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Witwatersrand Gold Rush

Gold rushes throughout the world have created massive cultural shifts that resonate to this day.

The Famous South African Gold Mine

johannesburg mining
Johannesburg, the heart of the Rand.

The Witwatersrand Gold Rush initiated South Africa’s domination of world gold production.  Although legends of a South African El Doradoexisted among the natives of the area, it was not until 1886, when a poor Australian prospector named George Harrison staked the first claim, that the vast riches of the “Rand” were discovered.  

gold mine founding
A view of the farm Langlaagte where gold was discovered in 1886.

Once the news got out, prospectors from all over the world flocked to the area, laying the foundation of the present day metropolis of Johannesburg.

Johannesburg gold mining town
Johannesburg c. 1890.

It took very little time for the local village of Ferreira’s Camp to transform into the Ferreira Township as miners settled in the region hoping to strike gold. Within ten years, the town became the largest in South Africa, growing to be larger than Cape Town, which had been the largest city for over 200 years.

afrikaner commandos at war
Afrikaner commandos during the Second Boer War (1899–1902).

As with the California Gold Rush, the Witwatersrand Gold Rush had extensive social and political implications.  In addition to the founding of Johannesburg, the Witwatersrand Gold Rush was a major factor leading to the Second Boer War.  As gold fever crested, the steady influx of foreigners was unsettling to Boer farmers who were already established in the region.

The Boer farmers denied these “uitlanders” voting rights and mounted heavy taxes on the gold industry. In retaliation, the uitlanders and the British mining interests joined forces to overthrow the Boer government. The war continued for years through guerrilla warfare until heightened British actions put them at bay.

modern johannesburg
An aerial view of a modern Johannesburg.

Today, the Witwatersrand reef  is part of the “golden arc,” an ancient inland lake containing rich deposits of alluvial gold . This massive goldfield is 100 kilometers (60 miles) long and 3.6 kilometers (12,000 feet) deep in certain places.  It is the source of over 40% of the gold extracted from the Earth. It is also the reason behind the South African currency gaining the moniker of “Rand” in 1961.

Johannesburg mine corridor
A mine corridor in the Witwatersrand complex. Image courtesy of Galen R. Frysinger.

The continued mining of gold has firmly placed Johannesburg as the economical powerhouse of South Africa. While the ultimate source of the gold in the Witwatersrand reef is unknown, the general disposition of the deposits is recognizable and continuous. The area has also featured dedicated botanical gardens to help preserve regions of the land.

To learn even more about topics related to precious metals, head over to More Precious Metal Details.

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