The Empire and the century/Some Aspects of the Mining Industry in South Africa



Nature is very capricious in the distribution of her favours. In some lands she has been bountiful in concealing treasures beneath the earth, as well as in so arranging the climatic conditions and the composition of the soil that the surface is a means of producing boundless wealth. In California, for instance, the fruits of the earth more than compensated for a declining mineral production. The virgin lands of Canada are so favourable to wheat-growing that they offer attractions to agricultural settlers without any of the speculative allurements which precious stones or precious metals dazzle before the eyes of the emigrant. Certain sections of the globe would assuredly have reason to complain at the way they have been treated if they had the power of making representations, notably some of the deserts and the icefields. There appears to have been as great a disparity in the endowment of the inanimate as of the animate world.

South Africa, for instance, in regard to whose mineral wealth the following observations are made, had not, up to the discovery of diamonds, offered any great attraction to the surplus people of the overcrowded communities of Europe. In 1868 the imports and exports of Cape Colony and Natal combined were, respectively, £2,278,566 and £2,578,647. At that time very little trade was done with any other South African ports. It was about this date that diamonds were discovered, but not until well in the seventies did that industry assume any importance. In the year 1887, which was prior to the production of gold upon any considerable scale, the output of diamonds had grown to 3,692,265 carats, valued at £4,126,288. The mines are of volcanic origin, the material containing the diamonds having been forced through the overlying strata. In some cases the surface has been denuded, and the diamonds distributed in the courses of rivers, where they are still found in comparatively small quantities. The great production, however, is derived from mining operations within the pipe or crater. The work of securing and disintegrating the blue ground, and of extracting the diamonds, involves the employment of extensive machinery and much labour.

The general activity awakened by the working of these mines upon a large scale was manifested in the imports and exports of the Cape Colony and Natal, which, combined for the year 1887, rose respectively to £7,300,055 and £8,915,988. After deducting the value of diamonds exported, it will be seen that in twenty years the exports had nearly doubled.

It will probably surprise the reader to learn that, from the date diamonds were discovered up to the end of 1903, the total value produced amounted to no less than £111,129,000. During that year the Transvaal made its first significant contribution to the South African export of diamonds, amounting to £239,752, won principally by the Premier Diamond Mining Company.

Besides the general stimulus given to trade through the working of the Griqualand West mines, their requirements necessitated the building of about 600 miles of railway, the terminus prior to their discovery being at Wellington, only forty-five miles from the coast. The completion of this line became the signal for an active railway policy in other parts of the Cape Colony. A considerable impetus was given to the commercial progress of the country by the operations in Griqualand West, entirely overshadowed, however, later on, by the wonderful goldfields of the Witwatersrand. Gold had been known to exist in the Transvaal, and small quantities had been obtained from alluvial workings from about the year 1880, but systematic working only began in 1888. Before that year the total recorded output only amounted to £220,217. The following table gives at a glance the progressive output of the Transvaal, sadly broken, as will be seen, after 1899 by the war, but now in excess of the rate of production before the conflict:

1884 10,096
1885 6,010
1886 34,710
1887 169,401
1888 967,416
1889 1,490,568
1890 1,870,000
1891 2,938,000
1892 4,698,000
1893 5,649,000
1894 7,809,000
1895 8,578,000
1896 8,598,000
1897 11,476,000
1898 16,044,135
1899 15,789,923
1900 1,498,901
1901 1,014,687
1902 7,268,665
1903 12,589,248
1904 16,054,809
1905 (seven months)     11,809,859
Total £136,299,428

But the Transvaal is not the only gold producer in South Africa. That industry in Rhodesia has had a very chequered career from a number of causes, which, in the narrow limits of this chapter, it is impossible to discuss; but all the well-wishers of that country, which bears the name of the great man who secured it to Great Britain, will be glad to learn that, although the output at present is by no means sensational, it appears to be steadily increasing. Up to March, 1901, the total produced, during somewhat intermittent working over a period of four years, amounted to £793,884.

The recorded output afterwards is:

Year ending March 31, 1902   650,752
1903 713,909
1904 851,807
1905 1,120,528
Total   £4,130,880

For the four months April to July of the present year the production has been roughly at the rate of £1,400,000 per annum. The total value of gold exported from South Africa up to the present reaches the important sum of £140,910,308.

The growing needs of the mining industry are reflected in the trade returns. Two typical years may be selected — namely, 1898, the one preceding the war; and 1903, the last year for which complete returns are obtainable. It may be of interest to present the figures in tabulated form, because certain references may be made to them later on, and because the returns from Delagoa Bay are included:

Cape Colony  16,621,354   24,423,413
Natal  5,369,672   2,202,021
Delagoa Bay   751,931     16,800
Total £22,742,957  £26,642,234
Total,[1] including goods in transit (roughly) £24,000,000  £27,000,000

Cape Colony 31,425,000 21,804,000
Natal 13,858,000 2,229,000
Delagoa Bay 4,727,000 449,000
   South African total    £50,010,000  £24,482,000

