South Africa’s Golden Treasure

Although Arab traders were known to deal for gold with certain inland African tribes as early as the 7th century, it was really only in about 1886 that South Africa started to gain a reputation for this most treasured mineral. It was in this year that George Harrison discovered the Main Reef on the Witwatersrand, 33 years after the somewhat smaller Pilgrim’s Rest seam had begun to be tapped. Today South Africa still remains at the forefront of the global gold trade – even though it’s position as a major gold contributer has diminished somewhat over the years.

With the discovery of the Reef in the Witwatersrand area, gold diggers and hopefuls came from near and far to dig out their own piece of the treasure. The local municipality reclaimed land which lay along the reef line and declared it public property – ready to be reclaimed by those wanting a piece of the treasure. Not long afterwards, the city of Johannesburg began to be laid out a short distance away. Though the Boers had trekked into the area to get away from the British and the fuss, they suddenly found themselves surrounded by all types and in the midst of a hostile take-over by the British. When the war was over, it was a privileged few who managed to gain most of the wealth generated by the mines. While these few have long since left us, they left behind in their legacy, large mining firms ready to continue the challenge of yielding this enriching yellow substance from the clutches of the earth.

Today South Africa’s gold mines employ more than 200 000 workers as this natural deposit continues to be mined. Though the minds now yield less, they stretch from Evander to Mpumalanga in a roughly 500 km arc. Johannesburg is the center of the industry, even though the Free State is now responsible for generating more than a third of the country’s gold. Still, all is not rosy. The recent reorganization of the industry resulted in the closure of several small mines which has resulted in the loss of some 260 000 much need jobs. While some workers are loosing their livelihood, others are taking advantage of new laws which have enabled them to bring about better working conditions and housing. And, with the large deposits, it is unlikely that those currently mining will have to look for new work soon. Though mining costs are high, the country still owns about 39 percent of the world’s gold deposits – a fact which keeps it at the forefront of the industry. The Reef in this area truly has become South Africa’s Golden Treasure.