The gold reef, a part of which George Harrison discovered on the farm Langlaagte on the Witwatersrand, changed South Africa forever. The discovery of diamonds and gold launched the mining industry and an industrial revolution. Diamonds, coal, gold – all were of great economic interest to the world power, Great Britain. In South Africa new socio-economic classes were formed in the 50 years following the establishment of the gold mines. The period saw the making of magnates and migrants, of millionaires and bankrupts, shopkeepers and entrepreneurs. It also saw the emergence of a new working class – one that was deeply divided along both colour and social lines. Only in the workplace would black and white workers meet, in predefined, strictly hierarchical relationships.
Gold had been mined in South Africa for centuries before colonisation. The finely wrought gold in Mapungubwe and Thulamela and other ancient sites in Limpopo four or five centuries ago provides ample evidence of this. There had also been discoveries by prospectors from 1834 onwards. White prospectors found traces of gold in 1852 and 1853 in the west, and then again in 1870, when Henry Lewis identified a gold-bearing reef on a farm called Blaauwbank. Later prospectors came across circular shafts on the farm Rietfontein (in today’s Ekhuruleni).
The northern slope of the Witwatersrand was later found to be honeycombed with old tin workings by early African miners, over a distance of twelve to thirteen kilo metres. Small, barely sustainable alluvial gold mines were operating in the 1870s, as well as the Pilgrim’s Rest mines in today’s Mpumalanga province. Prospectors also operated in the decade that followed in the Sterkfontein and Wilgespruit area. Then came the discovery of an outcrop of gold on the farm Langlaagte.
So promising was this find that public diggings were declared in April 1886. Soon after the Main Reef was discovered in 1886 it was found to extend nearly 50 kilometres to the east and the west through Langlaagte. The tent town of eager (whites only) prospectors from far and wide grew quickly. The town was named after Johann Rissik, acting surveyorgeneral, and Johannes Pieter Meyer, field-cornet of the ward. It almost instantly grew into a city (See Johannesburg – an instant city).
The enthusiasm waned somewhat in the next few years as the growing prospecting population, numbering thousands over that time, realised that plentiful as the deposits of gold ore might be, it was spread thinly in the ground, and that the thread of gold dipped unevenly, going deep down underground. As with Pilgrim’s Rest, this began to look like another short-term windfall.