'The rock on which the future will be built'

Up to the 1860s the economy of South Africa was based on agriculture and trade. Then the discovery of diamondst marked the beginning of industrialisation in South Africa. A year after the discovery of diamonds, Colesberg Kopje was ready on its way to becoming the 'Big Hole'.

The diamond fields of Griqualand West

Early mining in Southern Africa

For many centuries before the arrival of Europeans in Africa, minerals were mined by Africans. Although only small amounts of iron and gold were mined, the products were extremely important for the society. For example, iron-smelting in the Southern Transvaal had a large impact on hunting and farming in the region because it provided weapons and farming implements such as hoes. The production of iron weapons and tools also resulted in trade with other societies.

Tswana iron-smelters at Broederstroom

Claims to the diamond fields

After diamonds were discovered in the Northern Cape, a battle began about the ownership of the land. The Griquasand Tlhapingwho occupied the area claimed exclusive rights to the area. In addition, both Boer Republics (the Transvaal and the Orange Free State) claimed rights to the area.

A long argument between these parties followed until Sir Henry Barkly, the Governor of the Cape, was asked to mediate. He set up a committee headed by the Lieutenant-Governor of Natal, Robert Keate, to decide on borders. For seven months this committee heard evidence from all four groups who were making a claim. On the basis of this evidence, the committee decided who had rights to the land in an agreement known as the Keate award.

The Keate award favoured the Griquas claim. This meant that the land which eventually contained Kimberley and the richest diamond fields in the world was given to the Griquas.

In the end this agreement helped the Griquas very little. Their leader, Nicholas Waterboer didn't have the power to control the diggers. In the early 1870s the population of Kimberley already numbered 30 000. There was intense rivalry between diggers as they fought over claims. This rivalry often led to racial conflict.

Griqua leader Nicholas Waterboer

Waterboer asked for British help. Barkly took over the area in Britain's name in 1872. A few years later Waterboer was arrested and imprisoned for attempting to free some of his subjects whom he believed had been wrongfully imprisoned and badly treated by the British. Growing unhappiness over ownership of the land and the right to make claims on the diamond fields led to a rebellion in 1878. The Griqua and Tlhaping rose up against British rule and were crushed.

The growth of the diamond industry

After the discovery of diamonds people from all over Southern Africa and many other parts of the world flocked to Griqualand West. Almost overnight this gave rise to the town of Kimberley and a very powerful diamond-mining industry.

Transcript from the radio programme

Diamond Fever

In chemistry the diamond is made from pure carbon, one of the most common elements. Yet it is fashioned by nature into a magnificent crystal. None of the chosen jewels of the Bible, not even the sapphire or the emerald, can equal in truth or legend the multifaceted Great Mogul, the blood-stained Orloff, and the famous Koh-i-noor. Harder than any other gem, it is also more brilliant and more varied in form and colour. Its natural colour can be pink, blue or yellow, or as pure as a drop of distilled water. It sparkles with the brilliance of reflected light and the red, blue and violet flashes of refracted light. - C .W. de Kiewiet

Shortly after the Hopetown diamond was found in 1807, there was a major discovery of diamonds along the banks of the VaaI River near present day Barkley West. These diamonds had been washed down the river and deposited in the alluvial soil along the banks.

It was fairly simple to mine these diamonds as they were near the surface. The rock and the soil along the river bank was dug up and sifted in order to extract the diamonds, This method is known as surface mining. The diggers who owned these 'claims', both white and black employed teams of black workers to sift the diamond-bearing soil. Only small amounts of capital were necessary to establish such a mine in the early days.

By the early 1870s much larger quantities of diamonds had been discovered away from the Vaal River, at a small hill called Colesberg Kopje. This place later came to be called 'New Rush' or Kimberley, after Earl Kimberley, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies.

In Kimberley miners discovered a number of extinct volcanic pipes. These are tube-shaped tunnels that once carried molten rock to the surface from deep in the earth, In this case, the molten rock contained diamonds.

Colesberg Kopje was itself the top of one of these tube-shaped tunnels. Here fortune-seekers from all over Southern Africa and other parts of the world fought over claims. The miners soon cut away the kopje and made what was then the biggest human-made hole in the world the Kimberley 'Big Hole'.

