During further research on my previous post a diggers lament I discovered a rare book that gives quite a bizarre visual report of a bygone era; ‘Kimberley Diamond Mine, South Africa’ by photographer Robert Harris (1880-1894) and others. This rare book was estimated at $10000–£15000 and sold for $10000 on 24th October 2007 during an auction by Bloomsbury Auctions.
The album features a series of photographs recording the infamous practices of the mine owners in the early days of the South African diamond fields. The first ten photographs in this album form a quite standard ‘anthropological’ collection of images: the majority are of naked or semi-clad men and women from the Zulu people and other ethnic groups.
None of these photographs include a photographer’s name, but all are accompanied by manuscript titles. The second group of nine images, all by Robert Harris, show scenes inside the mining compound at Kimberley and record in detail the degrading body searches that the miners had to undergo at the end of each ‘shift’. The searching system was enforced on the labourers to ensure that they were not trying to smuggle out diamonds. Each of the photographs is accompanied by manuscript titling and, in most cases, explanatory notes. The mine owners were able to exert strong political pressure and in 1880 “Searching Ordinance No.1” was passed which allowed for the establishment of a comprehensive system of searching, including strip searching, at every mine. In 1883, the new Mining Regulations re-inforced the ordinance by requiring all mine workers, other than the managers, to wear uniforms, and to strip naked in searching houses at the end of each shift.
One contemporary account stated that “The most extraordinary sight at the compound is the searching room when every ‘boy’, before he can leave the company, is subjected to a week’s solitary confinement and given doses of “Eno” or “Cockla” to gently dislodge any diamonds he may have swallowed; and every inch of his body critically examined to see that none of the coveted gems are concealed in his hair, nose, mouth, ears, etc.”
To cope with the recent turmoil within South Africa, the Minister of Justice Jeff Radebe announced a crackdown on “illegal gatherings” following five weeks of industrial action by miners that has hit the country’s platinum sector.
Hours after the announcement, South African media reports said police fired tear gas to disperse striking miners outside an Aquarius Platinum mine near Rustenburg, north-west of Johannesburg. Radebe told reporters the government would no longer tolerate the illegal protests where miners brandish machetes, knives, spears and clubs. Such marches have become daily events as the strike at Lonmin PLC platinum mine is now spreading across the whole country and provoking political unrest.
But what’s new??
In early 1922, white South African workers in the Witwatersrand gold mining region went on strike. The strike soon became a violent rebellion—sometimes known as the Rand Revolt—that pitted the white miners against the mine owners and the government. The workers’ action was a response to the owners’ plan to reduce wages and replace the well-paid white workers with cheaper black African workers. At first, the government attempted to get the two sides to negotiate, but neither side was willing to compromise. The strikers formed commandos.
In response, the government sent in troops from the Active Citizens Force and declared martial law. The ensuing violence resulted in hundreds of injuries and deaths. Authorities arrested thousands of workers, and four were put to death. The negative reaction to the government’s actions cost Prime Minister Jan Smuts and his South Africa Party the 1924 election.
Ever since the discovery of the main reef of gold-bearing conglomerate on Langlaagte Farm near Johannesburg in 1886 the usual gold rush of freelance diggers followed. But to run business more efficientlycapital was required to develop deep underground mines.
Fortuitously, that was already at hand, for the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley in 1871 had already attracted substantial capital from British and European banks to finance the emerging diamond mining houses created by Cecil Rhodes, Alfred Beit and Barney Barnato, who eventually united to form De Beers Consolidated Mines.
South Africa remains a cornucopia of mineral riches. It is the world’s largest producer of chrome, manganese, platinum, vanadium and vermiculite. It is the second largest producer of ilmenite, palladium, rutile and zirconium. It is also the world’s third largest coal exporter.
Diamond and gold discoveries played an important part in the growth of the early South African Republic. A site northeast of Cape Town was discovered to have rich deposits of diamonds, and thousands rushed to the area of Kimberley in an attempt to profit from the discovery. The British later annexed the region of Griqualand West, an area which included the diamond fields. In 1868, the republic attempted to annex areas near newly discovered goldfields, drawing protests from the nearby British colonial government. These annexations later led to the First Boer War of 1880-1881.
Gold was discovered in the area known as Witwatersrand, triggering what would become the Witwatersrand Gold Rush of 1886. Like the diamond discoveries before, the gold rush caused thousands of foreign expatriates to destroy the region. This heightened political tensions in the area, ultimately contributing to the Second Boer War in 1899. Ownership of the diamond and gold mines became concentrated in the hands of a few entrepreneurs, largely of European origin, known as the Randlords.
The gold mining industry continued to grow throughout much of the early 20th century, significantly contributing to the tripling of the economic value of what was then known as the Union of South Africa. In particular, revenue from gold exports provided sufficient capital to purchase much-needed machinery and petroleum products to support an expanding manufacturing base.
Today’s post brings back memories of those days. ‘The Diggers Song’ is a rare recording by Gé Korsten, one of the most diverse South African artists, who belongs to that very rare breed of lyric tenors who also have enough metal in the voice to venture into the musical world of South Africa not only as an opera singer, but who was also very at home in front of the TV cameras and on the concert platform performing light popular music.