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Thursday, April 21, 2011

My father was a gold miner

The Apartheid Generation in Gold

My father started his mining career in 1934. His first employment was at Van Rijn Deep Ltd Gold Mine, close to Benoni. The date is more than coincidental. On his service record he listed his last occupation as farmer. That was not exactly correct. He was employed from the ranks of many thousands destitute, unemployed people who lost jobs and farms during the Great Depression.

Worldwide gold mining has been associated with the opening of new frontiers. And nowhere else was this more the case than in South Africa. The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand had ratcheted up a hive of activity giving birth to a sustainable first world economy, encapsulated a settler colonial environment. By the early 20th Century the mining of the gold reef in the Johannesburg area had gone into decline. While Johannesburg became a prosperous hub of activity, it is probable that had there been no further discoveries of outcrops of the gold bearing reef of the Witwatersrand rock formation, South Africa could have sunk back into oblivion. Discovering new outcrops of the gold bearing reef on the East Rand, notably around Benoni, mines like Van Rijn Deep and New Modderfontein Gold Mining Company and others once again replicated the earlier discoveries in the Johannesburg area giving rise to the richest mines in the world. My father followed this trend, his second employment being at New Modderfontein, and subsequently, after he returned from the war in Europe in 1946, his third employment station was on the West Rand, at Blyvooruitzicht Gold Mining Company, close to what later arose as the town of Carletonville.  Blyvooruitzicht, on the northwest line of the Rand, superseded all previous records of the Central and Eastern Rand, Johannesburg and Benoni respectively, in scale and profitability of earnings. Today all these places mentioned, are in Gauteng Province.

There was even more groundbreaking news in 1946 when a borehole had been sunk in a corn field near Odendaalsrus, in the northwest of the Orange Free State, today renamed as Free State Province. In an article written in 1946 Time Magazine described this strike of luck as precipitating the greatest gold rush in the world since that of the Klondike, in Canada. The Free State borehole, named "Aandenk" which has been immortalized by a monument, intersected ore which was 33 times more valuable than the previous most valuable found at Blyvooruitzicht. There was a global stock market frenzy following this discovery which led to the opening of the Free State goldfields.

Interestingly, investors on the major stock exchanges referred to South African gold stocks as “kaffir circuses”. If one follows the undercurrents in financial reporting from the financial press on the South African goldfields, especially during the 1940’s, it is evident that employment of black mine workers reflected a serious disorder in the civilizing mission of the British Empire in Africa. Every resort was made by mine owners to exploit racial differences with aggravated social consequences of black labour exploitation and indeed laughed off by expletives like “kaffir circuses”. We, as white kids grew up on the gold fields in a protected environment and oblivious to the mass of black workers made invisible and contained in the compounds. But commonsense left gaps all the same. I often used to marvel at the amount of work involved in heaping up mountains of rock and what sort of a cavity was left in the belly of the earth. Later in life these gaps in knowledge would fill up much as the cavities in the earth would seek retribution for the damages inflicted on underground aquifers and poisons spread from waste rock dumps and slimes dams.  

At this time my father, probably for good cause to feed a growing up family of six children, opted to drop mining as a profession and embark on a career of maximizing earnings as a contract miner. Management of the mines had a promotional structure from Surveyors, Samplers, Shift Bosses at the junior level, to Mine Captains, a gradation of rank until the top notch Mine Manager, and then on to even higher rankings as staff at head offices of the mining houses. There was a rigid distinction between mine officials, all white and mostly English speaking or from England, and white miners, mainly Afrikaans speaking. White miners were mostly salaried white people doing trades such as fitters and turners, electricians, or menial jobs such as laying tracks and pipes or as trammers, cleaning haulages and stopes of blasted rock. Or they were contract miners in charge of stoping operations, tunnel development or shaft sinking. On the other side of the racial divide were actual labourers, black miners who earned a pittance, nothing in comparison to the whites. They outnumbered white workers by probably 20 to 0ne.

When my father left Blyvooruitzicht he was a Shift Boss. When he started service at Freddies in the Free State, he came on board doing the most dangerous but also most lucrative job of Master Shaft Sinker. His earnings more than trebled. While he nominally earned much less than he did as a mine management functionary, as a contract miner his performance bonuses more than compensated. In shaft sinking this amounted to shortening a shift, with the sequence of cleaning, drilling, blasting, wait for the nitrous fumes to dissipate into the open atmosphere, and then do the whole cycle all over again. The shorter the cycle, the more shifts per day, and so the more pay. He was constantly on wait for the mine Ford light delivery truck, for call out to the mine once the nitrous fumes from blasting had entered the open atmosphere.

As children we knew the significance of the mine flag going up on the shaft headgear at half mast, indicating that a fatality had taken place down the shaft. This was a twice, thrice sometimes more weekly happening. We would panic but only on rare occasions was there a reason for fearful expectations of a white miner to grieve about who we would certainly be acquainted with. My father escaped unscathed throughout his career, barring a fall of rock that left him half blind in his right eye. Black miners were expendable and never mourned nor even mentioned by name. In this animal farm, it was more like a slave-filled Roman Circus. Stories would abound how gory the accident was and the circumstances which caused the death of the “boy”. They were buried after repatriation of their bodies to where they came from, or as unsung heroes behind the mine's waste dump in graves with only numbers, no names. Mining operations could of course change at the turn of the wheel of fortune and white contract workers, let alone black migrant workers were the first to suffer mass retrenchments.  This happened to my father for the first time at Freddies, the largest rectangular shaft operation in the world but which all came to naught in the end. When many get killed, or there was a misreading of geological maps and rock formations turned out to draw blank on gold, the mine closed without a flag flown at half mast. This was a “kaffir circus” after all, sometimes you win, sometimes you loose.

