South African rand, one of the strongest-rising currencies on world markets.

Jobs have also been slashed as Namibia's main diamond company, Namdeb, a joint venture between the Namibian government and diamond giant De Beers, moved their operations offshore into the cold Atlantic Ocean using machines to mine vast underwater diamond fields.

Job creation remains a challenge

"Twenty years ago, the sector provided some 20 000 jobs, but that has been reduced to around 6 000 in recent times," said Schade.

Despite the recent opening of a diamond polishing factory in Windhoek by the Israeli diamond tycoon Lev Leviev, creating jobs remains a challenge to the government led by the South West African People's Organisation (Swapo).

Leviev's factory represents the first real competition to Namdeb and is expected to create at least 1 000 new jobs.

Zinc production totalled around 150 000 tonnes this year at the new Skorpion mine in the south, while uranium also remains an important commodity, mined at the Rossing mine, near Swakopmund, about 350km west of Windhoek.

With a production of 698 tonnes in 2003 and 1 791 tonnes estimated for 2004, Namibia is the fourth largest uranium producer in the world after Australia, Canada and Kazakhstan.

Namibia's second largest sector, fishing has also been hit by the country's strengthening currency and low fish prices, especially in Europe.

Earlier this year, the fisheries ministry released a strategic plan to cultivate various forms of aquatic life off the coast in the rich Benguella Current, hoping that the industry will be self-sufficient by 2030.

Another sector with great potential is that of tourism, currently the country's third largest industry, said Schade, drawing mainly visitors from former colonial power Germany to experience its abundance of wildlife like elephant, lion, rhino and hippopotamus.

Another major drawcard is the vast Namib desert, which sports some of the highest sand dunes in the world and is revered for its desolate beauty.

Said Schade: "Unlike mining or fisheries, tourism is a non-depletable resource. Mines may run out of ore, fish stocks may disappear, but this country will still have its incredible scenic beauty."