No end in sight to Orange River dispute

Windhoek – Namibia is yet to pronounce itself on its next course of action regarding the drawn out border dispute with South Africa as high level government to government consultations on the issue continue. A solution to the matter, which has placed tremendous strain on various spheres of development and economy on both sides of the border due to uncertainty on the final outcome of the dispute, remains elusive. Officials in Namibia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tasked with the issue, remain tight-lipped, insisting they will give statements “when the issue has taken a direction”. “The issue has been coming on for a long time and is therefore very sensitive. The Namibian government is busy with consultations and can therefore not discuss the issue at the moment,” was all a government official could say on the matter upon enquiry by The Southern Times. Since 1991, Namibia and South Africa have been locked in a dispute over the exact position of the border. Namibia says the border is in the middle of the river, while SA claims it is on the northern high-water mark. SA claims that the boundary was established when erstwhile colonial powers Britain and Germany signed a treaty to that effect in Berlin in 1890. After the change of government in South Africa in 1994, the boundary issue was brought to the attention of the new government, which decided the existing Orange River boundary should be retained. Before 1990, South Africa claimed sovereignty over the entire river. The confusion about the exact location of the border has resulted in differences over mineral rights in the river and grazing rights on its islands, as well as a chaotic situation with regard to fishing boats. Both countries claim that, with no clear-cut boundary, they are unable to prosecute fishing vessels for trespassing on the river. The issue is also said to critically affect diamond mining and exploration rights held by companies operating on both the South African and Namibian sides of the river. It is understood that some South African mining companies with existing rights have lobbied hard to prevent South Africa ceding access to Namibia-based companies. Colonial powers Germany and Great Britain were never able to reach an agreement as to the precise location of the territorial boundary between the two countries. Great Britain insisted that the boundary should be formed by the “high water level of the north (Namibian) bank” whilst Germany preferred the boundary to be located “in the centre of the main river channel”. The boundary dispute persisted for decades, despite repeated attempts by both colonial powers and, subsequently, by the South African Government since 1910, to reach an agreement. Residents on both sides of the river however continue to exercise traditional grazing rights and South African miners continue to exploit alluvial diamond deposits in the riverbed. Both governments have since appointed teams of specialists to define the precise position of the boundary line along the river bed and hopefully settle the longstanding dispute.

March 2010
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