The noteworthy rise in the imports for 1903 was occasioned by the belief on the part of merchants that the mines of the Transvaal would soon be worked at the pre-war rate of speed, and that a rapid further expansion with a commensurate effect upon general trade could be looked for. The inadequacy of the manual labour supply rendered that impossible, and resulted in a severe commercial depression. The ranks of the unemployed became swollen, and the country was in a parlous state. After the proclamation of peace, the population of the Transvaal comprised not only the inhabitants of Republican days, but was augmented by a large number of white settlers, some of whom came out during the war and desired to remain, others following with sanguine hopes for their future in a country of whose wealth they had heard such attractive reports. South Africa is at present almost entirely dependent upon the mining industry for its prosperity, and restricted operations consequently caused serious disappointment to, and hardship upon, the people of the Transvaal in particular. By supplementing the available supply of native labour by about 40,000 Chinamen, the output is now larger than it was before the war, general business has improved, and the field for the white wage-earner has become widened. Before the Labour Importation Ordinance was passed, however, merchants realized the mistake they had made by securing excessive stocks in 1903, and the result was manifested in a very serious falling-off in the imports for the following year. For the half-year ending June 30, 1903, the value of merchandise imported was £16,742,153, and for the corresponding period of 1904 (the latest official figures obtainable), £10,484,687.

With a view to grouping the statistics, it may be convenient now to turn to two other branches of mining in South Africa which have been brought to the producing stage. The copper mines of Namaqualand have since the year 1879 contributed 160,353 tons to the world's supply of that metal, of an estimated value of £11,224,710. Fortunately for South Africa, coal is very widely distributed throughout the subcontinent, and so far Rhodesia produces that of the highest calorific value. Next in the order of merit comes Natal, where an export trade upon a small scale has been established. The following table will be interesting, not only because it shows the tons produced, but also the relative selling value in the respective territories:

Transvaal  2,253,677  877,976
Natal 713,548 418,975
Cape Colony     207,193 178,851
Rhodesia 46,870 35,152 approx.

Besides diamonds, gold, copper, and coal, a small quantity of tin is now coming from the Transvaal, and a great many other minerals have been proved to exist in South Africa, whether or not in payable quantities remains to be proved. Large deposits of iron ore have been located in the Transvaal, and coal-beds proved in the same neighbourhood, so that in the future the working of that metal may be profitable; but distance from the sea would render an export trade impossible under existing railway rates, and it will probably be some years before local consumption will justify the large outlay necessary for the erection of blast-furnaces and all the equipment connected with the production of iron, which is one of the most delicate and difficult of the metallurgical industries. Copper, silver, lead, cobalt, nickel, and other minerals have been found in various parts of South Africa, and taking the huge area of the country into account, and the extremely limited number of white men it contains, the field for the prospector is by no means exhausted.

The white population is practically confined to a few industrial centres. The last thirty years have witnessed a marvellous change: a network of railways from all the principal ports to the towns of the interior affords facilities for mining operations, and furnishes the means by which the other and permanent resources of the country may be developed. Agricultural and pastoral pursuits may be said to be in their infancy for a great variety of reasons. Prior to the development of the mines there were no markets for the products of husbandry, in addition to which pests, blights, droughts, and hail-storms have stood in the way. Under a progressive administration the counsels of science are now being taken, and indications are not wanting of increasing activity and success in rural industries. The rainfall over a large portion of the country is by no means inadequate, but it comes usually in heavy, fitful storms, and no attempt to impound it to any extent has yet been made. The invaluable supply of water is allowed to flow to the sea, doing much damage in its course in washing away rich alluvial soil. In years to come the skill of the civil engineer will doubtless do much to remedy this evil, and the staff of bacteriologists, chemists, and highly-trained agriculturists will minimize where they do not entirely overcome the physical disadvantages.

To what extent and in what direction the surface of the land can be turned to account remains to be demonstrated. Certain it is, however, that much of the soil is capable of producing the staple commodities for man and beast, and nothing but a lack of enterprise or a little intelligent industry will stand in the way of the whole of the horses, stock, and sheep requisite for internal use being produced in South Africa. The results obtained in the past cannot be taken as any criterion for the future, because the discovery and working of minerals have created markets that were non-existent in the old days. In South Africa mineral wealth is the pioneer that furnishes a reason for, and will more and more supply the means of, establishing industries to support the growing population in the distant future when the mines cease to produce. So great, however, is the proved extent of the gold beds of the Witwatersrand alone, to take one example, that at the present rate of working it would take the best part of one hundred years to see their exhaustion. The conglomerate deposits are proved to continue in a comparatively unbroken easterly and westerly line for a distance of sixty-one and a half miles. They are tilted at an average angle of about 30 degrees from the horizontal.

It is impossible to determine the vertical depth at which it will be profitable to continue mining. Claim licenses are held upon ground in which it would be necessary to sink from 8,000 to 10,000 feet before striking the reefs; and although this depth is greater than any at which successful mining operations have hitherto been carried on in the world, it is reasonable to expect that greater depths will be successfully reached in that region than in any other part of the globe, because the temperature of the earth, so far as tests at present indicate, only rises one degree for every 208 feet sunk, whereas the average in other parts of the world is about one degree for every 65 feet.