The nearest competitor for the Freddies shafts for size and speed of sinking was one being sunk in the USSR at the time. As children we lusted after these facts. As the saying in those days went, everything is bigger in Texas, but nothing bigger and grander than the mines of the Free State. The South African mines being the most labour intensive in the world with concomitant fatality figures never entered our minds. The pioneering character of Freddies, and its impact on dragging the town of Odendaalsrus out of its 19th century slumber, was infectious with excitement. There was no water, no roads, there was no electricity. The only motorized transport belonged to the mine; the only municipal official was the Town Clerk who had all other duties as well under the belt, from being the traffic cop, market auctioneer, births and deaths registry and everything else. Odendaalsrus was a one horse town in the most literal sense. The black location (as black residential areas were called in those days) was a no-go area for the town’s sheriff and mine management alike. Odiel and I did however on occasion venture for walks through the location and found the people quite amiable. The lonesome official of Odendaalsrus municipality was always to be seen riding on his high horse through the town. But he never ventured onto mining property.

There was a core population of Boers in Odendaalsrus that looked at the mining splurges as both beneficial and evil. They had taken it upon themselves to establish churches in the white miners’ community, and attempted to dominate development plans of the mining company. This was post the 1948 Apartheid election victory after all. The ubiquitous Dominee de Kock who tried to reign supreme, but his plans seemed to have backfired. This antiquated state of affairs led the mine owners, at the suggestion of Harry Oppenheimer, to ignore Odendaalsrus to be developed as an urban centre to serve the mines and focus on developing Welkom, about ten miles to the south. Whether by intent or not, to make a point that Odendaalsrus was simply not a development option, Welkom was built with a reputation that its main roads were broad enough to cater for U-turns for ox wagons.

My father’s record of service then shows a break after leaving Freddies, and taking up a stint of employment at Western Reefs, an old and uninteresting mine on the outskirts of the town called Orkney. He was at this mine for just over a year. The reason for the interlude was that my mother had taken ill while we were living in the Freddies camp, and hospitalised in Johannesburg. The kids were placed as boarders at the Sacred Heart Convent in Klerksdorp, the main urban centre of the region about ten miles to the west of Orkney. This was a memorably turbulent time as election fever boiled in Klerksdorp, with its original Boer population in the majority among whites. The character of Klerksdorp is indelibly imprinted by the graveyard of victims of the British concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer War. It was one of the electoral hotspots of contention around the impending foundation of British Imperial designs in the form of a rack of race laws. We entered the Apartheid era in 1948 when I was a kid of eight years old. My father was what we called, a “tweegat jakkals” (“two burrow jackal”) – as a mine official in his earlier mining career he was a fervent Smuts supporter. As a white miner he joined the all-white Mineworkers Union, became a shaft steward for most of his post-management career, and went campaigning for the National Party candidate Piet Pelser.  

When my mother recovered and the family reunited, there was a second stint in Freddies which lasted a good number of years. But fate of gold mining fortunes intervened to cut these years down to six. Once the development of tunnels had been completed between the two Freddies shafts, the mine was considered unprofitable and closed down at the blink at survey results of geological formations. To this day it is not clear to me though, what the problem for closure actually was. There was a story that the original borehole assay results had been “salted” that is a shotgun was used to inject extra gold value into the borehole to give an artificially loaded value. The culprits, said to be two guys, Early and Milne, were said to have been jailed but living it up like gentleman as prisoners. They had learnt how to play the “kaffir circus”, a very early manifestation of the modern day Enron story where speculation with financial capital on the wheels of fortunes took all shapes and sizes. There is no reason to doubt the veracity of this story. But doing research on these gentlemen’s records reveals that their misdeeds were either airbrushed from history or they might be the staid professional people with grand achievements to their names as recorded in the annals of South African gold mining. What seems to be the more credible reason is that fault formations made the Freddies shafts badly situated for development of tunnels around the gold bearing reef. The most prosperous mines, President Brand, Free State Geduld and President Steyn, were opened shortly after the closing of Freddies just a mile away. These are still operating today.

After Freddies there was another mining mishap. This time not geologically related to earnings of the mine, but a backlash of nature against penetrating too deeply in the bellybutton of planetary rock. After Freddies my father again went for greener pastures, and landed himself a prime tunnel development job at the newly opened up gold mine in Merriespruit. The horrendous word “retrenched” enters his record of service. The reason was that during tunnelling operations a huge aquifer was struck. Water broke through the rock and there was no stopping its ferocious force. A concrete plug 20 meters thick was hastily constructed close to the mine shaft to stem the flow, but the water pressure simply knocked this out as if it were a sand dune. The water rushed down the shaft with another even more desperate plug cast higher up in the shaft. When an inspection team went down the shaft to monitor this plug, it burst open and the engineers and miners were all drowned. I cannot recall, nor do I find it recorded anywhere, what the fatality figure for this disaster was. When news of this ghastly disaster reached us in the newly built bungalow complex of Merriespruit, there was no word of fatalities. At first we assumed that my father was among the lost not at sea, but a furious underground aquifer that had gone berserk. Later in the morning he pitched at home. He was on the previous inspection team before the fated one. All staff and miners of Merriespruit were either transferred to other mines, or retrenched. Later, many years later in 1994 there was a sequel to the Merriespruit disaster. Scores of people died while sleeping in their beds at night, after a tailings dam wall broke, smothering hundreds of people in a lethal river of black slime. Included in this miserable tragedy were the occupants of the same house we had occupied decades earlier.