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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Spooktown of the Far West Rand

A sinkhole, pictured above, appeared in a mining village at Blyvooruitzig Mine (Oberholzer Compartment) in the middle of the night and claimed the lives of the Oosthuizen family of five as their house suddenly dropped more than 30 m. Three other houses which were situated on the edge of the initial collapse also fell in within a short period of time as the sides of the sinkhole caved in, their occupants making dramatic escapes. Subsequent enquiry revealed that there had been leakage from water pipes in the area where the sinkhole appeared).

Oberholzer Irrigation farming

     I got to learn of water as a precious resource at a very young age. After my father returned from the war and reconnected with his family in Benoni, he went on a job hunt in the Far West Rand area. I was a toddler of three or four years old and never really came to accept him with any affection. At that time he came back from the war a stranger and left like a spook. He was an intruder who showed more interest in my younger sister than in any one of his three sons. On his first job hunt, soon after coming home from the war “up north” he had a terrible motor car accident. Here then came a spook in the house: he had a plaster casket right from the top of his head to his waist, with only his face showing.  My mother had to visit him often during his first convalescent period in Cottesloe Hospital in Johannesburg and of course with four babies that became a bit difficult. Odiel, the oldest brother was already in his first class at pre-primary, the two younger siblings were in a kindergarten, but I seemed to have been a handful, unwilling to sit in a kindergarten and also a bit rebellious against visiting him in Randfontein hospital where he was sent for a full recovery. A plan was devised that I be fostered by a childless farming couple in Oberholzer, nowadays a suburb of Carletonville. This was grand, for the couple Flip and Susanna Clay and for me. They doted on me and I followed Flip and Susanna around like a little bull terrier.

     Flip Clay and my father got to know one another before the great depression while he, my father, was a student at the Potchefstroom Agricultural College. Flip Clay was much older than my father and seemed to have been drawn into the college as a mentor for graduating students. Soon after graduation my father joined Flip Clay on his farm but seemed to be a bit obstinate and unwilling to adapt to Flip Clay’s high standards. He left the Clays to seek his own fortune on a farm in the then Potgietersrus area in partnership with the Sparriers family.My father was given to speculative tendencies and decided to plant a crop of birdseed for which there was no market. However after harvesting the seed the market went ballistic and he scored big time. He eloped with one of the daughers of Sparriers, ended up in Johannesburg to start up his own farm close to Benoni only to be hit by the disease of poverty wreaked by the Great Depression.

     And thus, after the Great Depression and the War I came into the picture of the Clays rich irrigation farm in Oberholzer. Seemingly my father, without my mother being consulted, indicated that Clay could have me for keeps, adopt met.  This led to quite a tumultuous situation when the family got together again once my father was placed as a mine official at Blyvooruitzicht mine. My mother was incensed and of course objected to this recklessness of my father towards a toddler he did not appreciate that much.

     Flip Clay was a happy-father-to-be. I enjoyed the farm and was always either with Flip in the fields, out travelling like delivering milk and eggs at Fochville station, or with Susanna in the stables and poultry yards. Often Flip would entrust me to the farm foreman, Vuyo Vilakazi, who besides being the manager of the farm, was also a tribal headman in charge of the cottages where farm workers settled. Vuyo often took me to his home to meet his wife and family and seemingly very proud of his charge of this little white boy. He taught me a lot of things about handling cattle and working with irrigation channels. The Clay farm had a huge irrigation area for growing of lucerne. This field was neatly cordoned into small strips by irrigation channels. When the herd of dairy cows were let loose they went berserk and with great difficulty had to be kept to one strip at a time. If they broke loose and went over more strips they could end up with colic having grazed too much of the rich lucerne. I learnt the trick of keeping the cows in order by throwing a stick and aiming straight at the nose of the beast. However Vuyo had to keep careful watch as doing this to bulls and even some mad cows was dangerous. They could retaliate.

     Flip had to attend numerous meetings of the local farmers and mine managers out of concern for the water being pumped like it were sewerage out of the mines and simply led into the open veld. Clay himself was acutely aware of the beautiful, precious quality of the water that came out of the Oberholzer aquifer and amply provided for irrigation needs of farmers in the entire district.  He never let up in educating me in all aspects of the work on the farm and mostly about the bountiful water. I remember him often standing over an irrigation canal and catching water in his hands and letting it flow through his fingers and then tasting it. No muck, no chemicals, just good fresh water that kept even the cradle of Mankind going over millennia.                

