SA’s journey of gold & diamonds

Unpacking South Africa’s history of gold and diamonds, and how it helped shape the country to what it is today.


Sun, sea, wildlife, indigenous flora, magnificent mountains and sprawling, developed cities – this is what makes South Africa an attractive tourist destination. While the rugged beauty of SA has always been around, the discovery of diamonds in 1869 and gold in 1886 changed the economy greatly. Investment from European countries started to flow in, and increased loan amounts were given to local farmers and miners.

With various people from different countries all laying stake to the land, violence ensued for control over the land. There was increased trade between SA and the global market for gold, diamonds and an increasing need for agricultural products too.

It’s fair enough to say that mining helped develop and shape South Africa, but with the discovery of these precious minerals some aspects were positive and some negative.

*Brief historical highlights of gold and diamond mining in SA


  • 1867 Diamonds are discovered in the Cape Colony – now the Northern Cape. The rock is later known as the 21.19ct Eureka diamond.
  • 1870 Cecil Rhodes arrives in South Africa and invests three thousand pounds in the Kimberley diamond diggings.
  • 1871 Diamonds discovered at Vooruitzicht farm in the then Orange Free State. A diamond rush begins and Vooruitzicht would become the site of the Big Hole – or Kimberley mine – and De Beers mine.
  • 1873 Gold: First largescale production began when alluvial deposits were discovered at Pilgrim’s Rest.
  • 1867-1877 Annual world diamond production increases more than tenfold.
  • 1884 Gold was discovered in the Witwatersrand, which led to an influx of miners from around the world.
  • 1887 Africa’s largest stock market, the JSE, was started specifically to fund the mining sector.
  • 1889 Chamber of Mines (now Minerals Council South Africa) founded.
  • 1898 Gold output soared to 118 tonnes making South Africa the world’s leading producer.
  • 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer/South African War, brought about to some extent by the struggle for control of the goldfields, caused extreme disruptions in the mining industry, and at some stage, mines were closed.


  • 1901 The Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WENELA) set up by gold miners as a recruiting agent for migrant workers.
  • 1904 64,000 Chinese indentured labourers brought to work on mines to overcome the impasse in the gold industry after the war.
  • 1904-1908 Deep-level mining progressed to reach gold lower down in the ground
  • 1905 The Cullinan diamond is discovered at the Premier mine, later renamed the Cullinan mine. At 3,106.75ct, it is the largest rough diamond ever found.
  • 1910 Union of South Africa formed.
  • 1910 Chinese indentured labourers repatriated and replaced by migrant black labour.
  • 1913 Mineworkers went on a strike to get management to recognise union rights. The strike changed the nature of politics in South Africa and the state deemed it necessary to ensure that mining production continued at all costs.
  • 1920 Annual diamond production reaches 20 million carats.
  • 1921-1922 The Rand Rebellion saw white mine workers protest the industry’s attempt to replace semi-skilled white men with cheap black labour leaving about 200 people dead, more than 1 000 injured, 15 000 men out of work and a slump in gold production. The government came under pressure to protect skilled white workers in mining and three Acts were passed that gave employment opportunities to whites and introduced a plan for African segregation.
  • 1928 First African diamond cutting factory opens in Kimberley.
  • 1930s The Great Depression hit, but the gold industry avoided disaster. Employment grew and the industry boomed
  • 1932 The Great Depression deepens and demand for diamonds dries up. De Beers closes all mines.
  • 1939-1945 Diamond mines close for duration of World War II.
  • 1946 Gold was discovered in the Orange Free State.
  • 1947 Diamond is forever ad campaign caused demand for diamonds to increase.
  • 1948 Apartheid legislated.
  • 1968 Free gold market came into being.
  • 1970s Boom period for South African gold mining with production peaking at over 1 000 tons.
  • 1970s World annual diamond production reaches 50 million carats.
  • 1973 Durban strikes saw the resurgence of the trade union activity that would culminate in the formation of trade union federations that eventually helped dismantle apartheid.
  • 1979 Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) formed.
  • 1979 Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) formed.
  • 1982 The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) formed – the first black union in mining in 40 years.
  • 1983 NUM won collective bargaining rights from the then Chamber of Mines.
  • 1985 Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) formed.
  • 1987 NUM organised a three-week strike demanding increased wages, improved hostels and the abolition of the migrant labour system of 360 000 mine workers.
  • 1990s World annual diamond production reaches 100 million carats.
  • 1990 Nelson Mandela freed from prison.
  • 1994 South Africa held first democratic elections.
  • 1998 The Minerals and Mining Green Paper called for the mining industry to be deracialised.


  • 2001 Solidarity established out of the old whites-only mineworkers’ union.
  • 2002 The Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act provides for equitable access to and sustainable development of South Africa’s mineral and petroleum resources.
  • 2003 First women employed in mining positions.
  • 2004 Mining Charter came into effect.
  • 2005 Market forces drive diamond prices resulting in unprecedented price volatility. World production peaks at 177 million carats.
  • 2011 South Africa’s mining industry is largest contributor to economic transformation through widespread black economic empowerment transactions.
  • 2011 Oppenheimer family announces an exit from De Beers, ending almost a century-long monopoly.

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