An in depth look back at South Africa’s mining history

Below the external beauty of our country, lies a veritable treasure trove. Whilst South Africa is known for many things, from its vibrant people and culture, to its naturally striking landscapes, it can also be said that’s it made its mark on the map when it comes to one other thing: mining. With the discovery of an abundance of minerals, metals and precious stones many years ago, South Africa went from being an agricultural society, to one of the leaders in mining globally today – in fact, we’re the fifth largest producer of gold in the world. Here we take a look at the history of mining in South Africa and how its birth changed the course of the country.

Before diamonds and gold

Commercial mining in South Africa dates back to the early 1850s, when the first copper mine was established on Springbokfontein Farm in Springbok in the Northern Cape. Nowadays, you can visit the mine museum at Nababeep to educate yourself about this copper-rich area and the mining that took place there once upon a time.

Sparkle, sparkle

The Northern Cape continued to give and give, reaching its pinnacle when diamonds were discovered in the late 1860s. In 1866, the Eureka was unearthed, boasting 21 ¼ carats, followed by the Star of South Africa in 1869, delivering a whopping 83 ½ carats. In between that, Erasmus Jacobs also discovered diamonds on the banks of the Orange River. All these events contributed to the great mineral rush that saw some 5000 diggers flocking to the Vaal River as well as the place famous for its Big Hole: Kimberley.

Big Hole Kimberley

The Big Hole, in all it’s glory. Photo:

For just under 45 years, The Big Hole produced a staggering 14.5 million carats and in the process, became one of the country’s most prominent mines. The one diamond in particular for which The Big Hole is known is undoubtedly the Tiffany Yellow Diamond, and with almost 129 carats, it’s truly a thing of magic. Even though the mine is no longer in operation, Kimberley still welcomes throngs of visitors who come to see the massive dent in the earth.

Tiffany Yellow Diamond

Shimmer and sparkle: The Tiffany Yellow Diamond is indeed a thing of beauty. Photo:

Gold rush

Contrary to popular belief, the discovery of gold in South Africa did not come too long after diamonds were found. Towards the end of 1870, gold was discovered on the Eersteling Farm outside of Polokwane – this was just beginning of what would eventually culminate in the Witswatersrand Gold Rush in 1886. Before then, gold was being mined at a rapid rate in places such as Pilgrim’s Rest and Barberton. Nothing compared to the Witswatersrand Basin though, essentially a golden curve that runs for hundreds of kilometers which eventually became home to a slew mining towns. It is responsible for providing a third of the world’s entire stock of gold.

The gold-mining industry of South Africa developed at an impressive rate despite various challenges that included high production costs as well as a huge labour demand. The 53 mines along the Witswatersrand reached their peak in 1970, producing some 1147 tons of gold.

gold nuggets

Golden nuggets. Photo:

Don’t forget about iron and coal

Whilst it may be true that diamonds and gold gave South African mining the boost it needed, this would not have been possible without iron ore and coal. Coal was first discovered back in the 1850s but became more and more important with the ever-expanding mining industry, particularly from the 1890s. Large amounts of energy are required for mining and that’s exactly what coal provides.

Last but not least: Platinum

Today, South Africa is known as the world’s largest platinum producer. Discovered in 1924, platinum only really came to the fore when gold mining started to decline from about 1970. Numerous operational mines can be found in the area surrounding Rustenburg in the North West province.

Tumela Mine Limpopo

Tumela Mine, Limpopo. Photo:

Mine ownership

Mines were and still are owned by a select few entrepreneurs and companies known as Randlords. Many were wealthy Europeans who wanted to invest their money in the booming mining industry. De Beers, founded by Cecil John Rhodes in 1888, is the world’s largest diamond miner today and it is active in every category of diamond mining there currently is.

Despite many challenges and obstacles, South Africa still boasts one of the most diverse and significant mining industries in the world. With a wealth of minerals and metals to offer, it’s a resource base that is second to none, with endless possibilities for both itself and the rest of the globe. The constant developments in mining equipment and technology means that the industry is improving itself constantly, something that is evident through the impressive outputs seen year after year. South Africa is a major player in the mining arena and is set to continue from strength to strength.

Fast facts:

  • Gold comes from ore and the ore from the Witswatersrand is considered low-grade. This means that a large amount of the crushed rock only yields a small amount of gold.
  • Mining that takes place near the surface is known as outcrop harvesting, and shovels and picks are used to dig into the ground.
  • Because gold is heavier than river sand, it sinks to the bottom when rinsed with water, when using the simple form of mining known as gold panning.


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