     At dinner time he would discuss his meetings with Susanna with me sitting wide eyed and sometimes pitching in with a question blessed by my innocence as a child. These discussions were usually about altercations among the farmers as well as the obstinacy of the mine managers who treated the earth like they owned it for ever. One argument was memorable. At one of these meetings the mine managers questioned the rights of ownership and and arrogantly said that they were not responsible to the white farmers. The question arose as to whether the black inhabitants were occupiers of the land before the white Boers came along. One specific argument which became acrimonious was sparked by the mine managers who indicated that they would be prepared to lay on piping to get their waste water into the irrigation system. The Oberholzer farmers were not affected by this as the aquifer they were puming from was rich with fresh, uncontaminated water. But some farmers further up around other mines agreed wholeheartedly with the proposal of the mine managers. In fact this was done for a while at Oberholzer as well but not without a determined back lash from Flip and his farming friends. He would rant and rave about the stupidity of those farmers who allowed themselves to be appeased by the reckless pumping dry of their aquifers and end up with poison in their irrigation water. His biggest rant was reserved not so much for the pumping dry of aquifers, but the eventual for sink holes to form after the aquifers had been pumped dry. And he made a prediction: before long the mines would contaminate the water making it useless for irrigation farming as well as triggering sink holes that would bury people while they were sleeping. 

     These predictions sounded very spooky, but Flip sure knew what he was talking about. What made these sinkholes spookier was discovered on the occasional outings to sink holes and caves in the area. Vuyo accompanied us and had much to share about the caves, telling how his forebears came to be in the region. An ancient sinkhole southwest of the Blyvooruitzicht settlement was named “Hutgrot”. This sinkhole formed a massive cave in which the Batswana people fled the rampaging Zulu impis in the 1840s. After this deluge from the south many of the original inhabitants returned. The old man Vilakazi, Vuyo’s grandfather was born in the area and one of the first to work with white farmers moving in and working on irrigation farms feeding water from the Wonderfonteinspruit marshes.

The "Oosthuizen" sinkhole, Carletonville 1964
     During the night of 3rd of August 1964 a gigantic sinkhole opened up beneath the home of the Oosthuizen family in the mining town Carletonville. This swallowed up not only the Oosthuizen family and their three children, their live-in domestic worker, but nothing was ever again seen of a single brick of the house nor their motor car which ended up in a hole of unknown depth. Their neighbors, whose house was half carried down the sinkhole, were away from home during the time of the catastrophe. The hole was massive measuring about 100 meters across. The top of the first rubble down the pit was at least 100 meters below. After some probing to recover the bodies rescuers gave up the effort. The family ended up much deeper below the rubble and there was no chance of finding any survivors.  

     At the time of the Oosthuizen sink hole I was at the Anglo American’s Macauwvlei training centre for mine engineers along the Vaal River, just outside of Vereeniging. With the shock that reverberated through the communities living in the entire West Wits gold mining area, there was cause for serious reflection on the part of mine managements and their corporate overlords. The apparition of sinkholes on the scale that took place in Carletonville was at that time rare. So apart from the shock and horror of the communities in the entire West Rand area, including also many black communities was palpable in the extreme. The communities wanted answers and became afraid to sleep at night. They were badly spooked.

     For the mine bosses appeasing miners about their safety in their dwellings, as well as the neighboring farming communities and informal settlements was not just a communal concern, but one that also impacted on the mining methods being used if not the viability of mining in the Far West Ran in general.  Getting to know and understand the scale and the nature of the underground water problem was a priority. It was well known that pumping millions of gallons per hour from the new mines were at the root of the sinkhole problem. But what was not very well understood were the true extent and location of the water aquifers that had formed in the dolomite rock.

     Mining in the area was very much a question of serendipity and a hasty solving of engineering problems as they arose, giving little attention to long term implications. The first mine to sink a shaft in the area hit a water aquifer square in the middle and was flooded out in a few minutes. This was in the late 1800’s. Because of this shaft getting wasted in no time, no further mining efforts were undertaken until the 1930’s. At that time there were mines on the East Rand where a similar water problem that struck a mine well into its development phase. The mine, Grootvlei, had too much invested and in no mind to abandon its operations.  Engineers then designed the cementation process where large quantities of concrete were pumped into the rock face, to attempt blocking off any further ingresses of water. This worked. So the lesson was taken and the Far West Rand again took off in all earnest in the 1930s. Two shafts were sunk some distance from the flooded Pullinger shaft that had been abandoned in the late 1880s applying the cementation method. The first shaft hit an aquifer a few hundred meters down, pumped a few million tons of concrete into the rock at the shaft bottom and successfully stopped the water inflow. Moreover, going its full depth of many hundreds of meters the mine struck it rich. The reef opened up for exploitation proved extraordinarily well endowed with gold.  More shafts were sunk and in the 1930s three mines with a number of shafts each became operational: Blyvooruitzicht, Venterspost, and Libanon Gold Mine.