Later other 'pipes' or mines were also brought into production at Dutoitspan, De Beers, Bultfontein and Wesselton, all close to Kimberley. From 1870 to 1873 there was a boom in world trade, which led to a rise in the price of diamonds. Competition over claims became even fiercer. Whites competed with one another for wealth and insisted on being the masters of black labour. White claim-holders from Europe, America and Australia ganged up against a small number of Griquas, Tlhaping, Malay, Indian and Chinese claimholders.

African claim-holders were suspected of IDB (Illicit Diamond buying), because they spoke the same language and had similar backgrounds to many of the workers.This led to riots in 1875 in which whites attacked African or Asian claim-holders. The British authorities responded by cancelling all claims owned by blacks.

After 1875, Africans worked for white claim-holders

Surface mining became insufficient forthe 'blue ground' deeper. The holes became too deep with the danger of caving in or getting flooded.

A new method of mining had to be introduced, namely underground mining. This resulted in the making of new laws relating to the holding of claims. At first the rule had been one owner, one claim. After 1874 one owner was allowed to make up to ten claims.

By the end of the 1870s many of these small-scale mine owners were forced to sell out to larger mining companies. This was the result of the collapse in the price of diamonds, as well as the high costs involved in developing underground works. In the early 1870s there were 1600 claims at the Kimberley Big Hole. By 1880 this number was reduced to just under 400.

Finally, by late 1880s, the De Beers Consolidated Mining Company, under the control of Cecil Rhodes, gained control over the entire industry. Through the London Diamond Syndicate, De Beers eventually established a world monopoly of diamond sales.

The directors of the De Beers Consolidated Mining Company, 1893

Who was that man?

A documentary drama series simply called Rhodes was filmed in South Africa in 1995 and shown on television for the first time in Britain in 1996.

The producer, Scott Meek, had this to say:

It's just such a powerful story and it needs to be told because these days not many people know about Rhodes any more. But the history of the British empire, of South Africa and possibly the whole world would have been different if Rhodes had not existed.

RHODES…Builder or Destroyer?

The young Rhodes

At 18 Rhodes was sent to South Africa, sick and weak, and his family expected him to die here. By 30 he controlled most of the world's diamonds and a lot of the gold supply.

Cecil John Rhodes first came to South Africa from England in 1871 as a sickly boy of 18. He brought with him £3000 which an aunt had lent him and started to work on his brother's diamond diggings at Kimberley.

Rhodes increases his power

Soon he was making £100 a week and within four years he saved enough money to buy up more diggings. By 1887 he had bought together the richest diamond mine owners in Kimberley to form the De Beers Consolidated Company. Through this company Rhodes controlled the diamond industry in South Africa.

But Rhodes was not only rich, he was also politically powerful. When he became the prime minister of the Cape in 1890 he helped to change laws in the cape to benefit the mines and industry. For example, his Glen Grey Act of 1894 aimed to push more Africans into leaving their land to become wage labourers on the mines on the mines and the railways.

'Equal rights for every civilised man'
Rhodes wanted Africans to become industrialised and 'Westernised' as quickly as possible. His policy was 'equal rights for every civilised man south of the Zambezi'. As more Africans were meeting the criteria for civilised, ie educated and earning wages, Rhodes changed the law of the Cape to allow the vote only to those who owned property worth £75 a year.

Tension with the Transvaal
As far as the Transvaal went Rhodes often disagreed with their policies. By now gold had been discovered. Rhodes believed he could use his money and his power to overthrow the Boer government and make the Transvaal a British colony that would support the interests of the mine owners.
In 1895 Rhodes supported an attack on the Transvaal. This attack became known as Jameson Raid. But it was failure and Rhodes had to resign as Prime Minister of the Cape.

Expanding the British Empire

Rhodes also used his wealth to pursue his dream of expanding Britain's empire in Africa. Botswana became a British colony in 1885 through the efforts of Rhodes. He was involved in defeating the Matabele and Mashona. The conquered lands were named Southern and Northern Rhodesia after Rhodes in 1899. These countries became Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Rhodes died in 1902, a millionaire many times over.
Adapted from Gold and Workers by Luli Callinicos, 1980.

