From the book: All That Glitters by Emilia Potenza

A change so unexpected and a development never known before were due to the discovery in 1886 of the greatest gold mines of all history, ancient and modern. From 1886 {until 1940] the story of South Africa is the story of gold.- C.W. de Kiewiet, 1941

The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886 was a turning point in South African history. Far more than diamonds, this changed South Africa from an agricultural society to become the largest gold-producer in the world.

Gold increased trade between South Africa and the rest of the world. For the main trading nations ie the Europe and the United States, gold was of value because their currencies were backed by gold. This was known as the gold standard. Under the gold standard, these countries had to keep gold in a bank vault to the value of the currencythey issued. For example, if the government of a country wanted to print more money, it had to buy gold to back that money. If that country did not produce gold itself, it had to import gold from another country.

Under the gold standard the price of gold was fixed internationally. It was kept low as this benefited nations in Europe and the United States amongst others. These strong nations did not produce gold and had to buy it from elsewhere to back their own currency.

In the 1930s many countries abandoned the gold standard.The effect that this had on the South African economy will be examined later on this feature.

The Gold Rush

On summer's day in 1886, two prospectors discovered gold on a Transvaal farm called Langlaagte. Gold was not new to the Transvaal. African had mined gold hundreds of years earlier. More recently, gold had been found in the Eastern Transvaal. In most cases this gold ran out, forcing small mining towns to close down. The gold found at langlaagte was different. The gold discovered there ran for miles and miles underground, 'an endless treasure of gold'.

The Richest Gold-Mining Area in the World.

Gold changed the face of the Transvaal. Before 1886 it was a poor, struggling Boer republic but ten years later, it was the richest gold mining area in the world. As news of the gold find spread throughout South Africa and the rest of the world, men made their way to the Transvaal.

They walked, rode on horse back, or came by ox-wagon. Ships no longer passed South Africa on their to Australia and New Zealand. Instead, boatloads of men arrived at ports and hurried to catch the next coach to the Transvaal, hoping to find the riches of their dreams.

Mining Camps Become Towns.

Wherever people found gold, another little mining camp grew. Langlaagte became part of a big mining camp called Johannesburg, where many other mining camps had been set up. Soon Johannesburg became the biggest town in the Transvaal, bigger even than Pretoria, the capital.

Other mining towns sprang up as well. These mining towns form a form a curve on the map. This curve is called the Witwatersrand, the Rand for short.

As time passed, the tents disappeared and people began to build houses, offices and shops. Builders were very busy. Ox-carts and horses filled the streets with traffic, dust and noise; yet the sound of the stamps crushing rocks in the mines around the town could be heard day and night.

People of the Mining Towns.

Every week hundreds of people poured into the golden Rand all had come to seek their fortune. There were three main groups of people who hoped to make money from the mines.

The first to come to the mines were the prospectors. These were the men who came to look for gold in the soil. They came with great hopes of 'striking it rich'.

A growing group of people were labourers. Many of them were young African men who came to the mines in order to earn money to pay the traditional bride-price. Others hoped to find jobs so that they could pay their taxes, or buy guns or tools like hoes and ploughs for their land. For many years most labourers did not come to stay. They went home as soon as they had earned enough money.

Other people did not get their money directly from the mines, they made money from the needs of the people who mined the gold. The sellers of land, lawyers, traders, shopkeepers, ox-wagon drivers, barbers, hawkers and many more made their money in this way.


More and more factory-made goods were being shipped from England to meet the demands of the mines and the communities that were developing around them. Goods had to be transported all the way from the coast to the Rand by ox-wagon - and ox-wagons were very slow. The equipment needed for the mines was taking too long to arrive.

Something had to be done to improve the system of transport. First, the governments of the Transvaal, the Cape and Natal improved the roads so that wagons could travel faster. Then railways were built.

The first railways joined the ports to the mining Most of the main lines went to the Witwatersrand, to the gold mines. There was also main line to the diamond mines of Kimberley.

The coming of Railways to South Africa made a great difference to people all over the country. People who wanted to work in the gold mines went by train. New towns grew up around the stations. People used the railways to travel from the countryside to the towns.

Farmers sent their produce by train to the larger towns.
An ever-increasing number of people were leaving their land and coming to the Witwatersrand to find work.

From now on, more people would:

work for a wage buy their food and clothes from a shop live in a compound, a township or a suburb.
But, of course, the majority of people were migrant workers moving between town and countryside. Adapted from Gold and Workers by Luli Callinicos, 1980.

The importance of the gold-mining industry

The South African goldfields, 1996 (click on the map to see it larger, and to do the next exercise)

A few years after the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand, a string of mining towns marked out the gold-bearing Reef. The map that follows shows that the gold-mining towns formed a curve starting from the East Rand in Heidelberg, extending westwards across to Krugersdorp and Randfontein. Later more gold mines were discovered further south and east. As a result of this 'endless treasure of gold', gold mining very quickly became the largest and most important part of the economy.

