From the book: Book 3: Migration, Land and Minerals in the Making of South Africa commissioned by The Department of Education

This chapter will examine the various causes of the mineral revolution and how it impacted on societies in southern Africa. The influences include the following:

  • personal, because they may have originated with human ambitions;
  • material, because they may have been dictated by a human desire for wealth;
  • physical, because they may have been motivated by “people’s” perceived sense of superiority;
  • philosophical, because they may have related to human thought processes and outlook on life; and
  • environmental, because they may have had something to do with geographical factors and the way they impacted on societal activities.

Reflection on these influences presents the reader with a visual image of the South African “people’s” interaction and involvement with their diversified state. Because these causes are different, they tend to exhibit both connectedness and disjointedness. Both of these features in turn result in a single and common visible outcome - the shaping of the history of South Africa with all its twists and turns.

Against this background it should be understandable why and how the discovery of minerals - unique in its own historical context - was an important turning point in the history of South Africa. The reasons were various. It brought world attention to the country, and thus made South Africa a subject and a player of international history. It tampered with and tempered the life patterns of all South Africans in unprecedented ways. This was visible in the extent to which the mineral revolution radically affected the lives of all those involved, none more so than black South Africans. Their socio-economic power was taken from them in a very systematic way. Those who perceived themselves as superior because they had money and could make more - the owners of the means of production - had power and a platform from which to carve the destinies of others.

This chapter, therefore, seeks to analyse and unpack the momentous event which led to the birth in South Africa of this amazing industry.

The mineral wealth of South Africa can be roughly classified into four categories:

  • precious minerals (gold, diamonds, silver);
  • metallic minerals (copper, chrome, iron ore, manganese, tin);
  • non-metallic minerals (coal, asbestos, limestone, phosphates); and
  • other, relatively insignificant, minerals.

This chapter focuses mostly on the first category, although non-precious minerals are discussed briefly.

What happened when diamonds were discovered in the Northern Cape?

South Africa was experiencing a financial depression at the time. The majority of its people were actively occupied with agricultural and pastoral farming. They had accepted the struggle for survival, but were inhibited by their lack of technical knowledge and resistance to innovation. Neither were their white counterparts spared the toil. Thanks to the merino sheep, which had been introduced in the south east Cape by the 1820 settlers, wool was the only exportable item. The country was thought to have no significant minerals or metals.

The whites who went to seek their fortunes at the diamond diggings came from the British colonies and Boer republics of South Africa, or from Britain, Australia, the USA and other countries. Many arrived as penniless “diggers” hoping to “strike it rich”. Others came with a little capital and set up businesses as traders, diamond buyers or bar-keepers.

Source: John Pampallis, Foundations of the New South Africa. Cape Town, Maskew Miller Longman, 1991, p.19.

“As early as 1870 the British colonial authorities in Lesotho (then Basutoland) imposed a hut tax of 10 shillings on each hut every year in order to pressurise men to go to work on the diamond mines”¦. In those days, a man had to work for about three months to get enough money to pay the hut tax for himself, his family and his parents.”

Source: John Pampallis, Foundations of the New South Africa. Cape Town, Maskew Miller Longman, 1991, p.24.

The town of Kimberley was named after John Wodehouse, Earl of Kimberley, who at the time
was the British Colonial Secretary.

The first recorded discovery of minerals on South African soil was that of diamonds in the previously insignificant Griqualand West territory near present-day Kimberley. The land was in the middle of a community of mixed Khoikhoi and Afrikaner ancestry who had fled from the Cape in the eighteenth century.

Its leader was Nicolaas Waterboer. In 1867, in the Hopetown district of Griqualand West, a little girl’s eye was attracted to an unusual stone which turned out to be a diamond. Later, more diamonds were unearthed near the junction of the Vaal and Harts Rivers. In 1870 rich deposits were discovered at the Dry Diggings site, and in 1871 on Colesberg Kopje which later became known as the Kimberley Mine.

Until then, there had not been any dispute over the ownership of this land. Now it was claimed by the Cape Colony, the Boer territories and the Griqua living there. Waterboer’s feebleness in politics and influence reduced him to a non-factor. His political impotence made him extremely vulnerable at a very crucial time in his chiefdom’s history.

Whether it was for bad or for good, the diamond discoveries turned the hitherto dusty and insignificant patch of South Africa - once thought of as so barren that the British Colonial Office had thought it was not worth keeping - into a field of treasure. The question of ownership of the diamond-bearing land, amid the many claims that were submitted by local individuals and government leaders, had to be settled urgently. The stakes were high.

Sir Philip Wodehouse, the Cape Governor, remarked in a letter to Lord Kimberley:

As a matter of right, the native tribes are fairly entitled to that tract of country in which, for the present, the diamonds appear to be chiefly found.