Water an unwanted waste product

     By the time of the Oosthuizen disaster there were gold mines all over the Far West Rand, extending through to the Free State. Dealing with underground water became a learning curve which treated water very much like waste to be disposed of in whatever most convenient method. As dealing with water ingresses made it possible to mine to ever increasing depths this also resulted in ever more aggressive mining methods. Ultra deep mines were pioneered on the Far West Rand. A method was found to drill long holes into rock faces to probe for any water hidden and possibly released by a next round of blasting. Sometimes these pilot holes did strike water indicating the enormous pressures of potential ingresses. Drilling machines had to be securely anchored with chains attached to roof and side wall bolts. Sometimes even this method of anchoring failed and when the pilot hole struck water it was ejected with such force that the drilling machine literally pinned the driller to the hanging wall.  

     Increasing depth of the mines made them ever more dangerous. Pressure of thousands of meters of rock above excavations created pressures on rock faces in tunnels and stopes which at any unforeseen moment could result in a "pressure burst". The rock face would explode with rock and splinters killing all miners in the immediate area. As this was a frequent occurrence engineers set about finding a new way to reduce these pressures on rock faces by drilling even longer pilot holes and setting off explosive charges to fracture rock ahead of the advancing face. This resulted in rock pressure being distributed over a larger area making actual face work safer.

Spooktown, Bekkersdal

     Looking back these early years are like overflying a fairyland adventure. I have no recollection of how I actually landed up with the Clays, what I felt, let alone any form of nostalgia. My mother always remained a figure in my imagination but my father sort of morphed out of the scene. No doubt this was also fuelled by Flip Clay himself who seemed to have had a rather low regard for my father. Nor can I recollect the end of this period of my life. It happened, that is for sure. My father recovered completely and the great day came for his plaster casket to be cut open and he was liberated from this particular type of prison. He was fit for work, and was allotted a house by Blyvooruitzicht mine. Because the mines of the Far West Rand are so close to one another, and because of the rapid improvement of mining technology, there were plenty of opportunities for economies of scale to be exploited. One of these was dealing with the housing requirements for the many miners, white but mainly black who came onto the mines once they became properly developed and ready to exploit the gold bearing reef. A group of mines undertook to build 200 matchbox houses which would be allotted to white miners until brick houses could be constructed in Westonaria, by then already declared a town by the government. The plan was rapidly conceived and implemented until it became apparent that the settlement needed a name.   So it was named “Skielik” (“Suddenly”) The settlement literally arose overnight. Later, by the time I came to join the family, the settlement was renamed "Spooktown”. 

     Compounds for black workers were built and shared by a number of mines. To this day there are still approximately 40,000 black workers in compounds in the Blyvooruitzicht area. But in addition to this, as white miners vacated Spooktown and new area called Bekkersdal was allotted to black workers who preferred living there, rather than in compounds. Bekkersdal has an interesting history and not onlt because Charles Herman Bosman wrote his memorable short story "Marathon" centered on the town. In the mid 1980s there were labour problems on one of the mines, I believe it was at Blyvooruitzicht, which the mine mangers maliciously managed to divert into a full-scale tribal faction war. The police were called and responded with sending of two police constables. These two guys were killed. The police then sent in their full force and surrounded the compound and chasing most of the workers to Bekkersdal. The police then surrounded Bekkersdal, shot, killed and wounded a number of the residents as well as recovering weapons including AK 47's.       

     My childhood years before 1948, when I was 8 years old, were set apart by the watershed event of the National Part's victory with the implementation of Apartheid. I was 8 years old, by then living in Odendaalsrus after a relocation of the family to the newly opened Free State gold fields. Before this I experienced in Spooktown, like Benoni before, a very congenial atmosphere. Then the geniality of being, interacting with people no matter the color of their skin, disappeared. I imagine Nazi Germany with its crystal night must have seen the same phenomenon. Overnight things changed. Violence against black people on the streets came as if ordered by the government. When I think back to my early childhood years in Benoni and Blyvooruitzicht there was a unity and yet a division, but nothing like I experienced when life started with Apartheid in the Free State. The war years had a lot to do with this. Black men were often seen wearing soldier uniforms. The experience of Vuyo Vilakazi planted seeds of goodwill and understanding. Even though his fussing about me at his home, asked to sit in a throne like chair with all his family and children around, this was mere respect from him, for Flip Clay and of course a special occasion for his own kids as well.

