History of mining in South Africa: The key events throughout time
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History of mining in South Africa

By JP Casey 20 May 2019 (Last Updated September 8th, 2021 10:13)

From the world’s largest hand-dug mine to strike action with fatal violence on both sides, South Africa’s mining industry has been one of the country’s most influential for over a hundred years. We look at the history of mining in South Africa.

History of mining in South Africa
The Big Hole mine in Kimberley is believed to be the deepest hand-dug excavation in the world. Credit: Redkite

The first mine constructed in what is now South Africa began operations in 1852, a copper project that would form the cornerstone of the town of Springbokfontein, today Springbok, in the Northern Cape province. Commercial coal mining began 12 years later, with the construction of a mine in the Eastern Cape that would also see a settlement constructed around it, the town of Molteno.

It was established by George Vice, the local-born son of an Englishman. He found the process of white Europeans moving to South Africa to set up mining operations, staffed predominantly by black workers. This trend would characterise later generations of South African mining.

Coal mining continued to expand until the turn of the 20th century, with deposits at Vereeniging and Witbank exploited from 1879 and 1895, respectively fuelling the region’s growing industries.

Diamond and platinum rushes

In the 1860s, two notable diamonds were unearthed; The 21-carat Eureka diamond and the 83-carat Star of South Africa, inspiring a diamond rush in the region aided by the more established coal industry. In 1879, the Orange Free State government-commissioned English-born George William Stow to uncover coal deposits; he would later move to Kimberley, the famous Big Hole diamond mine site.

The first diamonds were uncovered at the site of the Big Hole in 1871. Until the mine’s closure in 1914, up to 50,000 miners excavated the deepest hole ever dug by hand, extending 215 metres underground. While the mine would yield 2,720kg of diamonds and help establish the De Beers mining company, which remains a major industry player to this day. Operations were again characterised by racial disparity.

White Briton Cecil Rhodes served as the mine’s governor and later founded De Beers, while over one thousand black workers died during mining or from diseases contracted during work. Over five thousand black workers were admitted to a local hospital with conditions throughout the mine’s life.

Following the closure of the Big Hole with the outbreak of the First World War, attention turned towards platinum mining, with the first deposit discovered in 1924. The South African Minerals Council reports that the mines built along this first deposit, in an area known as Mashishing, have accounted for more than three-quarters of the world’s total platinum output since commercial operations began.

Post-war expansion

After the World Wars, South African mining continued to expand, with several new uses for minerals and mining products, such as platinum in the petroleum industry, to improve fuel’s octane rating. The construction of power stations on the coalfields of Witbank and Delmas established fossil fuels, and by extension mining, as the primary source of South African power, while the combination of the Venterspost, Libanon and Kloof gold mines into a single operation by 1968 established a project that has gone on to produce around 15,000kg of gold per year.

However, these industrial changes sparked significant social changes, with the number of people employed in manufacturing alone increasing by 60% during the Second World War. The number of people employed in mining swelled, with up to 158,000 people working in the sector by 1946 and 119 separate unions established to represent their political interests. That year, the African Mineworkers Union went on strike, with 60,000 workers downing tools to demand higher wages. But police broke up the protest by killing 12 striking miners, establishing a conflict between mining unions and government forces that would be a feature of the sector in years to come.

Apartheid and social tensions

Alongside these internal fractures, the South African mining industry was under additional pressure by overseas developments in the latter half of the 20th century. The development of diamond projects in countries such as Russia dramatically depleted the value of De Beers, whose near-monopoly over the global diamond trade began to erode; according to analyst Paul Zimnisky, the company’s share of the global rough diamond industry fell from 80% in 1987 to less than 60% by the turn of the century, and just 35% by 2019.

The sector also began to struggle following generations of reliance on migrant labour, which old racial divisions influenced. The Journal of the South African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy reported that the number of gold miners employed in “cheap black labour” jumped from 14,000 in 1890 to 534,000 in 1986. The paper also notes that as mineral reserves run low, miners demand better working conditions, and itinerant workers move back to their homes and families, the mining sector became less productive for companies, with the percentage of the world’s gold produced by these companies falling from 70% in the middle of the 20th century to 25% by 2004.

Apartheid, the government policy of racial segregation, influenced and encouraged this reliance on “cheap black labour”, legitimising the division between a small group of white owners responsible for managing mining companies and more significant numbers of black workers involved in the day-to-day running of operations.

Violence, strikes and an uncertain future

While Apartheid is no longer a government policy, its impacts are still felt across South Africa, particularly in mining. Last year, mineral resources minister Gwede Mantashe caused controversy by trying to introduce a new mining charter that would increase the minimum percentage of black ownership of mining rights from 26% to 30%; while a compromise has since been worked out, tension remains between those historically advantaged and those traditionally disadvantaged by the mining industry.

The sector has also seen several dramatic conflicts since the turn of the 21st century, from the Marikana Massacre in 2012, when police killed 34 striking mineworkers at Lonmin’s operations, to the ongoing disputes between the government and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union. The combative union has organised two significant protests, a 70,000-strong strike at platinum mines in 2014 and action involving nearly 20,000 platinum and gold workers between 2018 and 2019. It is currently facing the threat of deregistration by the government.

While mining has been an economic cornerstone for South Africa for over a century, social pressures, declining extractive industry and an inability to modernise mean the sector’s future remains unclear.