Source: John Pampallis, Foundations of the New South Africa. Cape Town, Maskew Miller Longman, 1991, p.17.

The dispute over the ownership of the diamond fields degenerated into a political feud between Afrikaner and British statesmen. The Afrikaner approach appeared to be informed by a desire for a fair share, with both the Transvaal and the Orange Free State republics laying claim to parts of the diamond fields. The British also claimed them for their own. The approach of the British seemed to be motivated more by a desire to absorb everything. British colonial officials in London and in Cape Town skilfully guided Waterboer into seeking British protection. Richard Southey, the Cape Colonial Secretary, went to the extent of putting pressure on colonial newspaper editors and arranging for petitions to be signed by colonial merchants in favour of annexation. At the same time, Lieutenant-General Hay commissioned a magistrate to exercise authority in the digging area.

The annexation of Waterboer’s land as a Crown Colony in October 1877 marked the beginning of the end of Waterboer’s chiefly status. Land gave the followers of a chief a sense of security, and its loss bred in them a sense of inferiority. The discovery of minerals in Waterboer’s country, by attracting fortune seekers, injected a new cosmopolitan and international culture into the Griqua community, as the diamond seekers came from many parts of the world. There sprang up many classes which were determined by colour and wealth, both at the workplace and in the after-work situation.

What happened to Waterboer's people, who had been living in the region long before diamonds were discovered? They lost the land, the precious stones found on it and their chiefdom. Above all, the fabric of their society was torn. Part of their pastoral land was taken over by Orange Free State farmers. When their claims were ignored and dismissed, they sold the rest of their land and made a living as best as they could in whatever jobs they could find.

African labourers needed cash to pay the government’s taxes and to buy consumer goods. In the early days of mining, the workforce came from the Mfengu, the Ngqika (ka Rharhabe) and the Khoi cluster; they tended to be migrants who worked for short periods. They were part of the input and yet were turned into passive participants! The decline of the vigour and enthusiasm which was characteristic of the initial phases of mining is reflected in the sudden change of activity around the Kimberley mine. Colesberg Kopje, the hill where diamonds had originally been discovered, disappeared. A huge hole appeared in its place, its size constantly increasing.

The mining process consisted of various phases. Carried away by the prospect of great fortune, men paid little attention to their health or anything else. Kimberley gave the world its first glimpse of racial discrimination in the mining industry. Black workers were kept like beasts in compounds so that diamond theft could be controlled. Their health was not of primary importance to those that employed them. White miners, though, could not be forced into such compounds - they could always go elsewhere if they were too badly treated.

Discrimination against people on the basis of colour became apparent early on. At the time of the first diggings, the digging community included all people of South Africa - black, Khoi and white. In time, the white diggers became jealous of the black claimholders and blamed them for whatever went wrong. There were incidents of violence against those who were not white. This state of affairs eventually persuaded Sir Henry Barkly, in his capacity as British Commissioner of Griqualand West, to proclaim that blacks and Khoi could no longer be claim holders; they could only be wage workers.

magnate- a wealthy and influential person, especially in business

proletarianise- to turn into a member of the working class

institutionalise- to establish as normal in an organisation or culture

The diamond mining industry attracted men with money, and they became richer. This industry produced a unique class of mining magnates. This provided the capital needed later for the gold-mining industry. Cecil John Rhodes was one of these mine owners. For him the diamond-mining industry provided a springboard for further capitalistic ventures. His life is a history of amassing fortune, of British imperial initiatives, of the interaction of wealth and politics in South Africa, of labour history and thus the history of African society. In his lifetime he saw the proletarianisationof the indigenous population and the institutionalisationof migrant labour.

What was the impact of the gold discoveries and of largescale mining?

alluvial- deposits left by flowing flood water in a river valley

reef- a vein of gold or other ore

Gold had been mined by Africans for hundreds of years. In 1872, some reefand alluvialgold was found in the Lydenburg district and the Barberton area. The arrival of prospectors and the subsequent development of the town of Barberton near the rich Sheba mine hints at the socio-economic implications of the discovery of gold.


Alluvial gold is found on the surface, often in or near rivers. It can range in size from tiny specks of gold dust to large nuggets. The Peacock Nugget was reported to weigh 5.5 kg! Most of the early finds in what is today Mpumalanga and Limpopo were of this type. Looking for this type of gold did not require much in the way of equipment - pick, shovel, a large metal pan, and a lot of luck. Many individual prospectors tried their luck, lured by the hope of finding great wealth.