Leaving aside problematic depths, however, and assuming a working depth of 4,000 feet vertical, which every mining engineer would consider an extremely conservative figure, the workable area would then comprise 40,200 claims, of which, basing a calculation upon the report made by the engineers of the Witwatersrand, and presented to Mr. Chamberlain at Johannesburg on January 13, 1903, only 4.279 per cent. have been exhausted up to the end of June, 1905, or in the sixteen and a half years during which mining operations have been actually carried on.

The geological conditions do not in any way indicate that the limit of the beds is confined to the proved sixty-one and a half miles, and besides the Witwatersrand, there are a great many districts in the Transvaal where profitable mining is carried on to some extent, and where vast bodies of gold-bearing ore are known to exist, of which the yield is not, however, sufficiently high to leave a profit under existing conditions. But, in addition to the known areas, it is only reasonable to expect that in so vast a territory as that which is known to be mineralized in South Africa further discoveries of value will be made.

The number of years during which mining and prospecting have been carried on, and the small population engaged, when compared with the enormous area, give some idea of the potentialities. Labour conditions, and the cost of commodities, have an immense bearing upon the future of South Africa. The gold reefs are more extensive than anything hitherto known, but the particles of valuable metal are somewhat widely distributed in the rock, and, in consequence, profitable results are dependent upon economic working. The system under which the operations are conducted differs entirely from that prevailing in countries where white labourers are exclusively employed. The presence of a large black population results in the whole of the manual labour, in which mere muscular energy counts, being performed by the inferior race, white men occupying positions as overseers and skilled artisans. In this respect South Africa is not, and never will be, a white man's country in the same sense that England is. The conditions cannot change, and the country is destined to prosper or to languish under this system, because either the black man must be employed, if the civilizing mission of the white man is to be conscientiously pursued, or he must be driven away from the centres of labour into the wilds, where he can live in comparative idleness, as he did in days gone by. In that case, no doubt, it would be possible to carry on the mining industry exclusively with white labourers, but so long as the black man occupies his present position in the industrial life of the country, the white man will not be found doing the same class of work.

It is impossible within the limits here assigned to the subject of mining to discuss the labour question, but it may be briefly stated, as a fact, that white men will not, unless driven by sheer necessity, undertake work which they regard as belonging to the sphere of the Kaffir, and, if they would do so, it would be extremely injurious to the prestige of the white races. The disparity between the scale of payment to the white and coloured workers is so great, and the planes upon which they live so widely different, that the employment of the former in work that, of necessity, would command lower wages than the skilled artisans and overseers receive to-day, would create a class of 'poor whites' looked down on by, and degraded in the eyes of, the Kaffirs.

The mining industry, besides giving direct employment to tens of thousands of men, indirectly supports hundreds of thousands more. In 1870 the total population of the Cape Colony and Natal was estimated at 860,000 souls. By 1887 it had grown to 1,860,000, and according to the census returns of 1904 the population had swollen to 3,518,558. This result is naturally not solely attributable to the mining industry, as it includes the natural increase among the natives, and was partly due to other industries; but a glance at the detailed figures in regard to exports is sufficient to show the extent to which the progress of the country is dependent at present upon mineral wealth. Apart from direct and indirect employment, the mining operations furnish good markets for the farmer, and an outlet for the products of the British manufacturer. Every new mine that starts, and is able to give employment to, say, 2,000 hands, has a beneficial effect upon the county, generally quite disproportionate to the persons directly engaged. It is, therefore, of great importance to South Africa that the cost of winning gold should be as low as possible, in order that ore of low value may be brought within the sphere of profitable manipulation.

In addition to the distribution of money in wages, and for commodities consumed, the general revenue of the country, partly through the tax on profits, and partly through the railway system, which in South Africa is used to some extent as a means of taxation, benefits by an expansion in the mining operations. The cost of living is abnormally high, and the only hope of a very material reduction lies in the development of the internal resources of the country, and the establishment of local industries for which the conditions are favourable. State encouragement, through the provision of transport facilities, and possibly by other expedients, may have an effect infinitely more far-reaching than a calculation based upon the existing conditions would indicate.

South Africa needs, above all things, a larger white population, which is, at present, only about one-fourth of the numerical strength of the coloured people. The gravity of the position is illustrated by comparison with the United States, where, in spite of there being six white to every coloured man, the latter constitutes a serious social problem. But apart from this aspect of the case, the race differences between the Dutch and the English would lose much of their significance if a stream of Europeans continued to flow into the country, because their survival is far more likely to be sustained by the struggle for political ascendancy than by the perpetuation of animosities due to past events. Upon the reasonable supposition that the mining industry has by no means reached its zenith, the influx of European settlers will continue in proportion to the expansion of its operations, and this may be expected to justify the establishment of other industries, which will afford employment for a larger population.

  1. The transit trade of Delagoa Bay, in addition to the imports and exports given above, amounted to £1,170,082. No separate figures are given for imports and exports in transit, but nearly the whole must be accounted for by the Transvaal. The Inspector-General of Customs in that colony gives the value of imports viâ Delagoa Bay at £1,781,252. These figures no doubt include the port dues, transit duty, and possibly railway charges.