Gold mining in Swaziland

24th March 2017 By: Jade Davenport - Creamer Media Correspondent

There are indications that gold mining and production in our neighbour, Swaziland, is undergoing a resurgence after decades of near-dormant activity.

The reopening of the Lufafa gold mine, near Pigg’s Peak, at the beginning of 2016 has been succeeded by the recent award of a ten-year mining lease to rehabilitate the gold-bearing asbestos tailings of the historic Havelock mine in what is today the town of Bulembu, on the border of Swaziland and South Africa.

The new lease, awarded to Kobolondo Mining, allows for the construction of a large gold treatment plant at Bulembu, which will not only treat the old Havelock tailings but also have enough capacity to treat tailings and ores from other operations that may be reopened along the north-eastern auriferous rim of Swaziland. Thus, once operational, it is anticipated that this facility, which will act in much the same fashion as the Eastern Transvaal Consolidated Mines gold mine tailings retreatment plant, near Barberton, will facilitate the further growth of the sector by encouraging the reopening of the long-abandoned gold mines, many of which were compelled to close because of processing challenges.

Such a resurgence in gold-related activity provides an opportunity to take a brief glimpse at the early history of gold mining in the kingdom.

While Swaziland is known to have the oldest mining industry in the world, with the hematite operation at Lion Cavern dating back more than 41 000 years, exactly when and by whom gold was first found and mined remains a complete mystery. Having said that, the metal most certainly would have been exploited in the precolonial era, either for personal use or trading purposes, as was the case in the rest of Southern Africa. The metal was rediscovered, or ‘discovered’ under the colonial tradition, in the late 1870s, with the first recorded attempts to mine the metal being made in the early 1880s.

It will come as little surprise to learn that the man who is credited with discovering gold in Swaziland was one of the stalwarts of the old Eastern Transvaal gold rushes of the 1870s. Tom McLachlan was among the most renowned of South Africa’s gold prospectors. He was involved in the finding of gold on the Eersteling farm and also discovered gold at Spitzkop and Geelhoutboom, which kick-started the MacMac gold rush and led to the founding of Pilgrim’s Rest, and in the Kaap Valley, which today incorporates the gold mining town of Barberton.

By the end of the 1870s, McLachlan had become tired of the gold frenzy that still gripped the New Caledonia goldfield area and, together with his fellow digger, Walter Carter, decided to seek quieter environs within which to fossick for new gold deposits.

The pair made their way south across the great mountain range known as the Makonjwa – also known as the Barberton Greenstone Belt, a name that reflects the belief that, by pointing at exposed peaks, rain is induced – and settled near the top of the Phophanyane Falls of the great Komati river. Little did they know it, but they had settled amid the oldest exposed rock mass on earth. Being highly mineralised, particularly with the auriferous metal, the pair soon found many traces of gold and exposed gold-bearing quartz veins.

That discovery could not have been made at a more opportune time, for it coincided with the succession of King Mbandzeni in 1879. Mbandzeni’s reign is largely regarded as the Era of the Concessionaires. By Swazi custom, all land was, and still is, the common property of the people, which is held in trust for them and allocated under the authority of the king and his chiefs. Thus, in order to use the land or mine any commodities, it has always been necessary to get a concession, or lease, for such an activity from the Swazi monarch. Although Mbandzeni was not the first to issue leases or concessions, he awarded such a staggering number of concessions to Boer graziers and British traders and miners during his reign (1879–1889) that Swazi people now regard that time as the ‘paper conquest’ of Swaziland.

Having settled just a few kilometres north of Mbandzeni’s residence, McLachlan made it his business to be acquainted with the newly installed king and win his favour. Given the number of concessions granted, this was not difficult and, in May 1880, McLachlan and his partner were granted the first gold mining concession, giving them exclusive right to prospect and mine in the Swazi territory north of the Khomati river. While the pair found many economically viable gold deposits in their concession area, McLachlan, who was now in his seventies, soon decided to retire and return to his native country of Scotland. Shortly thereafter, new concessions were awarded, which led to the establishment of the famous Piggs Peak and Horo gold mines.

News of McLachlan’s latest discoveries spread far and wide and served to lure more prospectors and concession hunters to the kingdom. Among them were the brothers James and David Forbes, whose names still lingers on in Swaziland’s mining industry. The Forbes brothers won the concession to prospect all the land south of the Khomati and, in 1883, they discovered what became known as the Forbes Reef Series, which has proved to be the country’s richest and most productive gold-bearing series. The second-most productive mining area, the Main Reef, was discovered at roughly the same time by Alec Forbes and Charles Swears.

While these areas are all highly auriferous, the reefs have seldom proved uniform and consistent, and neither has the gold content been easily extractable. Thus, the fortunes of Swaziland’s gold mining industry have been mixed and sporadic, in much the same manner as the broader region’s gold industry.

Record keeping was not the early concessionaires’ forte; thus, it is not known for certain how much gold has actually been mined. However, from the 12 gold mines that are known to have been worked since the early 1880s, the Swaziland Geological Survey and Mines Department estimate that some 250 000 ounces have been won.