In 1936, Johannesburg celebrated the golden jubilee of the discovery of gold on the farm Langlaagte. In the run-up to those celebrations, the Johannesburg City Council made special efforts to do honour to the founders and pioneers of what had become South Africa’s greatest industry.
But, when it came down to recognising the actual discoverer of the Main Reef Series, there was such diversity of views, even among the survivors of the pioneers of 1886, and such vigorous canvassing of the claims of various individuals in the Press that the council could not glorify any one individual as the main feature of the anniversary. It was noted at the time that, while there was a real desire to mark the discovery by means of some memorial or monument, it was impossible to do honour to any indivi- dual without causing offence in some quarters.
As the controversial question continued to nag in the aftermath of the jubilee, Frederick Sturrock, a Minister without portfolio in Barry Hertzog’s government, recommended an official inquiry to, in his own words, “decide who was the first man to prove and open up the Main Reef, and not those who claim to have picked up an odd bit of rock here and there”. The suggestion was adopted and, in December 1938, government appointed a “fact-finding committee to inquire into the discovery of gold in or near the Witwatersrand”.
The four-man commission consisted of Senator and former Mines and Agriculture Minister François Stephanus Malan, who was the chairperson; Professor Leo Fouche, head of the department of history at the University of the Witwatersrand; Professor Louis Maingard, from the same university; and Geological Survey director Dr Sidney Haughton.
The commission’s terms of reference were to inquire into both the discovery of gold on or near the Witwatersrand before 1886 as well as the Main Reef conglome- rates to determine who made the discovery, when the discovery was made and where, as well as to establish the circumstances of the first exploitation of the Main Reef group of conglomerates. For this purpose, the commission called on evidence from the public and investigated written documents contemporary to the period under consideration.
While there was a remarkable number of ‘witnesses’ to the events of early 1886 who presented oral testimony during the course of 1939, the commission found that such evidence could not be accepted uncritically, owing to the lapse of more than half a century. It was for that reason that written contemporary documents proved more reliable and bore more weight during the committee’s investigations. The committee’s investigations and deliberations spanned the better part of two years and, surprisingly, continued in September 1939, despite the outbreak of the Second World War.
For all its investigations, the commission’s 50-page report, which was presented to Parliament in February 1941, offered very little surprises in terms of its overall conclusions.
The first notable conclusion was that Pieter Jacob Marais was the first person to find gold near the Witwatersrand. This he did on October 8, 1853, in the Jukskei river. Secondly, the Nil Desperandum Cooperative Quartz Company, floated in January 1875, was the first mining company to carry out systematic gold exploitation near the Witwatersrand. Thirdly, the farm Kromdraai, some 15 km north of Krugersdorp, was the first to be officially proclaimed a goldfield in the Witwatersrand area, with the proclamation made on December 8, 1885.
The commission also recognised the role played by the two brothers, Harry and Fred Struben, in the lead-up to the Langlaagte discovery. The report stated that “their extensive and persistent prospecting and mining acti- vities on the Witwatersrand . . . from 1884 to early 1886 attracted so much attention to the area that the subsequent discovery of the Main Reef Group of Conglomerates became inevitable”.
While those were all interesting observations, the most important conclusion of the report was the answer to the question: Who discovered gold on Langlaagte? Nine pages of the report were devoted to presenting the sequence of events as accurately as possible, while a further 11 pages were devoted to the reasoned consideration of the evidence, both oral and documentary. The much-anticipated conclusion was that it was the English-born miner, George Walker, who discovered the Main Reef Series and that this was done quite by accident on ‘Portion C’ of the Langlaagte property.
However, the report did acknowledge that Walker was probably not alone at that fateful moment and that the discovery was likely made in “association with George Harrison”. As to the actual date of the discovery, the committee could find no solid evidence but concluded that, because the first prospect- ing contract was signed on April 12, the con- glomerate must have been found shortly before the end of March.
There are two pertinent arguments, which led the Committee to choose Walker. The first concerns both men’s knowledge of the actual conglomerate reef. The report states: “It must be remembered that Walker had experience of gold hunting in the Eastern Transvaal and that Harrison may have had, as he claimed, experience in the goldfields of Australia. The latter area cer- tainly included auriferous conglomerations, but there is no evidence to show whether or not Harrison had ever seen any of these . . . On the other hand, Walker may have worked at Struben’s mill, as he and the Strubens both subsequently maintained, and he may have witnessed the crushing of [the] Bantjes’ poor ore from Roodepoort, thus learning that the Bantjes group, and possibly the Strubens, were actually expecting to find gold in that type of rock.”
The second is the statement made by Fred Struben in October 1887 that “Walker . . . found on Langlaagte what is now known as the Main Reef”. Because the statement was “fully and emphatically confirmed in the evidence given to the committee by witnesses who were on the Rand at the time of the discovery”, the committee had to logically conclude that “Walker should have the first place as the discoverer of the Main Reef on the Witwatersrand goldfields”.
Thus, it is the official opinion of the South African government, by means of that com- mission, that Walker holds the honour of discovering the outcrop of the world’s most famous goldfield.