O'okiep

(prior to 1910)

Important copper-mining village in the Namaqualand district, 8 km north ofSpringbok. 29° 36'S., 17° 52' E.; altitude 930 metres; rainfall 150 mm. Population(1970): White 786; Coloured 3676; Bantu 450. The name (formerly O'okiep)is derived from Hottentot ju-geib; u means 'brackish' and gei 'big';thus 'the big brackish place'. When rich copper deposits were discoveredin 1862, the Cape Copper Company commenced mining at Okiep after thecopper-mine at Springbok had ceased production. As mines demanded considerabletransport, the company in 1876 built a narrow-guage railway (76 cm)from Okiep to Port Nolloth, a distance of 175 km. For many years locomotiveswere not used on this railway, the trucks being drawn by teams of mules.When, in 1925, the railway from Cape Town was extended to Bitterfontein,186 km south of Okiep, it was found more convenient to transport thecopper by motor trucks to the rail-head. The old narrow-guage linewaslifted in 1944. After the First World War there was such a fall inthe price of copper that the mines had to cease production in 1919.Whenthe price of copper rose once more, the O'okiep Copper Company tookover the assets of the former companies and recommenced mining in 1938.In1945 a new mine and concentrator were opened at Okiep. The villagehas water-borne sewerage, a club-house, a golf-course and three churches.The surrounding country is arid and desolate in winter, but is transformedinto a pleasure-garden by the spring flowers in good years. The climateis harsh and hot in summer, with temperatures of up to 37° C, butvery cold in winter.

From8 April to 3 May 1902 the town was besieged by the Boer forces underGen. J. C. Smuts. (This was Smuts's last engagement during theSecond Anglo-Boer War.) The garrison of Okiep, under Lt.-Col. Shelton,consisted of some 900 men, mostly employees of the Cape Copper Company,three-quarters of whom were Coloured. A chain of blockhouses and otherdefensive positions had been prepared, and early in the siege the garrisonsucceeded in repulsing several determined attacks by Smuts's commando.Later, as the departure of Smuts with a British safe-conduct to the deliberationsat Vereeniging heralded the end of the war; the siege became littlemore than a good-humouredblockade. When it later transpired that the Coloured members of the garrisonwere precluded from receiving the Queen's South Africa medal, the CapeCopper Company decided to strike a medal of its own and present it toall the defenders regardless of race.

Smuts; the railway between the two places was still intact. But therewere women and children in the town, and all Gallagher was allowed todo was to give Okiep a tremendous fright with a harmless explosion. Gen.Ben Bouwer inspected the train-load before it was sent hurtling intothe besieged town, to make sure that there were no caps in the mite.The town was relieved by a force, which landed at Port Nolloth.

Prepared by Franco Frescura.