Mining in South Africa
by Katharine L. Huffman
Although the Mining Revolution of South Africa did not begin until 1866, Africans had been mining there for years. The Sotho mined and smelted iron, copper, and tin, which was used to make knives, spears, and jewelry. When writing about the coppersmiths and iron-workers, Livingston noted that “their country is abound in ores.” Sotho occupations were established along a line of iron ore deposits, which provided an abundant source of high-quality ore. This accessibility allowed them to perfect mining and smelting techniques.
In 1867, a diamond was discovered near the Orange River. This attracted miners from around the world to the Griqua Territory. Three years later, more diamonds were discovered at Kimberly. More miners flocked to Kimberly, and began searching for diamonds, which were found in deep volcanic pipes. Figure 1 shows the locations of resources, major cores, and minor cores in South Africa in 1870.
The discovery of diamonds had significant effects on South Africa’s economic structure. Mining became a major source of wealth and created jobs outside of agriculture. It also brought immigrants from the United States, Australia, Europe, China and neighboring African countries. Railroads were created to provide transportation between the mines and major cities.
In 1886, after gold was discovered in Witwatersrand, it became a proclaimed gold-mining area. Foreigners rushed to the Transvaal, just as they had rushed to the diamond mines.
The demand for labor for the mines led to increased urbanization. The city of Johannesburg grew rapidly because of the discovery of gold. However, much of the mining workforce was made up of migrant workers who lived in rural parts of South Africa, or in neighboring countries. Mine owners built compounds to house these adult males for the 16-18 week periods they labored in the mines. These compounds, which were often over-crowded and had poor living conditions, were located adjacent to the mines. Figure 2 depicts a compound in Kimberly in 1900. Since many workers went back to their families as soon as they had enough money, the owners of the mines would force them to stay and work.
The Workers’ Museum in Johannesburg, which is housed in a former compound, serves as a reminder of how the migrant workers were subjected to harsh living conditions. Parts of the museum are kept as they were when the compound was in operation, while others contain photographs and quotes of former residents, video clips of them telling their stories about the compound, and a timeline of events about the history of mining and apartheid. Figure 3 is a photograph from the museum. This exhibit is a realistic depiction of what one of the prison-like rooms looked like. The Workers’ Museum allows people to learn about how these miners really lived, and hear the true stories from the individuals themselves.
The Cullinan Mine (previously known as the Premiere Diamond Mine) is another place that people can visit to learn about the history of mining, as well as present day mining. Located in the town of Cullinan, this mine is well-known for its famous Cullinan Diamond, which was found in 1905. This diamond was 3108 carat stone, and the largest uncut diamond ever discovered! This astonishing diamond can be seen in Figure 4. The Golden Jubilee and the Centenary diamonds were also extracted at this location, which are shown in figures 5 and 6.
The Cullinan Mine is still in operation, and also offers tours of the mine underground, as well as the areas around the mine. These tours, especially the underground tour, are an excellent way to witness mining in South Africa firsthand. A sign at the entry to the mining area is shown in Figure 7.
When the visitors first arrive for the underground tour, they are given boots, jumpsuits, and helmets. These are for protection purposes, but they also contributes to the realistic mining experience. Figure 8 shows some students in their mining attire.
Next, they are taken to a room to be briefed about safety equipment and procedures, which is shown in Figure 9. Once these safety equipment and flashlights are distributed, the group proceeds to the mine.
While walking to the entrance, they can see some of the mining equipment and carts carrying explosives, shown in Figure 10 and Figure 11. A long ride down in a “cage,” or elevator, takes them deep into the mine. Figure 12 shows what this cage looks like.
Once down in the mine, they are led by a guide, and learn about the history and geology of
There are miners working during the tour, so people learn about the people that work in the mine as well. Two miners can be seen in Figure 13.
This also means that you have to watch out for people driving heavy equipment!
After walking through the mine, the group is taken to a spot overlooking an excavated mine. This site is shown in figures 14 and 15.
The tour ends in the diamond shop, where some of the diamonds extracted from the Cullinan Mine are for sale. Most of these diamonds are made into jewelry, and are quite expensive. Figure 16 shows some of the rings available for purchase. The Cullinan Mine was a great way to learn about the past and present aspects of diamond mining.
Christopher, A. J.1994. The Atlas of Apartheid. Johannesburg, South Africa: Witwatersrand University Press.
Wilson, Monica and Thompson, Leonard. 1969. The Oxford History of South Africa. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Department of Arts, Culture and Heritage in the City of Johannesburg. 2011. About Us: Workers’ Museum.
Easyfind. 2007. A Short History of Cullinan.
Moratiwa Tours. 2011. Cullinan Diamond Mine.