The exploitation of the region’s mineral resource base dates back to at least about 41 250 BC when late Stone Age populations began quarrying the rich haematite – the mineral form of iron oxide – deposits of Lion Cavern in north-west Swaziland, as a source of red ochre, which they used for cosmetic and ritualistic purposes.
While there is no doubt that South Africa had a very active iron ore-, tin- and copper- mining and metal-working scene, particularly from the fifth century AD onwards, because most of those mining sites were simply considered indicators of the existence of rich metalliferous deposits, much of the archaeological evidence that could shed light on that era of South Africa’s mining history was destroyed by colonial and post-colonial prospecting and mining activities.
The era of modern commercial mining in South Africa has its roots in the copper-rich region of Namaqualand in the Northern Cape. The first mine was established on the farm Springbokfontein – the site of the town of Springbok – in 1852. Although much of the copper mining activity has ceased, the area is still littered with old mining relics, and one may also visit the Mine Museum at Nababeep.
While Namaqualand can be considered the cradle of South African commercial mining, the real catalyst of the mineral revolution, on the back of which the country’s modern industrial economy has been built, was the discovery of diamonds in the Northern Cape in the late 1860s.
The discovery of the 21¼ carat Eureka diamond in late 1866 and then the 83½ carat Star of South Africa in 1869 sparked the country’s first great mineral rush, with more than five thousand diggers rushing first to the Vaal River and then Kimberley.
Aspects of the history and atmosphere of the early diamond digging days can be experienced at the Big Hole Museum in Kimberley. The Big Hole, which is one of South Africa’s most iconic mines, operated for 43 years between 1871 and 1914 and produced a phenomenal 14.5-million carats, among them the famous 128.53 carat Tiffany Yellow Diamond.
In addition to the diamond city of Kimberley, other attractions that pay homage to South Africa’s diamond history include the Barkly West Museum in the Northern Cape, the Jagersfontein Big Hole Open Mine in the Free State, the Lichtenburg Diggings Museum in the North West, and the still-operating Cullinan Diamond Mine north-east of Pretoria.
While the history of gold mining is often presumed to postdate that of diamonds, the precious metal was, in fact, discovered, and the first mine established, at roughly the same time as the diamond rush. It was in the closing months of 1870 that gold was discovered on the farm Eersteling, approximately 40km south-east of Polokwane.
Eersteling was followed by the more significant gold discoveries, principally at Pilgrim’s Rest in 1873 and Barberton in 1885. The village of Pilgrim’s Rest operates as a living museum retaining the romance of the bygone gold-rush era.
The significance of the then Eastern Transvaal gold rushes pales in comparison to the Witwatersrand Basin from which one-third of the world’s entire stock of gold has been sourced.
Discovered in February 1886 and pioneered by organised diamond mining capital, the Witwatersrand gold-mining industry developed at an unparalleled rate despite numerous challenges, including the considerable depth and pyritic nature of the conglomerate reefs, the very low grade of the resource, the high costs of production, and the enormous labour requirements of the mines.
Gold output from the Witwatersrand’s 53 operating mines peaked at a phenomenal 1 147 tons of gold in 1970. However, from the 1970s the gold sector began to slip into decline largely spurred by a range of international financial, oil and military crises.
While it is true to say that the success of South Africa’s modern economy was underpinned by the growth of the gold- and diamond-mining sectors, the industrialisation of the economy could not have been achieved without coal and iron ore.
It was the vast resources of coal, first discovered in the 1850s but developed on a significantly large scale as the needs of the mining industry began to expand from the 1890s onwards, that provided the entire power base of the country.
Given coal’s highly practical role in South Africa’s economy, much of the heritage of old mining sites has not been preserved, although it is possible to visit the Talana Museum in Dundee, KwaZulu-Natal, which showcases a limited aspect of the sector’s history.
It was the exploitation of the country’s vast iron-ore resources in the North West and Northern Cape provinces and the establishment of a state-controlled iron and steel industry in the 1920s that facilitated the growth of a secondary industry and enabled South Africa to develop into the most industrially self-sufficient country in Africa.
Platinum, the precious metal that now constitutes South Africa’s flagship mining sector, was discovered in 1924, but it was only in the early 1970s that South Africa’s platinum sector began to experience significant growth. While there are no tourist attractions showcasing the history of platinum mining, the landscape surrounding Rustenburg in the North West is littered with still-operating platinum operations.
In the latter half of the 20th century, the mining industry underwent considerable diversification with the growth of new sectors such as uranium, chromium, vanadium, and manganese.
Although the industry is currently struggling under myriad challenges, after more than 160 years of commercial enterprise, South Africa still has one of the most diverse and important mining industries in the world, as well as an attractive resource base that holds much promise for future mining activities.