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The high price of mineral discovery

The other day I stumbled upon a copy of “A History of South Africa” by Leonard Thompson. It was a book I used during my undergrad and so I skimmed through it reminiscing on my student days.

One of the more interesting chapters I found covers the discovery of minerals in South Africa and the effect it had on the country, an effect that lasts till today.

At the end of the 19th century, minerals – gold and diamonds – were discovered in South Africa and changed the social, economic and political landscape

Diamonds and gold were discovered in 1870 and 1886 respectively, exposing to the world some of the richest untapped deposits in the world.

According to Thompson, Kimberley, known as the diamond city, continued to grow exponentially around the four main mines which were later owned by Barney Barnato, Alfred Beit and Cecil John Rhodes who had acquired control of De Beers.

Control of the mine gave Rhodes influence and power which put him in a position to be elected prime minister of the Cape Colony in 1890.

Economically, the contribution of both diamonds and gold to the economy of the country was massive. Within a few years, these two minerals constituted more than half of the exports from the country.

The economics of mining gold and diamonds required vast amounts of labour and Africans were preferred to skilled white diggers as they were cheaper to employ.

In both the diamond and gold mines, thousands of Africans from various tribal groups, some as far as the Zambezi River, were employed to work at the mines in un- favourable conditions.

Between 1862 and 1912, close to 325 000 miners were employed the bulk of the African workers from all over Southern Africa, the Transvaal, Natal, Basutoland, Bechuanaland, and Rhodesia and Nyasa- land.

The conditions for African workers resulted in experiences which altered their societies as well as the way these societies interacted with one another and within themselves.

Africans were, however, obligated to carry a pass and forced to live in a separate part of the city or all-male compounds. These camps and compounds were a metropolitan hub containing a number of different tribes, providing a platform for interaction of groups.

The gold industry followed the same rules as the diamond, and racial discrimination was a factor influenced by the price of gold, the operating cost and the profits to be made. This was the birth of policies which would later be implemented under fiercer conditions during the apartheid regime.

The Mineral Revolution also carried with it social effects, some extremely damaging. Men were kept in compounds, unable to leave for prolonged periods and this affected their relations with their families. Fathers and husbands were absent fathers as they lived away from their fam- ilies.

Some even ended up having two families, one closer to where they worked and the other back in their village of origin. One might argue that the absentee father in many various Southern African families stems from this period.

Women in villages were forced to take on a dual role not only being wives and mothers but were forced to seize the mantle as head of the household in the absence of a male presence.

This role was a heavy burden as they were the sole provider of counsel and education to their children who grew up in a fatherless society.

The growth of the mining industry had political consequences in the latter stages of the 19th century. Not only did it provide a platform for the likes of Cecil John Rhodes to rise to political office but during this period the British and Afrikaner were able to conquer the African inhabitants and later in the Anglo-Boer War, the British were able to conquer the Afrikaner.

The effects of the Mining Revolution on the African and on the nation were long lasting. A metropolitan environment was created and this formed a cultural melting pot in South Africa.

This union of people would later lead to form a foundation for the resistance of the apartheid regime as African people sought to secure their rights and freedoms.

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