The history of diamond mining in South Africa has largely been dominated by the narrative of the discovery and development of the De Beers and Kimberley diamondiferous kimberlite pipes and, to a lesser extent, the Bultfontein and Dutoitspan diamondiferous kimberlite pipes, which formed the nucleus of the country’s great diamond mining industry for many decades.
However, the emphasis on Kimberley and its mines has meant that the histories of other diamond mines (with the notable exception of the Cullinan mine) have largely been overshadowed. One such history is that of the Jagersfontein mine, located some 130 km south-east of Kimberley.
Discovered in August 1870, the Jagers- fontein mine was one of the first kimberlite pipes to be found in South Africa, its discovery coinciding with the discovery of Bultfontein and Dutoitspan.
It was discovered by JJ de Klerk, who, at that time, was the overseer of the Jagersfontein farm.
The anecdotal story has it that, while surveying the property one day, De Klerk chanced upon some small garnets sprinkled in the sand in the bed of a dry stream which trickled through the property during the rainy season. He had come to learn that the diamond diggers working along the Vaal river regarded garnets as an indication of the presence of diamonds. Consequently, he opted to intensively prospect along the line of the dry stream. His enthusiastic digging soon paid off when, at a depth of 6 ft, he found a beautiful pure blue-white 50 ct diamond.
As Jagersfontein was situated directly in the path of the prospectors who were trekking up from Port Elizabeth to the alluvial diamond diggings, the news of that discovery spread rapidly and added considerably to the diamond fever that was taking a firm grip of the South African psyche.
The farm was subsequently rushed by hundreds of diggers who staked out claims and worked an openpit in much the same fashion as Kimberley’s four kimberlite pipes.
Although discovered in August 1870, the farm was only proclaimed a public digging by the government of the Orange Free State the following year. This could partly be explained by the fact that the government of the Free State was too embroiled in the arbitration of the hotly contested Kimberley diamond diggings to give much consideration to Jagersfontein.
However, by mid-1871, the government could no longer ignore the large crowd that had amassed on Jagersfontein and, thus, was compelled to proclaim the farm in August of that year and appoint Charles Hutton, of the neighbouring village of Fauriesmith, as the first inspector of mines.
Despite its promising start, many challenges soon manifested and the Jagersfontein diggers found themselves working in exceptionally adverse conditions. The challenges included water scarcity, the arid climate, the distance to urban centres, the difficulty of securing food supplies and equipment, the primitive modes of working and insufficient capital to work claims effectively. Owing to these challenges, many diggers abandoned Jagersfontein for what seemed to be the more successful diggings further north. Only a small number of individuals remained to continue working the mine, although these diggers had little success.
It was only in 1878 that real progress was made in developing the mine. In Nov- ember of that year, a group of Australian gold diggers, men of dauntless perseverance, arrived at Jagersfontein, determined to make a success of the diggings. They lost no time in erecting horse-powered machinery, employing labour and starting operations. A special survey was undertaken and the mine was sectioned off into 1 244 claims, each measuring 30 ft2.
As a result, there was a second rush to the mine, mainly by diggers who were being pushed out of the Kimberley diamond dig- gings. On the back of this second wind, mining operations, notwithstanding the many adverse conditions, made steady progress.
As was the case with the Kimberley mines, the intensive development of Jagers- fontein soon required an amalgamation of claims in order for mining operations to be conducted effectively. This resulted in the formation of a number of mining companies, which further spurred on a process of amalgamation.
By 1887, the same year that the battle to amalgamate the Kimberley mines was in full swing, most of the ‘old diggers’ had disposed of their interests in the mine to the New Jagersfontein and United Diamond Mining companies so that, by the middle of the following year, all the claims were held by these two companies.
In 1891, the process of consolidation was completed and United Diamond Mining and New Jagersfontein amalgamated, with a capital of £1-million.
Interestingly, the Jagersfontein mine was never included in Cecil John Rhodes’ grand consolidation scheme. It had never been Rhodes’ policy to set out to win control of all diamond production regardless. In fact, he happily tolerated small companies working diamond pipes like Jagersfontein, as the production was tiny in comparison with what emerged from the pipes in Kimberley.
The Jagersfontein mine would only be acquired by De Beers Consolidated Mines, under the direction of Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, in 1930. (In 2010, De Beers sold the Jagersfontein mine to black economically empowered entity Superkolong Consortium for an undisclosed sum.)
The mine operated on and off (operations ceased during the Anglo Boer War, World War I and World War II, as well as during the Great Depression) for 99 years before it was officially closed in February 1969. It is estimated that some 9 526-million carats was mined from Jagersfontein, which, based on 1970 values, amounted to some R260-million.