It has been established that the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand basin was not a sudden, Eurekalike event but rather a protracted affair, which, at least according to the colonial-era historiography, dates back to the 1830s.
While that may be true, it was only half a century later that the hunt for the rugged Highveld’s natural golden treasure gained real momentum. This, in large part, resulted from the prospecting and mining endeavours of Fred Struben on what is today Johannesburg’s West Rand. In fact, it can be argued that the catalyst to the discovery of the Main Reef series in February 1886 was Struben’s activities on a phenomenally rich, yet short-lived, quartz reef operation unsuitably named the Confidence mine.
As any prospector or miner will attest, searching for mineral resources is both a costly and sometimes painstakingly long exercise. Fortunately for him, Struben had a wealthy older brother, who, thanks to an array of farming, trading and transport business ventures, was not only able to provide financial support for the actual prospecting activities but also had the means to buy all properties that were deemed even mildly prospective. One such property bought by Harry Struben was the eastern portion of the farm Wilgespruit, or Stream of the Willows, which today forms part of the suburb of Roodepoort.
Believing that the property could potentially host gold-bearing reefs, based on limited prospecting that had been done a few years earlier, Fred Struben began investigating the farm in August 1884. Within a month, he had discovered a 4-ft-thick auriferous gneiss vein. On first inspection, the quartz reef appeared to be so rich that Fred Struben optimistically named it the Confidence reef.
Over the next six months, Fred Struben set about sinking a shaft to a depth of 40 ft and assaying a number of samples. Such was the phenomenally rich nature of the reef, at least initially, that assays revealed a content of 913 oz of gold and 362 oz of silver to the ton.
By March 1885, the brothers were confident enough in the mine’s prospects to apply for a concession to mine gold on the farm. However, before granting the concession, the government of the day insisted that Harry Struben, as the proprietor, state his case before the Volksraad, the seat of government, in Pretoria, and showcase gold samples collected on Wilgespruit.
An account of that historic special sitting on the Volksraad was published in Die Volkstem newspaper: “On the morning of the June 5, 1885, in the presence of His Honour the President, the chairperson and the members of the Volksraad, and a number of the townspeople, HW Struben, of Wilgespruit, exhibited gold quartz of great richness, taken from a lode traversing the Witwatersrand in the Pretoria district. The gold (visible to the naked eye) permeated the quartz, and the results of some trials, made by some persons in the presence of the audience, were extraordinary, a button of gold and silver, smelted out of quartz by WE Dawson (who had also made some of the assays), was also shown.” Having witnessed the demonstration, President Paul Kruger thanked the brothers and promised “the protection and assistance of government to those who endeavor to develop the mining wealth of this State”.
Following the award of the mining concession, the Struben brothers ordered a five-stamp battery, capable of crushing 24 t/d, to assist with their new mining venture. It was shipped from England, transported from Durban by ox wagon and finally erected on Wilgespruit in December 1885.
Unfortunately for the Struben brothers, their success proved to be short lived. Gold was only present in small pockets within the reef, and it appears that their initial rich results were obtained from an exceptionally rich pocket. Following the installation of the stamp battery, the crushing of the first 400 t of quartz yielded gold to the value of just £260, which gave the deposit an average grade of 0.15 oz, or 5.15 g, to the ton. While this proved disappointing, the brothers persevered for another year until the gold-bearing vein eventually pinched out.
While the Confidence mine ultimately proved a failure, its real importance lies in the fact that news of the initial rich assays spread far and wide and served to attract a good number of curious gold prospectors to the Witwatersrand. Among them were two friends, George Walker and George Harrison, who, towards the end of 1885, decided to break their long on-foot journey from the Orange Free State to the gold diggings at Barberton, on the Highveld. It would be the activities of these two men during their sojourn that would finally result in the epic discovery that would change the course of South Africa’s history.
Kloofendal Nature Reserve
While evidence of much of Johannesburg’s pioneering mining history has long since been obliterated, it is significant to note that the Struben brothers’ Confidence mine has been relatively well preserved for the past 130 years and is now protected as part of the Kloofendal Nature Reserve.
Kloofendal, which is administered by Joburg City Parks, is a 110 ha reserve in the heart of Roodepoort and consists of pristine Highveld, a dam, game, bird hide, and good walking paths.
The reserve not only protects the Confidence mine itself but also hosts the Strubens’ stamp battery, which was the first of its kind to be erected on the Witwatersrand. That piece of historic mining equipment has had quite a chequered past, being used and displayed at various locations on the West Rand. (In fact, it spent 40 years as a monument at the corner of Goldman street and Seventh avenue, in Florida.) It was only in 2009 that it was returned to its historic home, adjacent to the Confidence mine.
The Friends of Kloofendal offer guided walks over weekends with qualified guides who provide information on flora, fauna, geology and gold mining in the reserve. Be sure to take a tour with Friends of Kloofendal veteran Rod Kruger, who is undoubtedly an authority on the Struben brothers and their mining activities.