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Port Nolloth | Between a Rock and a Hard Place

by Andy Davis / 20.06.2012

It was an early morning in Elands Bay. Cold. Cranking. I had just crawled out of the tent, pitched illegally in the night, on the point, right in front of the break. As I scratched my balls and contemplated my wet wetsuit I heard the growl of a quadbike at about the same time as I saw the thing zooming towards me. The guy driving was wearing old Bear tracksuit pants, a windbreaker and a green Springbok beanie to keep his bald head warm. About 45 years old, big, chunky, weather gnarled.
“You can’t camp here!” He shouted.
“Oh. Sorry. It’s my first time in Elands.” I lied. “We got in late last night.”
“Ja if the cops catch you camping here they’ll give you a moerse fine.” He continued. I figured he was just being nice; a friendly local out early riding his quad to check the waves.
“Thanks for the heads up.” I said, and turned around thinking to maybe get the coffee started.
“In fact. Fuck you!” He suddenly shouts. “I think I’ll go and tell them about you myself!” And with that he spun the quad around and roared off towards the town. Shouting over his shoulder, “Okes like you kak on the dunes!”
I’m kind of in shock. My mate Ami has just surfaced from the tent with a question.
“What did you say to that ou to make him so angry?”
Later, after explaining why we had chosen to camp on the point to a group of earnest Elands Bay police officers and park rangers, all spurred into action by the guy on the quad bike, I learned that old Piet, was a diamond diver and that I shouldn’t take it too seriously. “All those ous are mal!” Because, “they choef too much carbon dioxide at the bottom of the sea.”

That was my first proper run in with the West Coast diamond mining scene. A few years later I spent a night in Port Nolloth on my way to Namibia on assignment. The barrier reef surrounding the harbour looked like it had great surf potential, but the waves were pumping and no one was surfing. The town, shrouded in a thick fog, lurked like a forgotten secret. Or an abandoned dream. Dry and wet at the same time. None too friendly, the locals stuck mainly to themselves and no one even offered me a rock to look at, let alone make an illicit offer for. After one night, I was glad to be leaving. Years later, I’m strangely addicted to a TV show called Gold Divers on Discovery. A reality drama about gold dredging in Nome, Alaska. There are obvious comparisons between Nome and Port Nolloth, the big difference being that gold is at an all-time high in terms of value and desireability, while the value of diamonds seems to be waning. The Oppenheimers have sold their stake in both Anglo and De Beers and the fabled riches of the Marange diamond field in Zimbabwe means that the writing is on the wall for the future of diamonds. Other than that, gold dredging seems relatively easy to get a permit for, while diamond dredging is controlled by the company, who contract the dredgers independently to control the flow of the diamonds. In short Nome is in the midst of an old school gold rush while Port Nolloth is being squeezed to death by a cartel who want to keep the value of diamonds artificially high.

This long winded introduction brings us to Felix Sueffert’s short film Port Nolloth – Between a Rock and a Hard Place. It’s a beautifully rendered look at three characters involved in the diamond trade in Port Nolloth. Nick Kotze, the richest man in town. The ex-mayor of Port Nolloth, land owner, cattle farmer, zealous christian and “once upon a time” blackmarket diamond dealer. Until, in his own words, he was “set free by God”. The film also focusses on Geoffrey Lorentz, an ageing diamond diver who still believes that the ocean off Port Nolloth is thick with riches and that they just need the right weather to make their haul. He laments the company middleman and wishes the trade would become less controlled and restricted… as that would save the town from this slow death. His narrative establishes the narrative of a local mining industry in decline and the slow decay of Port Nolloth into another West Coast ghost town. Derrick Mbatha is probably the film’s most compelling character. These days he’s plying his trade as a taxi driver after he was caught, and subsequently punished, in a sting operation while trying to unload a black market diamond. He scrapes out a living ferrying the community of Port Nolloth back and forth and dreams of buying a Toyota Avanza from the pages of the Auto Trader. Although it’s not really explored in enough detail in the film, a key moment is the realisation that Derrick Mbatha was punished disproportionately to Nick Kotze, for being cuaght trying to sell black market diamonds.

Seuffert’s film taps into a subject of contemporary continental relevance: the largely secretive exploitation of Africa’s natural resources and the export of the wealth abroad, while the local communities suffer. He does this subtly, by engaging us on a human level with unrestricted access to three eccentric protagonists from the Port Nolloth diamond mining community. Alas the film, while beautifully shot and paced, leaves you hoping for more, leaving most of the conflict unresolved. This is just a snippet of the diamond trade in Port Nolloth. You end up leaving the cinema with the wish that Seuffert had more time and resource to finish the story. But it’s still worthwhile to just a scratch the surface.

*Port Nolloth – Between a Rock and a Hard Place was Felix’s graduation project from Hannover University of Applied Sciences and Arts and supported by the German Academic Exchange Service. The soundtrack was composed by Cape Town jazz musician Shane Cooper.

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