The Gold Rush

On a summer's day in 1886, two prospectors discovered gold on a Transvaal farm called Langlaagte. Gold was not new to the Transvaal. Africans 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.

The gold changed the face of the Transvaal. Before 1886 it had been 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, the rode on horse back, or they came by slow 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.

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