The lasting impact of mining: sinkholes and water pollution

     The long term impact of sink holes and the mines treating water like unwanted waste to be pumped out of mines are showing really spooky features today. Many mine engineers propagandised the idea that pumping the aquifers (or water compartments as engineers called them) would eventually recharge themselves once mining stopped. However this is complete nonsense. Before an aquifer can recharge itself all water will first have to seep downwards to fill the gigantic voids left by mines. As this happens huge cavities and sink hole conditions are produced. And besides, before recharging can take place water from the lower lying abandoned mines will start over flowinbg through disused shafts with the potential to flood large sections of Johannesburg with acid water. An aquifer at the head waters of the Wonderfonteinspruit (Zuurbekom), served as the sole source of water to the early mining community called Fereiratown (today Johannesburg) was already pumped empty and necessitating water to be pumped up from the Vaal River. River systems have been destroyed and most notably the Klip River.
     Sink holes are appearing with more regularity. During construction of the super train, Gautrain, a dolomite formation was struck close to Centurion resulting a sink hole measuring a few meters in diameter opened in a road above the tunnel . Practically the whole surface area of the Witwatersrand has a huge problem not only because of the sinkhole probability increasing, but the “recharging” of underground aquifers spewing out acid water from closed gold mines. This is already happening with the pioneering mine of the cementation process, Grootvlei, which is overflowing with acid water and highly damaging to protected wild life areas.

With the demarcation by government of areas considered not fit for habitation because of the sinkhole threat has made large areas, especially where they were uninhabited but settled by people looking for space to build their homes, dangerous. Tembalihle informal settlement which has been very much in the news lately because of protest action for having no water, electricity and houses, has been condemned by government as not fit for human habitation. Therefore government is absolved from building houses, laying on water of providing electricity. There are many more such places. It is debatable whether this is a legitimate argument. For centuries people have lived in the shadows of volcanoes that only occasionally erupted. After an eruption they fled, but soon returned to build their homes. While it is true that sink holes to date have only killed some 40 people, many more are killed by motor car accidents. Or electrocuted by electric cables laid on by community groups in face of government intransigence. This led MEC Humphrey Mmemezi telling the people of Tembalihle that sink holes are “satanic”, a plague that is actually rife throughout Gauteng province. Well, maybe this MEC is right. These mines have been a curse profiting only those who owned and caused these problems. JC Smuts labled  Johannesburg the "Mecca of hooliganism". Such histrionics hardly scares people with nowhere to go. But one thing is for sure. Johannesburg has a very bleak future because the sink hole and acid water spillage problems can only get worse. But more immediate a problem is the rising of the water table after the gigantic voids left by mining have been filled. The acidic content of these mine drainage water can rot away foundations underground and cause sinkholes to maybe compare with the caves of the Cradle of Mankind.  This could rot away the very foundations of the city built on gold.   And if “satanic” who knows with a fitting epitaph:


Memorial at the sink hole that took the Oosthuizen family.
 Engraved are the words: "The Lord himself laid them to rest 


  1. The story brings back memories of childhood. I remember having to run and get the sunday papers, the Sunday Times and Rapport for my father and the animated diuscussions that took place about the Sinkholes. My father was a mining engineer and we wondered in total amazement when the town of Bank was entrirely shut down. I often spent school holidays with my fathers oldest brother Andries and his family who stayed in Oberholzer. I would love to share this story on Facebook if possible.

    1. David,

      Please share your stories. It seems history is rounding off and its back to basics, back to beginnings . . . opening and shutting of mines anno late 1800's. Puts a great burden on us who have lived through these experiences!

  2. Thanks David!I was often thinking of you for collaborating on old mine stories. With the pace of history, mine ownership patterns out of fashion literally day by day, closure responsibilities getting buried by time and ill conceived "nationalisation plans" . . . . so many reasons to get the stories from the miners mouths. Make a few suggestions.

  3. Very interesting - but what gives me the heeby jeebies is that new mines are being dug all over the Limpopo and Mpumalanga at an unprecendented pace - before water licences have been granted. And quite often water licences are granted even though the mines are bound to destroy the water resources, the ground water and the rivers in the area.

  4. Berend, do you have a precise location of the Pullinger shaft? I grew up in Westonaria and surrounds and could never find anybody we knew the location of this shaft.
    Quite interesting there are a lot of internet sites promoting Westonaria on the grounds of visiting this shaft, but does not indicate it's location.

  5. I am looking for history on mine managers on Blyvooruitzicht mine during 1966. The year i was born in the Blyvooruitzicht hospital (no longer exists) my father Lazlo Nagy, was believed to be the mine manager at that time. Where can i dig into archives??

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Dear Anonymous,

    I will try to access this info for you at my next visit to the Chamber of Mines



  8. Thanks for sharing, nice post! Post really provice useful information!

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  9. My grandad Peter Harris worked on Blyvoor gold mine in the late 1970s. Wish I knew more about blyvoor village and the mine!

  10. Hi, I have some video footage taken of the blyvooruitzicht sink hole. Please contact me.