South Africa is known for its mining industry. This is what put it on the global business map: it is abundant in precious metals and stone, aside from coal. In fact, mining is what propelled migrants, foreign settlers, and big businesses to set up shop in the country.
How It Started
It was a diamond found in Orange River that started mining in South Africa in 1867. Not long after, gold was discovered in Pilgrim’s Rest and in Barberton. This led to an even bigger gold discovery at the rocky hills of the Witwatersrand in Gauteng where an estimated 40% of the total gold ever found in the world came from.
Other precious metals and minerals that can be found in the country are platinum, chrome, vanadium, manganese, vermiculite, zirconium, ilmenite, rutile, and palladium. The country is also the 3rd largest coal exporter.
Mining and Foreign Colonization
Many believe that the mining industry caused the foreign settlers to choose South Africa over other African countries. The British came because of the diamonds and the first Boer War of 1880 erupted because of the annexing of certain diamond fields. The Second Boer War was heavily influenced on the other hand by gold mining. And, from all this chaos came Randlords. Indeed, if you managed to buy property on the Witwatersrand during this period, there is a very good chance that you would have used it for speculation.
The Randlords were an elite group of foreign entrepreneurs that monopolized diamond and gold mines up to the time of WWI. Some of the Randlords will be very familiar to many: Cecile Rhodes and the De Beers Consolidated Mines. The history of these Randlords is about ordinary Europeans from humble beginnings who made it rich and became the new elite. Many of them even got so far as to receive titles. The South African currency, the Rand, originates from the fact that gold was discovered and mined on the Witwatersrand.
Modern Mining in South Africa
One of the legacies of Randlords to mining in the country is the poor working conditions of many Black South Africans. Slowly this has improved but it remains a problem. Compared to other countries, South African mines are composed of ore bodies which are formed from ore minerals and waste rocks. It has its benefits in that it allows mining companies to dig deeper than anywhere else in the world. On the other hand, the mining area becomes unbearably hot and narrow.
Another problem with mining in the country is the silica dust which can cause silicosis, a lethal lung disease. Machines cannot be used in the depths of the mining caves which mean human labour is the only option for now.
All of these issues are being addressed by government who is forcing mining companies to adopt better working conditions for miners. The results have been very positive with deaths decreasing from over 500 in 1996 to a little less than 200 in 2006.
Three of the most highly publicized mining incidents were two cases in 2007 and one in 2012. In 2007, 3200 workers found themselves trapped inside a mine. No one died but it did result in the government’s demand for mining companies to enforce safer measures under a new mining law. In the same year a nationwide strike took place involving 240 000 workers and 60 mines. The complaint was the same: unsafe working conditions.
In 2012, violent confrontations at the Lonmin mine led to the death of 34 people and injuries sustained by 78 more. While the number of strikes has decreased by a big percent and the country is doing its best to address the situation, it will take time considering the number of mines in the country.