By Chris Bishop
Most mines in South Africa – one of the world’s mining capitals – are either shut down or working at reduced output as COVID-19 takes its toll. All but those mines digging vital minerals – like coal for power generation – closed their shafts for fear the disease may spread in the often difficult hot and wet conditions deep underground.
South African mines have proved resilient since George Harrison first uncovered gold in 1886 in open bush that is now the heart of Johannesburg. They hummed through two world wars and yet a war closer to home and a violent revolt in Johannesburg, the city that gold built, saw the mine shafts shut down.
The current lockdown for 21 days will be the joint longest for nearly a century. The last time the mines shut down for three weeks was during the 1987 strike when 230,000 miners downed tools between August 10 and 31. One of the architects of the 1987 strike – seen as a kick against apartheid – was a young lawyer by the name of Cyril Ramaphosa. He led the fledging National Union of Mineworkers, which he founded in 1982, after being seconded to the mining industry by the African National Congress. The shutdown saw deaths and hundreds of thousands of dismissals.
More peaceful was the more recent shut down in January 2008 when Eskom simply ran out of electricity. The gold and platinum mines closed for at least five days; Eskom declared force majeure and production resumed – under 10 to 20% power reductions – early in February.
Surprisingly the mining industry survived both world wars. As thousands of black and white South Africans marched off to battle fields across the continent and in Europe the miners went underground to help finance the allied war effort. Britain struck a deal for cut price gold from the Witwatersrand to fund the First World War and was miffed, to say the least, when South Africa demanded full price again after the armistice in 1918.
This signalled hard times for South African mines.When many white the soldiers returned to South Africa, many complained they were being replaced by cheaper black miners as the mines cut cost. It led to the violent 1922 Rand Revolt when all the Witwatersrand gold mines closed for 10 weeks.
The strike started on 10 January 1922, halting all gold mining activities, from Springs in the east of Johannesburg to Randfontein in the west. More than 220,000 mine workers downed tools shutting 40 gold mines.
Planes dropped bombs from the blue, artillery shelled suburban houses, riflemen fought street battles, snipers fired from bedroom windows and tanks rumbled through the suburbs. The fighting around the mines saw 200 people killed and more than a 1000 injured.
In Brixton – a working class suburb near the centre of Johannesburg – more than 1500 strikers besieged 183 police; warplanes swooped to drop food for the police and returned to drop bombs on the strikers. The attackers fired back shooting one of the aircrew through the heart. The strike was called off on March 17 and the mines went back to work.
A war closer to home caused the longest closure of the mines. When the South African War broke out on October 11 1899. Many mines were not put on care and maintenance and were allowed to flood. It was only after Johannesburg was captured by the British on 1 June 1900 – nearly nine months later – that a few mines began production again. The gold mines in what is now Mpumalanga – Pilgrim’s Rest and Barberton-, which was the other major gold mining area after the Witwatersrand, were also closed during the war.
By Chris Bishop