Reef gold was buried in veins in the rock. The biggest finds were on the Witwatersrand. At first, these veins (the reef) were close to the surface and men with picks and shovels could reach the gold. Very soon, though, it was clear that the reef went deep underground and, worse, that it was not very rich - it took tons of rock to get a decent amount of gold. These two factors - the depth and the low grade of the ore - meant that small, independent miners could not survive for long. It took a lot of money to pay for the machinery and the labour that was needed to mine this kind of gold. The men who had made money on the diamond mines moved in and used their capital to develop the new gold mines.

Persistent prospecting led to the discovery in 1886 of gold at Langlaagte, west of what is now Johannesburg. In July of the same year, samples of gold-bearing reef were found at Kimberley. The richness of the sample prompted J.B. Robinson, a mining speculator, to travel straight to the Rand where he bought Langlaagte Farm. Robinson headed the rush of wealthy mine operators northward. He was soon followed by Cecil John Rhodes, Barney Barnato, Alfred Beit, Hans Sauer, C.B. Rudd, Julius Porges and others. These mining magnates - often called Randlords - acquired farms for very little, and made huge profits from them. From the very beginning, mining on the Witwatersrand was a predominantly capitalist venture for jointstock companies.

The Langlaagte mine lay deep in the Transvaal, known to be the poorest and most backward of all the provinces, administratively incompetent, and lacking both the infrastructure and the material means to develop itself. Therefore, there was a need for scientific expertise, superior technical skills and administrative know-how. Specialist engineering services were also needed for deep-level mining.

Certainly economic development was due to diamond mining, but it was through the opening of the Rand goldfields that it was accelerated. It is important, however, for the reader to keep in mind that economic development is not a process which breeds contentment - technical, economic and a wide range of other factors affect the social and cultural fabric of society. The more the society becomes industrialised and urbanised, the more family relations, working relations and community relations change.

To be able to elaborate on the above statement, it is necessary to examine the methods of operation adopted by the mine owners, their objectives and the systems they put in place to secure good financial returns. They started mining companies and invited other investors from overseas to invest in their companies as major shareholders. They did not want to lose control of gold, and their interests were looked after by the Chamber of Mines, an association they had formed in 1887.

When deep-level mining started on the Witwatersrand, the richest diamond mine owners moved into gold mining. They brought with them considerable capital and experience of mining. They also brought ideas on how to control mine workers in order to increase production.

Source: Luli Callinicos, Gold and Workers. Johannesburg, Ravan, 1980, p.17.

Brought in from the reserves in their youth and shipped back in their old age, the migrant labourers spare the mining industry a whole range of social costs, the burden of which is shifted to the poverty-stricken reserves. All that is produced over and above what is required to provide a bare living for the migrant workers goes to the mine owners as profit. The migrant labourers from the reserves provide the town’s labour power without having a right to social benefits that are due to them from the capital accumulated through their activity. The reserves fulfil the functions that capitalism prefers not to assume – those of social security for the migrant workers. The extreme destitution of the peasant in the reserves was brought about by this situation.

Source: Bernard Makhosezwe Magubane, The Political Economy of Race and Class in South Africa. New York, New Monthly Review Press, 1990, pp.95-6.

Gold was an extremely valuable metal. It was the basis of the world's monetary system and it was also prized for jewellery. The Rand mines were the largest ever discovered anywhere in the world and represented a much greater store of wealth than even the diamond fields. The mine owners exercised considerable political power, and subsidised the governments in various ways because they needed its co-operation to provide sympathetic policing and anti-worker laws.

In this context, it was important to create a regular labour supply and to channel it to the mining centres. To induce men to go to work on the mines, the government introduced various taxes which were payable in cash.

Migrant labourers helped to build the economy and prosperity of South Africa by their contribution to the gold-mining industry. Migrant labourers were neither here nor there. At work, where they spent most of their time, they were treated as sojourners whose only purpose was to market their labour to provide comfort for the townspeople. Compounds enabled mine owners to keep wages low. The capitalists were only too happy to have a workforce without the full cost of supporting workers and their families in town. The mine owners were not concerned about the domestic life of migrant labourers; neither were they interested in increasing the purchasing power of their workforce. At home, migrant workers were strangers to their families. Worse still, the household had the responsibility of shouldering the social costs of caring for the children and giving them what education they could.

Fathers were often regarded as strangers by their children. Sons were compelled by tax demands to join their fathers as soon as they became 18. They were appalled by the extramarital unions their fathers had entered. The mothers, too, complained that to their husbands they were just old-age providers or even hospitals. While these remarks are truthful, the reader must be aware that the situation was beyond the control of the migrants ”” it was the plan of their employers to use the strength of the workers' active years. From an employer’s point of view, labour was cheap when the least possible amount was contributed to the subsistence and upkeep of the labourer.

