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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: October 2019

11 - Industrialisation and Race in South Africa, 1886–1994


MODERN SOUTH AFRICA, THE LAST PART OF THE CONTINENT TO BE LIBERATED in 1994, warrants separate treatment, not only because the discovery of gold at the Witwatersrand in 1886 gave the south a trajectory different from the rest of the continent, moving towards an industrial economy, the entrenchment of local white power, and a unique system of racial repression culminating in the apartheid programme of 1948, but also because South Africa displayed in extreme form many historical processes taking place throughout the continent. The most fundamental was demographic growth, from perhaps 3 or 4 million in 1886 to 39 million in 1994. As elsewhere, this bred competition for rural resources, mass urbanisation, generational conflict, and the over-extension of the state. In the early 1990s these conditions, together with industrial development and the international context, enabled black people to force their rulers to seek security in a long-term settlement conceding majority rule.


The Witwatersrand goldfield in 1886 differed greatly from the early diamond diggings at Kimberley. There were no black claim-owners, for the Witwatersrand was not in the officially multiracial Cape Colony but in the South African Republic (Transvaal), whose Afrikaner government immediately confined mining claims to white men. Nor did small white miners long survive, for in the unique geology of the Witwatersrand tiny flecks of gold were scattered in a narrow seam of hard rock – one ounce of gold in every four tons of rock – demanding deep mining, heavy machinery, and the most modern chemical extraction technology. By the late 1890s, shafts were eleven hundred metres deep and the Rand was producing more than a quarter of the world's gold. From the beginning, therefore, the Witwatersrand was dominated by giant mining houses, drawing some capital from Kimberley but most from Europe. Industrial nations bought gold at fixed prices but in practically unlimited quantities. The mining houses therefore had no incentive to restrict production or compete with one another. As early as 1889, they formed a Chamber of Mines, chiefly to reduce African wages, for with prices fixed and labour taking more than half of production costs, mining profitability depended on controlling wage levels.