World's Greatest Gold Field's Gasp for Air


"A vile new age of politics is taking hold."

In March 1886, so the legend goes, an Australian gold prospector, George Harrison, discovered an outcrop hosting gold, just to the west of what is now the CBD in Johannesburg. He later sold his claim for a relative pittance, no doubt ignorant that he had stumbled onto the world's biggest gold fields, a geological structure of pretty proportions.

Like fireballs breathing hell froth, the entrepreneurs rolled into town. In 1894, Cecil John Rhodes' British South Africa Company employed John Hays Hammond, an American mining engineer, to open and build mines on the Witwatersrand, the name for the wider gold system, and in Mashonaland (in today's Zimbabwe). It was an explosive mix—intemperate entrepreneurs, eagerly inflowing foreign capital and the world's best engineers.

Blackbirders started arriving beyond the city limits, supplying badly needed labor, mainly from Mozambique. For each man, the blackbirder was paid a capitation fee, equal to what the worker would earn in an entire year on the mines.

On the goldfields, crime was among the main sports. Murder was common. Mineworkers died like flies, of cheap poison liquor; from a cold they had never known, and diseases that spread like pollen. As a mining city from its quiet birth, Johannesburg has never yielded to pressures to become anything else.

Today there is still a sense that mines will continue disgorging mineral fruits, despite the growing scarcity of proven entrepreneurs, foreign capital inflows and talented engineers. A vile new age of politics is taking hold. Last week, Aurora Empowerment Systems, which is trying to resuscitate the wizened Grootvlei gold mine, east of Johannesburg, was again in the spotlight. The bodies of four murdered mineworkers were left to rot underground.

With dollar gold prices trading around all time records in the background, thousands of miners have gone unpaid, for months now, or is it years?

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