In the short term, the fragmentation of family life was a factor in the breakdown of marriages. The long-term effect was the decay of moral fibre among the children.

Another social evil of the migrant labour system was the exposure of labourers and their families at home to all sorts of diseases. These were caused either by lack of resources, or the unhealthy living conditions of black miners, or over-indulgence in social activities. Tuberculosis became common among migrants.

The formation of new associations was another source of problems for the migrant workers. They readily became clients of African women who sold liquor and in turn attracted women in large numbers to their districts. Some of these women were only interested in invading their wallets.

An offshoot of the gold-mining industry was coal mining, which developed as a result of the need for power in the Transvaal and Natal. In time, coal became a major economic activity. It supplied fuel to the railways and electric power stations, and in ever-increasing quantities to a variety of chemical industries. The proximity to the Rand of great quantities of good, cheap coal - first mined at Boksburg and later at Witbank - was an added advantage. Mining of copper, manganese and chrome for export also assumed significance.

The great advantage of the reserves is that not only can Africans be reproduced cheaply there, but they can also be used as a dumping ground for the human waste discarded by the urban and mining industries.

Source: Bernard Makhosezwe Magubane, The Political Economy of Race and Class in South Africa. New York, New Monthly Review Press, 1990, p.86.

It was the development of the mining industry which, by increasing the flow of Europeans infected with tuberculosis who then worked together with black miners under dusty, damp, and poorly ventilated conditions, set the scene for infection of these black workers, who had no resistance and were poorly fed and

Source: Francis Wilson and Mamphela Ramphele, Uprooting Poverty: The South African Challenge. Cape Town, David Philip, 1989, p.116).

F.A. Johnstone characterises the social evils associated with the gold mining in South Africa:

The gold mining industry was a capitalist system of production based upon a capitalist social structure. And it was the first really large-scale capitalist industry in South Africa. Its social structure comprised two classes differentially related to the means of production (notably in the form of financial and industrial capital) and a class of workers who, not owning means of production, were thereby compelled to subsist through selling their labour power to the owners in exchange for wages. And these two classes were concentrated and engaged together in a capitalist system of production: a form of production in which the capitalist class used its privately-owned means of production as an instrument for its self-enrichment by appropriating for itself as profit the surplus part of the value of the output produced by workers but not returned to or secured by them for their own subsistence and reproduction (the worker’s wage not being equal to the value of his output; were it so, the capitalist would hardly be inclined to invest his capital). Politically, the industry was further characterised by a divided working class, with a small group of politically free workers and a large group of politically unfree workers, all working together in the same industry but subject to fundamentally different and unequal political relations with the capitalist class employing them. The gold mining industry is also of great sociological significance because It was here that occurred the first and most extensive industrial institutionalisation of racial discrimination in South Africa.

Source: F.A. Johnstone, Class, Race and Gold. London, Routledge, 1976, p.2.


The gold-mining industry has been a powerful influence in changing the outlook of Africans and orienting them towards modern society. Huddlingmigrant labourers in the compounds helped to bind fellow sufferers, and to dissolve tribal and ethnic isolation. A new language, Fanakalo, developed to assist communication, ironically enough between black and white as well.

By introducing the African to the world of modern industry, with its wealth of concepts like punctuality, modern machinery and large-scale organisation and subjecting him to modern ideas of diet, health and hygiene, the mining industry helped shape a new individual and behind him a new society.

As a result of the intermittent character of their employment, the migrant labour system failed Africans by depriving them of opportunities to acquire skills. This meant that they could barely survive in their later lives since they were “jacks of all trades and masters of none”.

The most obvious effect of gold, diamond and coal mining can be seen in the tremendous growth of African migrant labour, the rapid break-up of the tribal system, and the emergence of a poor-white class. While unskilled African migrants received a fraction of the wage of a skilled white worker, semi-skilled whites could barely survive on an unskilled wage. Cheap African migrant labour was available in large quantities. This was an important factor in the early and rapid development of the Rand gold mines. By making capital in the mining industry, African labourers put South Africa on the world map. However, the reserves were deprived of a vital factor - men. The prolonged absence of males resulted in the break-up of family life and the decline of agriculture.

Those of the southern African chiefdoms which were not annexed by 1878 soon would be. The Pedi, Venda, Sotho, Zulu, Xhosa, Tsonga and others were eventually all brought down by British troops. Loss of land and the migrant labour system greatly helped the assault on chieftainship. The latter institution is still, after changing faces so many times, struggling to be what it was prior to colonial assault.

Even though the mining revolution produced an individual with a different outlook on life and a new sense of values, it also produced the segregationist system. South African authorities lacked the wisdom to complement the“cultural pluralism” that existed in the initial phases of the mining industry.