The development of migrant labour

Decades before the discovery of diamonds, Pedi people from the North-Eastern Transvaal went to find work on farms or as dock workers in the Cape Colony or on government works such as road-building. By the 1850s, Tsonga from Mozambique went to Natal in search of work and by 1870 South Sotho were working on farms in the Orange Free State.

Before and after working on the mines

The discovery of diamonds created huge demands for labour. This led to a great increase in the number of migrant Africans, who now mostly travelled to and from the diamond fields. Between 1871 and 1875 an estimated 50 000 Africans arrived every year at the diamond mines; and nearly the same number left each year. The main reasons that Africans wanted to work for cash wages were to get guns or basic farming implements, or to earn money to pay the traditional bride-price.
Because the labour needs of the diamond fields were so great, the British encouraged labour migration to Kimberley. One of the ways in which they did this was by relaxing the ban on the sale of guns to Africans from the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

Rev. Tyamzashe

The Reverend Tyamzashe, a clergyman who was sent to Kimberley in 1872 to be the leader of a congregation, wrote the following extract.

Source 4

From the missionary point of view, it is not easy to deal with such a mixture of tribes as we have at the Diamond fields. There are san, Khoikhoi, Griquas, Batlhaping, Damaras, Barolong, Barutse…Bapedi, Baganana, Basutu, Maswazi, Matonga, Matabele, Mabaca, Mampondo, Mamfengu, Batembu, Maxosa etc. many of these (people) can hardly understands each other, and in many cases they have to converse through the medium of either Dutch, Sisutu, or Xhosa. Those coming from far up in the interior such as the Bapedi come with the sole purpose of securing guns. Some of them therefore resolve to stay no longer here than is necessary to get some six or seven pounds for the gun. Hence you will see hundreds of them leaving the fields, and as many arriving from the North almost every day…

From a newspaper article published in the Christian Express in Alice in 1874.

Within a year of the opening of the Kimberley mines, every African society south of the Zambezi, with the exception of the Zulu and the Venda, was represented at the diamond fields.

In Britain, whole families migrated to towns where they usually settled permanently. This process was called urbanisation. However in Southern Africa at the men came to work in the towns leaving their wives and children to maintain their homesteads in the rural areas. This was possible because in African society, unlike in European society, the women were the main cultivators of the land.

While back at home….

Life on the diamond mines remained linked to life in the rural areas. In the 1870s dramatic events were taking place in many parts of the country as Africans struggled to maintain their independence.

Britain became much more interested in South Africa after the discovery of diamonds. The Boers, too, were seeking more land and more labourers to work on their land. They encouraged the British to conquer the independent African kingdoms. If Africans lost their land, more of them could be forced to become wage labourers, either on other people's farms or on the diamond mines.

Storming of Sekhukhune's stronghold

Subheadings for the Pedi kingdom

1. Pedi state grows 6. Confederation
2. Gold grabbers 7. Tension mounts
3. War begins 8. 'We will fight'
4. Disaster strikes 9. War begins again
5. Boers unwilling to continue 10. Sekhukhune is defeated

Subheadings for the Zulu kingdom

1. Border dispute between Zululand and the Transvaal 5. Commission investigates border dispute
2. Confederation 6. The Battle of lsandlwana

    a. A Zulu soldier remembers

    b. A British sergeant's view
3. 'A tough nut to crack' 7. The Battle of Ulundi
4. Taking advantage of border dispute 8. Civil war breaks out

Now to get back to the diamond fields . What was life like for migrant workers who came to work on the diamond fields? Where did they live, what were their working conditions like and what did they do in their leisure time?

A worker caught smuggling diamonds

Living conditions at Kimberley - closed compounds

In 1885 mine owners decided to house Africans in barracks or closed compounds. A closed compound was exactly what the name suggests: a number of buildings or living quarters enclosed by high walls, usually of corrugated iron, that shut out the outside world.

De Beers compound at Kimberley in the 1890's - the model on which closed compounds were based

African workers passed through a guarded gate, along a fenced walkway to the mine they worked at, and returned the same way. The only difference was that they were searched for diamonds on their return. They could only leave these compounds to go down the mine or to return home at the end of their contracts.

There were two main reasons for the introduction of closed compounds:

  • From the outset, whites in Kimberley feared that they would be swamped by African workers. They demanded that Africans be 'localised' in their own area of the diggings.
  • Since diamonds were so easy to steal, mine owners were constantly trying to find ways of preventing theft. They used different methods of searching workers and tried to introduce tighter controls over workers' movements. Closed compounds were designed to control theft.

