Until just recently, South Africa has held the distinction of being the largest gold producer in the world. With some of the richest reserves on earth, the foundation of the South African economy is based on mining. Gold mining
has been a driving force for the development of the country ever since it was discovered there in the 1860’s. In addition to gold, South Africa remains a top producer of chrome, platinum
, palladium, manganese, and a variety of other valuable resources. South Africa is also famous as being the largest producer of both industrial grade and gem quality diamonds.
It was the discovery of the Witwatersrand Deposits, a gold belt that ranges near present day Johannesburg to Welkom that established the country as a leader in the world’s mineral resources. Deposits left behind from an ancient inland lake result in the expansive gold belt. The original discovery in the area was believed to have been made by an Australian prospector named George Harrison, who discovered a gold bearing rock outcrop on the surface. Before the value of the Witwatersrand deposits were established, he sold his claim for just 10 pounds, and was never heard from again. He had discovered the largest gold deposit in the world, but never capitalized financially from the discovery.
Civil and political unrest has been an issue for the South African mining industry since the beginning. Known for its poor track record for safety along with the dangerous mining conditions, the injury and fatality rate in South African mines are some of the highest in the world. The reasoning for this is quite simple; several mines in the country are the deepest in the world, which represents huge challenges. The deepest gold mine in the world is the East Rand Mine, with a depth of 11,762 feet. Several other mines are approach that depth, and there are plans for future mines to go even deeper into the earth. At these extreme depths temperature of the rocks approaches 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
Extreme temperatures create a complex safety concern. Refrigeration systems are required to keep miners cool enough to work. Huge amounts of energy are required to run these systems, and failures in the past have caused many fatalities. Another issue with the condition of the mines is silica dust created from drilling and blasting underground. Breathing this dust can cause lethal disease of the lungs, which has killed many miners. Ventilation systems are often inadequate.
The Witwatersrand gold deposits have produced over one-third of the world total gold over history. Despite their richness, they have been worked extensively for over a century, and many of the richest deposits are being depleted. A combination of depleted resources along with civil unrest has limited production in recent years, and allowed China to overtake South Africa as the largest gold producer in the world, a ranking that has held for nearly a century. It currently retains the #5 position in the world, behind China, Australia, The United States, and Russia.
Several miner strikes over working conditions in the mines have caused serious production issues over the past few years. Gold miners unions have gone on strike on numerous occasions, demanding improved wages and working conditions in many of the most dangerous mines. This has affected the gold industry along with platinum, palladium, and diamond production as well. Some of these protests have erupted into bloody conflicts between miners and police. It is likely that in improvement of working conditions in the mines will reduce the uncertainty of mining operations in the country, and could very likely help South Africa advance as a world leading producer of gold once again.