The world's gold production for 1930

Percentage of the world's gold produced in the Transvaal from 1895 to 1940
1895 40843000 21,0
1900 52312000 2,8
1905 77756000 26,8
1910 93332000 34,3
1915 97218000 39,7
1920 69739000 49,7
1925 80817000 50,4
1935 131 680000 34,8
1940 173354000 34,4

The nature of gold mining on the Witwatersrand

The gold mining on the Witwatersrand had to soon evolve. The gold that was mined was very near to the surface of the ground. As with the diamond mining in Kimberley, the first stage of gold mining took the form of outcrop harvesting. Under the supervision of a prospector, labourers would dig up the ground with picks and shovels in order to reach the gold-bearing ore.

Deep-level mining

Before long it became necessary to dig a lot deeper to reach the gold, even as much as a kilometre beneath the ground. This became known as deep-level mining.

Deep-level mining required new and expensive machines. Machines were used to sink shafts hundreds of metres beneath the ground. By 1906 the Robinson Deep Mine just off Eloff Street in Johannesburg had become, at 800 metres, the deepest producing mine in the world.

Because of the heat and the gases underground, ventilationwas necessary for people working at such depths. Also, the deeper the line was, the more water was encountered. Special pumps had to be imported to remove the rater.

Low-grade ore

The rock from which the gold is extracted is called ore. The gold can be described as being 'trapped' in ore. A characteristic of the ore in the Witwatersrand is that it is low-grade. This means that a very large amount of ore always has to be dug up and crushed in order to get a small amount of gold. Even today in some mines in Gauteng, as little as 3 grams of gold is obtained from 1 ton of ore.

'An endless treasure of gold'

Although the ore is low-grade, the gold reef stretches for over 400 kilometres from Evander in Mpumalanga to Virginia in the Free State. This area produces most of the gold in the world. Depending on the gold price, people could carry on mining here years to come.

The needs of the gold mines follows below. It shows the huge amount of money needed start a gold mine along with a supply of cheap labour. Without these, gold mining in South Africa would not have been profitable.

The needs of the gold mines

The problem of mining, since the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand, has been to make the poor ore product profitable. Some historians believe that if such poor ore had been found anywhere else in the world, it would have not have been mined at all. The plentiful supply of cheap labour available to the gold mines in South Africa made this viable.

Who invested money in the gold mines?

The amount of money needed to develop a mine was very large. Most mines were owned initially by investors who brought money in from other countries, hoping to profit from the new mining industry. This money was spent on things like importing special machines for sinking shafts in order to reach the gold-bearing org in the depths of the earth. In addition, the mines needed people who were skilled at deep level mining. These people were mainly immigrants and their labour was expensive.

Skilled workers came from Australia, America, Eastern Europe and especially Britain. In Britain the tin mines in Cornwall were closing down the same time as the gold mines in South Africa were starting up. So many skilled miners from Cornwall came to work on the Witwatersrand.

Because of the gold standard, the price of gold was internationally controlled and remained fixed for long periods of time. This meant that an increase in working costs could not be passed on to the buyers by increasing the price of gold. It soon became clear that the only way of mining profitably on the Witwatersrand was to secure a very large supply cheap, unskilled labour.

How the mines got their labour

In order to be profitable, the mines needed an ongoing supply of cheap labour. The mine owners therefore had to think very carefully about when they would get labour from and how they would make it cheap.

'We must have labour. The mining industry without labour is as ... it would be to imagine that you could get milk without cows.'

President of the Chamber of Mines, March 1912

The problem that faced the mine owners was that there was no ready-made supply of workers whom they could recruit to work in the mines. They had to use many different methods to create and keep a supply of cheap labour. Workers in turn resisted these methods in various ways.

Few Africans were willing to leave their fields to work underground. Most African farmers were not interested in working in the mines while they still had land. Some, like the Pedi, had been prepared to work as migrants for short periods on the diamond mines in order to get money to buy farming implements, as well as guns to defend themselves.

Even mine owners had to find a way of turning the migrant system into a cheap one. In the years between 1890 and 1899 the number of African mineworkers rose from 14 000 to 100 000.

This section shows how mine owners managed torecruitthose 100 000 migrant workers and how the migrant labour system was turned into a cheap one. The governments (both Boer and British) and the mine owners worked together to guarantee the mines an ongoing supply of cheap labour.

The conquest of the African kingdoms

African independence was largely destroyed by the 1880s. Two examples of this were the conquest of the Pedi and the Zulu kingdoms.

The methods used to force Africans to become migrant labourers included taking advantage of internal conflicts within African kingdoms. Going to war against the African kingdoms was another method used by both the Boers and the British.
Once the African kingdoms had been defeated, the Boer and British governments taxes and land control measures left people with few options for survival except to seek work in the towns.

Control over land

By the 1880s the Boers had formed governments in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The British ruled over the Cape Colony and Natal. The Boers and the British were slowly extending their control over the land and the people living in these areas.