Diamond mining

How did workers cope with their living and working conditions? What went on behind the walls of a closed compound, as well as underground?

In the 1880s men at Kimberley could earn a cash wage of 20 shillings to 30 shillings per week, i.e. about 50 cents. This was almost eight times more than plantation wages in Natal. According to an observer at the time, black workers in Kimberley earned more than the average rural labourer in England.

The worker's biggest wage bonus was to find a diamond. He could earn as much as 20 pounds, i.e. about R100 for a large stone if he handed it to an overseer, and even more than that from an illicit diamond buyer. The sum of 20 pounds was equal to more than three months' work. It was enough to pay for a double-barrelled shotgun or two bride-prices. Because diamonds were so easy to steal, miners were regularly strip-searched.

Many workers became Christians. Kimberley was regarded by many as 'the most important missionary centre in South Africa'. Brass bands, magic lantern shows and open-air religious services attracted large numbers of men.

Some churches offered literacy classes to workers. Workers who learnt to read and write, as well as do some basic arithmetic, could occupy leadership positions in the local church. They could also find quite well-paid jobs as clerks, translators or letter-writers

According to an observer at the time, the life of an African worker had 'about the same value as that of a tiresome fly'. The terrible underground heat, the extreme cold in the compounds and poor living conditions in general spurred pneumonia in the mining camps. Three quarters of all those who lost their lives on the diamond fields died of pneumonia.

In 1883/84, when Kimberley was affected by smallpox*, 600 workers lost their lives. Poor sanitation increased the speed with which the disease spread. By 1888 the death rate among Africans rose to almost 100 per 1 000 or 1 in 10. This made Kimberley one of the most dangerous and disease-ridden towns in the world.

Because of this harsh life, African workers had to look after each other. Kinsmen paid a sick man's food and medical costs. In the case of death, kinsmen paid the burial fees. If relatives were not available, companions from the same village shouldered the financial responsibility.

As in the rural areas, drinking alcohol at Kimberley was an important way of socialising. Through drinking together, individuals could win respect for being generous about buying drinks for others. At these gatherings, dancing, singing and sometimes fighting took place.

It was common for men to buy several bottles of alcohol before the bars closed on Saturday night and to sell their contents on Sundays. The result was that as many as 50 per cent of the men failed to report for work on a Monday.

Faction fighting took place in the compounds. It was often the expression of frustration from the overcrowded living conditions in the compounds and the heavy demands of the job.

In the early 1880s, because of a world recession, Kimberley experienced a depression. There was a 30 per cent fall in the price of diamonds in 1883. The years from 1882 to 1885 were marked by bankruptcies, takeovers and companies joining together. The two giants on the fields, De Beers and Kimberley Central, tried to reduce their losses by cutting black workers' wages to as little as 20 shillings a month.

The first closed compound was constructed in 1885 at the height of the depression. Rhodes was one of the main supporters of closed compounds. He believed that it was the only way of preventing the theft of diamonds. He also argued that compounds helped to discipline the workforce: compounds increased the productivity of workers and protected them from drink.

When De Beers established control over the diamond fields in 1888, surface mining at the Dutoitspan and Bultfontein mines was halted. They introduced machines for underground mining and extended their operations at the Kimberley and De Beers' mines. This resulted in the number of workers dropping from 11 300 in 1887 to 6000 in 1890.

In the mid-1880s, fresh water was pumped for the first time from the VaaI to Kimberley. And, in the 1890s, the inspector of compounds and medical doctors kept a check on the sanitary situation in the compounds. In 1891 the first mine hospital was built in the Kimberley mine compound.

The compounds were also designed to prevent workers from uniting against their bosses. Workers were isolated from their peers by being housed in different compounds. Underground and surface workers were also separated into different compounds. Workers who were involved in any form of protest action were arrested and could be starved of food and water.

There was also a high death rate on the mines from accidents. Quite often men fell down mine shafts as they clambered up and down ladders to different working levels. They were trapped, injured or killed by rockfalls, or drowned in pools of mud. Fires were also a problem. In a terrible accident in 1888 two hundred men lost their lives in an underground fire.