One of the main consequences of the advent of the minerals revolution, which was prompted by the development and rapid growth of Kimberley’s diamond mining industry in the late nineteenth century, was the introduction of a mining skills education and training system.
During the early years of the development of the country’s mining industry, the need for mining engineering skills was relatively limited (owing to the fact that mining was pursued on a primitive and individual scale) and was met by employing foreign engineers who had trained at the established mining schools in the US and Europe and had travelled to South Africa to participate in the diamond and gold rushes.
Thus, at that time, there was little need to establish an institution where South Africans could be trained in certain mining skills. Those few youngsters who wished to pursue a professional career in mining were compelled to study at one of the mining schools abroad.
However, in the late 1880’s, the need for professional mining skills increased significantly with the amalgamation of the diamond mining operations and subsequent introduction of underground mining, as well as with the discovery of the extensive, but low-grade, Witwatersrand goldfield.
Both these events required the expertise of a far larger number of mining engineers than those resident in South Africa at that time and it began to be realised that the establishment of a mining skills training facility was an absolute necessity to ensure the continued development of the industry.
It was in mid-1890 that the first calls for the establishment of a mining skills training centre were expressed publicly in the form of several letters published in the Kimberley press.
Despite the fact that much public support was expressed for the establishment of such a facility, it took a number of years before the scheme received the considered attention of government. It was only in 1894 that a motion to establish a training institution for mining engineers in South Africa was formally introduced in the Cape legislature, and the government of the Cape of Good Hope was compelled to give the scheme serious consideration.
The motion received the support of Members of Parliament and, towards the end of that year, government formally set about developing and implementing a proper scheme to train local mining engineers.
The scheme that was agreed to by the Cape Government provided for a four-year long professional mining engineering degree, which was to be undertaken at various centres across South Africa.
Specifically, the scheme stipulated that preliminary scientific instruction over two years was to be undertaken at the South African College, in Cape Town; the third year was to be spent at a school of mines in Kimberley, where technical instruction was to be given. The fourth and final year, which was also to focus on technical instruction, was to be completed in Johannesburg.
Both the Cape government and De Beers Consolidated Mines gave financial support to the implementation of the training scheme and an executive committee chaired by Gardner Williams was formed in 1895.
The scheme was rapidly implemented and the South African College began preliminary scientific instruction for mining engineering students in January 1895.
To provide world-class training in the field of mining engineering, a specialised mining school, the South African School of Mines, was established in Kimberley in July 1896.
The school was opened on temporary premises donated by De Beers in August of that year and Professor JG Lawn, a lecturer at the Royal School of Mines, in London, was engaged to conduct the Kimberley training courses.
The school, in its first year, had a total enrolment of five students.
The school itself, which moved to its permanent site in Hull street in February 1899, consisted of two large classrooms, an assay laboratory, a furnace and a balance, and also had a boarding house with a common room and a dining hall for the students.
The courses offered by the school focused on four principal subjects: mechanical and electrical engineering, engineering drawing, principles and practices of mining, and mine surveying. Besides theoretical training, students also undertook practical work on the Kimberley mines and at De Beers’ workshops.
After completing the third year of study in Kimberley, students were required to complete their final year in Johannesburg. However, the Jameson Raid, which took place in 1896, put paid to this plan, as the Transvaal government was no longer interested in participating in the training scheme. It was, therefore, left to the mining houses to provide elementary education on the Rand.
By the turn of the century, the gold mining industry had far surpassed Kimberley’s diamond mining industry in both size and wealth, making Johannesburg South Africa’s new mining Mecca.
As a consequence, it was deemed preferable to conduct the training of mining engineers on the Rand rather than in Kimberley. Thus, in 1904, the School of Mines was transferred to Johannesburg and merged with the Transvaal Technical Institute. It later developed into the famous University of the Witwatersrand.