By 1900 most of the land in South Africa had been taken over by white farmers, mining companies, land companies and by the government. In the Cape and Natal in areas like the Transkei and Zululand, land still belonged to African farmers but there was much less of it. There were some Africans involved in commercial farming in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. But Africans did not farm their own land in these provinces. Most of them farmed land that belonged to white farmers or unused land that belonged to land companies or the government. They were like the tenant farmers in Britain.

R1 then would have been worth about R300 in 1996, which is about one third of a miners monthly salary today.

British officials collecting taxes from Zulu chieftains in the early 1900's

Imposition of taxes

Soon the Boer and the British governments started to impose taxes on their 'subjects'. They made new laws that demanded taxes be paid in cash and not in cattle.

Africans had to pay a hut tax of R1 per year for every hut. It took a man about three months on the mines to earn this and many men went to work on the mines to pay the hut tax.

Every man over 18 years old, black or white had to pay a poll tax of R2 a year. Black unskilled workers were earning between 5c and 19c a day on the mines. They had to use most of this money to buy food and clothes for themselves. It therefore took them months of extra work on the mines to pay the poll tax.

The third form of tax was the labour tax. In the Cape, the then Prime minister, Rhodes, passed a law called the Glen Grey Act in 1894. Among other things, this law forced all Africans in the Cape to pay R1 to the government every year. However, they did not have to pay this tax if they proved that they worked for wages for at least three months of the year.

Most African men therefore either had to:

  • earn money to pay the hut tax and the poll tax by selling produce, or working for a short time either on white farms or in towns, or
  • avoid paying the labour tax by working for wages for short periods either on farms or in towns.

In these ways thousands of men were forced to become migrant workers. Most chose to go to the mines rather than to do farm labour because they could earn higher wages on the mines. They would go to the mines for specific lengths of time as short as three months or as long as two years while their wives and children stayed at home keeping the farms going. As result more and more men were separated from their families for increasingly long periods.

Rhodes claimed that these taxes were meant to encourage independent African farmers to work for wages and to use the cash that they earned to ay for 'wise and good government'.

Early attempts at recruiting

From Vusi goes back, Prezanian Comix/E.D.A.

Because of the very large supply of labour that the mines needed, the mine owners had to ensure that a sufficient number of men would spend enough time working on the mines every year.

There was competition for labour between the richer mines and the poorer mines. The richer mines were usually able to attract workers by offering higher wages. At the same time, the very existence of the poorer mines depended on reducing working costs by keeping wages as low as possible.

The mine owners solved this tension between the richer and the poorer mines by flooding the market with recruited workers. These were workers who were encouraged to come and work on the mines by special agents or 'touts'. 'Touts' were paid by recruiting agencies for every worker they recruited. In this way mine owners created a situation where there were more workers than jobs so that workers would be forced to work for lower wages.

The mining industry was a major taxpayer to the Transvaal. As a result, the Kruger government co-operated with the mine owners. Although the government was concerned to ensure that the mines did not take African labour away from Boer farmers, it did agree to recruit labour for the mines. This included allowing foreign labour from neighbouring countries to work on the mines. The Kruger government also introduced and policed a pass system. Africans were required to carry passes, a form of document, which allowed them to travel and find jobs only with the approval of the government or an employer. This was designed to control the number of Africans coming to the urban areas. The pass system remained in place in one form or another until 1986.

The rinderpest

Another blow to those farmers who were able to hold onto their independence came with the rinderpest epidemic of 1896-7. This cattle disease reduced many herders to poverty and starvation and many were forced to seek work on white farms or in the mines.

Explaining causes

Many causes or reasons have been provided to explain why thousands of African farmers went unwillingly to work on the mines every year from the late 1880s onwards. Some of these causes may have had a greater effect on people's lives than others.

Behind the scenes of the world of the workers

1897: Lord Miner became governor of the Cape Colony and British High Commissioner in South Africa. He was known for his dislike of Kruger, president of the Transvaal. He also had a strong desire to expand Britain's sphere of influence in South Africa.

1899-1902: The South African War (previously called the Anglo-Boer War) broke out and lasted for three years. An important cause of the war was the struggle for control over the goldfields. The mines were forced to close during the war. Workers returned home. This affected productivity and cost the mine owners and the economy millions of rands. Some say the war paved the way for the Cape Colony, Natal, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State to form one state.

1904-1908: South Africa had to be rebuilt or reconstructed after the war. As part of its reconstruction programme the government under Milner secured cheap indentured labour from China. This enabled the mines to lower wages and ignore the demands of Southern African workers for higher pay and better working conditions.

Milner's reconstruction programme was similar in some ways to the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). Milner's government had to tackle the task of rebuilding the country after the South African War.

Africans did not accept the loss of their land or the imposition of taxes, passively. But it was hard for them to fight back because of the strength of the British and the Boers.

The development of the mining industry largely destroyed independent farming as a way of life. It changed previous patterns of trade to produce a new economy and a new political system. This new system was controlled by whites. And, particularly during the period from the 1860s to 1910, Britain (and internationally-based companies) had a great influence over the way the country was governed.