The Story of Africa


- Zulu rise & Mfecane


- Oppression of Khoikhoi and Xhosa


- Afrikaners versus English


- Mining


- Imperial racism


- Apartheid


- The Cold War


- South African aggression


- Clinging on


- Collapse of Apartheid



Copper mining in South Africa
The 1860s saw the British embark on serious mineral exploitation. They started diamond mining in Griqualand West. Gold mining began in Witwatersland in 1886.

Southern African gold had been exported for thousands of years to the Arab Peninsula and the Persian Gulf, but it had never been exploited on a massive scale. Now it was to be the focus of reckless European speculators and the investment houses of the world.


In 1889, Cecil Rhodes, already hugely wealthy from diamond mining, set his ambitions north of the Limpopo and tricked Lobengula, the King of the Ndebele into handing over his land. Ndebele thought he was granting Rhodes a limited mining concession. In August 1889 the King wrote to Queen Victoria to complain:

"The white people are troubling me much about gold. If the queen hears that I have given away the whole country it is not so."

Cecil Rhodes made his views on African rights clear, eight years earlier, when he wrote to his friend W.T. Stead in August 1891:

"I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race."


African trade unionism: the white response
"A trade union organisation would be outside the comprehension of all but a few educated natives of the urban type; it would not only be useless, but detrimental to the ordinary mine native in his present stage of development." - South African Chamber of Mines quoted by Francis Wilson in Labour in the South African Gold Mines.
Between 1903 and 1973, 42,000 men died on the gold mines. Ninety per cent of these were African. African miners were not allowed to move on to skilled work, which was reserved for white miners.

Between 1911 and 1969, salaries of white miners rose by over seventy per cent in real terms, while those of black miners remained the same. White miners had their own union, and carried out a number of strikes, notably in 1922 with the Rand Rebellion. But white miners showed no solidarity with their African fellow workers.

Labour unrest

In 1941, African workers formed the African Mine Workers Union. In 1946 they called a general strike. Nine men were killed, and seventy men were dismissed. The union was subsequently banned. The need for more cheap black labour after the Second World War led the South African government to look for migrant workers outside South Africa, mainly from Mozambique and Malawi.


In the 1970s Anglo American was the biggest mining group in southern Africa. It had a high commercial profile, worldwide. Anglo American had a controlling interest in mines in Botswana and Zambia.
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