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South Africa 'Something Amazing'
What does a space rock have to do with the land of Nelson Mandela and the Springboks?
Nicolas van der Leek (Nick)     Print Article 
Published 2006-10-20 11:50 (KST)   
Look into a fire under a sweep of stars. The dry wood crackles and sparks play longjump with each other. A glowing orange log shifts, throwing Tinkerbell gold against the African night. Your eyes lift beyond the reach of the Earth, towards the Heavens, and you notice the great bicycle wheel of stars and systems spinning around our own. Why are we here?

Did the Bushmen have the answer? The Bushmen believed that the stars were great hunters. Their Africa was a continental darkness deeper than space, filled with the tiniest pinpricks of flickering firelight. The light of the fire playing against the sky and the throwing of long shadows against sandstone rock perhaps first prompted these faraway people to wonder, where does it all come from? And why are we are here?

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Thousands of years passed, and now we walk in their domain. We find faded red ochre on rocks scattered throughout the wilderness. But our reason for coming to Africa were written long before their first works of art dried on the bare rocks. Our reason for being here lies in the deep vaults of space.

When the first ships began to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost peninsula of Africa, ancient cousins looked so different they would not recognize each other.

Why were they sailing to Africa? Well, the first European to sail around Africa's southern tip was Bartholomew Diaz in 1488. Soon after Vasco Da Gama made the trip, Dutch traffic began to stream by. It was financed by the Dutch East India Company.

The Dutch and everyone else were actually headed towards the Far East, in search of spices. Africa was a barrier better avoided. But there was a need to set up a hotel so captains could freshen up and sailors and shipmates could resupply with fresh water, fruits and vegetables. That was the original reason why Europeans came to southern Africa at all -- to set up a refreshment station.

Most people who manned the station couldn't wait to leave, not least of all, Jan van Riebeeck, who was sent there with the sole mandate of turning wild African territory into vegetable gardens and lodgings. Used to the refinements of Europe he arrived in 1652 (yes, 164 years after Diaz) and set about resupplying Ducth East India Companies ships en route to East Asia.

Then the same pattern was borne out in colonial outposts everywhere: van Riebeeck possessed the land (others got dispossessed), there were conflicts with indigenous peoples and until ultimately, both sides reached some sort of reasonable reconciliation.

On Feb. 2, 1659, van Riebeeck uttered this famous phrase: "Today, praise the Lord, wine was pressed for the first time from Cape grapes." Meanwhile this post was becoming a fully-fledged colony. It was called the Cape Colony when more Dutch and then British and other Europeans began settling there.

Believe it or not, people first streamed to the country not because of the discoveries of gold or diamonds, but because of religious persecution.

In France for example, if you weren't a Catholic, at certain times you faced a very real threat of being pointed out by your neighbor and murdered. This persecution led to the French Protestants settling in places in South Africa like beautiful Franschhoek (French Corner) and other regions famous for their wines and vineyards.

It may be fair to say that these people stayed, and built something of some significance, as a result of the mineral wealth, but the original intention was different. They were aware that a new frontier had been touched upon by the Dutch East India Company, and the idea of a faraway wilderness without impediments drew large flocks frustrated in their home territories. These settlers might have been left well enough alone, alone to explore God's own country -- a wide wide land filled with herds of springbuck that took days to pass.

But then something happened. Gold and diamonds were discovered. And we all know what happened after that.

The British came to start a war.

It was really a squabble over mine dumps from Kimberley to Komatipoort. When the Empire had laid its foundation (setting up agency companies like De Beers and Anglo American) it "gave back" the country to the National Party, who followed the British model of exclusion to a T, and did arguably a better job at running the country into the ground.

Years (and a number of Nobel Prize laureates) later, South Africa has emerged as an African powerhouse, with a bigger economy than its three biggest African rivals combined, a powerful military and banking infrastructure. Chances are, without this mineral wealth, Cape Town would look like Addis Abba or Zanzibar and the rest of the country would have had a once upon a farm infrastructure (as in Zimbabwe and Kenya).

The question of why we are here is a relative one. A large proportion of the population continues to thrive, and to exist in this thirsty, sun-dried country because gold and its associated industries and infrastructure -- like banking -- are here.

Fantastic resources of gold were found so much that South Africa is still the world's biggest exporter of the stuff. And we are world leaders in the export of other minerals too, like platinum and uranium. The reason South Africa has such a mother lode of gold is literally written in the stars.

And now for the answer. We can thank our lucky stars that a space rock 10km wide, and bigger than Table Mountain, walloped into the Earth with a thousand megatons, about 100km south west of present day Johannesburg. There are two other comparable sites in Mexico and Canada, but the deep impact in South Africa is special.

The blast of energy melted rocks in three great rings, creating the Witwatersrand, and excavating a crater 20km deep and 275km in diameter. It was in this furiously hot moment that the alchemy happened. Seventy cubic kilometers of rock vaporized, but other rocks melted and chemicals fizzled and fused, forming massive deposits of gold and diamonds at unusual angles and at curiously shallow depths.

The impact probably also provided the catalyst behind the development of oxygen and multicelled organisms. It's possible that life got a kickstart here. This extreme impact event happened about 3 billion years ago, and is the oldest and best preserved impact site in the world. Before this period the atmosphere was still forming and large space projectiles simply got swallowed up in molten goop -- like croutons in soup.

Scientists, especially geologists, from all over the world are captivated by the ancient remains of this impact site. The formations -- like the fascinating, clear horizontal outcrops -- are in the area near the town of Parys . This amazing geological feature -- called the Vredefort Dome -- was declared a World Heritage Site on July 14 2005. So the next time you drive between Vredefort and Parys, look around you, and imagine.

Something amazing happened here.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Nicolas van der Leek

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