It has been a year since the controversial activities of the #RhodesMustFall protest movement at the University of Cape Town, which resulted in the removal of a bronze statue of Cecil John Rhodes from a prominent position on the university’s upper campus, catalysed a spate of monument and statue defacements in various cities across South Africa.
While much can be said about the deplorability or otherwise of such actions, this anniversary does lend itself to the reflection of a rather interesting story concerning the destruction of a private monument built to honour the Struben brothers’ pioneering gold mining efforts on the Confidence Reef mine.
According to the Struben brothers historian and Friends of Kloofendal (the Joburg City Parks-operated reserve that now incorporates the historic mine) veteran Rodney Kruger, the recorded history detailing the life of the Confidence mine after the Struben brothers had abandoned the operation in 1886 is scanty at best.
“It is believed that the eastern portion of Wilgespruit, on which the Confidence Reef mine was situated, was rented to a consortium that worked it for a short time. “It is also thought that a mysterious character by the name of Count Jacques de Waru worked the mine for a brief period,” elaborates Kruger.
What is known for certain, however, is that, because the mine did not prove con- sistently payable, interest in the operation was short-lived and it lay largely abandoned for the first three decades of the twentieth century.
It was only in the early 1930s, following the death of Fred Struben – who had kept ownership of the property, despite having emigrated to England at the turn of the century – in 1931, that interest in the mine was revived. Following Fred Struben’s death, his wife, Mabel Struben, opted to sell Wilgespruit to a George Brown, of Roodepoort.
Like many before him, Brown tried mining the property but had little luck. However, rather than abandoning the property completely, he decided to do something useful with it, for posterity’s sake, by building a monument, at his own expense, commemo- rating the mining efforts of the Struben brothers.
In an interview with The Star in April 1937, Brown explained his reasoning thus: “Sitting here among the old workings [of Wilgespruit] one day last year, the thought came to me how the whole of the modern Witwatersrand, and the rich city of Johannesburg, would never have existed save for the endeavour of these early pioneers of the Rand and their discoveries. “I thought it was extraordinary and ungrateful that there was not an indication in the whole of the Witwatersrand of our debt to these men and women. “So, I decided that I would do something myself and, as I know of the association of the Strubens with this place, and know a little of the Strubens myself, I decided to put up a monument on the finest place I could pick out to these two men. I put up this monument without any intention of disput- ing the claims of any other man or men to the discovery, but just as my personal expression of appreciation to these men of the old days and because I believe that they had a great share, if not the greatest, in the discovery.”
According to the article, printed on April 9, 1937, the site of the monument was one of the finest on the Rand, with the kopje being situated on the very brow of the Witwatersrand Ridge. “All around it are the abandoned work- ings where once the Strubens and their staff mined some of the first ore of the Rand goldfields.”
The monument itself was built of red brick and in the centre stood a marble slab with the inscription: “To the memory of Fred and Harry Struben, who by their brotherly cooperation during a period of arduous work discovered and proved the gold-bearing conglomerate of the Witwatersrand, September 1884. The first public information of discovery was made to the President of the Transvaal Republic and the world, January 5, 1885.” In a corner in smaller letters were the words: “Erected by Geo. Brown, November, 1836, Wilgespruit.”
The erection of such a monument caused much discussion among the pioneers and local historians of the day, especially given the fact that it was done at a time when the South African government was in the midst of a commission of enquiry to establish who, in fact, really discovered the Main Reef gold-bearing conglomerate series. (This will be further elaborated on in a later instalment of this column.)
According to Kruger, it stood overlook- ing the scenic Magaliesberg for some three decades until the mid-1960s, when one overzealous and severely misguided treasure hunter decided that the legendary ‘Kruger Millions’ had been buried within and completely destroyed the monument in his frantic quest for the gold bullion. Today, sadly, nothing remains of Brown’s Struben monument.
Granted, this anecdote is not quite the same thing as defacing statues in the name of ‘decolonising South African history’; however, they both show a lack of respect for the characters and events, be they good or bad, that have influenced the trajectory of the country’s development over the last few centuries.