The when, how and by whom controversy of Wits gold discovery

12th February 2016 By: Jade Davenport - Creamer Media Correspondent

One of the most curious realities of South Africa’s mining history is that the precise details relating to the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand, an event that was to irrevocably alter the economic and sociopolitical trajectory of the country, are quite vague.

In fact, the ‘when, how and by whom’ of the discovery is one of the most intriguing controversies of this niche history, as more than one prospector, including such legen- dary characters as Jan Bantjes, Fred Struben, George Walker and George Harrison, has a good case for claiming the title of rightful discoverer. What further complicates this is the fact that the pioneers who founded the City of Gold were far too busy mining and making money to record for posterity the proper details of how the discovery unfolded.

While it may be generally accepted that it was the identification of the gold-bearing conglomerate reef on the farm Langlaagte in February 1886 – with this month marking the 130th anniversary of that historic event – that proved the catalyst to what would be South Africa’s greatest gold rush and mining bonanza, it cannot be regarded as the true moment of discovery. Rather, uncovering the auriferous nature of the Witwatersrand basin should be likened to the building of a puzzle, with each piece representing a find that led inchingly closer to the discovery of the Main Reef series, the main gold-bearing conglomer-ate of the unique geological structure.

Interestingly, the first piece of the puzzle was put in place as early as 1834, more than half a century before the epoch-changing Langlaagte discovery.

Many years before the Voortrekkers crossed the Vaal river and colonised the land that came to be known as the South African Republic of the Transvaal as their own, white hunters and traders often made trips to that fertile and wild part of the hinterland. Indeed, in the early nineteenth century, the Transvaal would have been a hunters paradise, with the whole of that wild land being smothered in a plethora of game, including highly prized creatures like the elephant, rhinoceros and lion.

One particular hunter, who came to raid the territory for its majestic fauna was a Cape Afrikaner by the name of Carel Kruger. It is said that, while on a hunting expedition around 1834, Kruger accidentally discovered gold on the Witwatersrand formation. He was intrigued enough to take samples of the pebbly golden rock, but what exactly hap-pened to those samples when he returned to Cape Town is quite a mystery. However, two years later, Kruger decided to make another trip north to shoot some elephants for ivory and, presumably, to further investigate his find. This time, Kruger was accompanied by a party of hunters, including Stephanus Erasmus, the well-known Boer hunter. Unfor- tunately for the party, while on this trip, they were attacked by a group of Matabele warriors near where the town of Potchef-stroom stands today. All but Erasmus and one of his sons, who managed to escape, were killed during the attack. After the disaster and Kruger’s death, nothing more was heard of gold on the Witwatersrand for many years.

About a decade later, the very little-known prospector, John Henry Davis, decided to try his luck in the southern districts of the Transvaal. He spent many years in his search for gold, while all the time relying on the kindness of the Boer farmers for food and shelter. In 1852, the same year that the Transvaal acquired its sovereign status, Davis moved onto the farm Paardekraal, where Krugersdorp stands today. It was while fossicking on that farm that Davis is said to have discovered gold in considerable quantities. However, when the overly paranoid Volkraad, the seat of government in the Transvaal, learnt of Davis’s activities, he was reprimanded by President Marthinus Pretorius and, after handing over the gold, for which he was paid, he was ordered out of the Transvaal, never to return.

The prospecting baton was soon taken over by the seasoned gold prospector, Pieter Jacob Marais, who arrived in the Transvaal in September 1853. Marais spent the next two years panning for alluvial gold of the kind found in California and Australia. Although he prospected the northern slopes of the Witwatersrand and must have walked over the outcrop of the Main Reef many times during that period, he failed to identify the gold-bearing conglomerate that constitutes the Witwatersrand basin. For all his efforts, all Marais could show was a few minute traces of alluvial gold panned from the Crocodile and Jukskei rivers. Thus, in April 1855, having lost all hope of discovering his fortune, he left the Transvaal a disappointed man.

Although there would be much gold pros-pecting and mining activity at various parts of the Transvaal over the next two decades, the next significant auriferous find on the actual Witwatersrand basin was made only in 1881. It was during that year that Bantjes, a diamond digger and gold pros-pector of Dutch origin, stumbled across an outcrop of the conglomerate on the farm Vlakfontein, in the south-western corner of the Transvaal. Although he traced the outcrop to two adjoining farms and believed that the rocks would ultimately prove to be rich in gold, he failed to prove his discovery to any certain degree. Instead, he joined a syndicate investigating traces of gold on the farm Kromdraai, some 16 km north of Krugersdorp. The venture ultimately ended in failure, and poor Bantjes, having failed to follow up his original discovery of the conglomerate, received little recognition, financial or otherwise, for his contribution towards the discovery of the Main Reef series.

The last piece in the puzzle that would ultimately facilitate the Langlaagte discovery is undoubtedly Struben’s activities on the Confidence Reef. However, because Struben’s activities proved so influential in the founding of the Main Reef outcrop and because his mining legacy is still very much present on Johannesburg’s West Rand, that story will have to wait for the next instalment of Digging Deep.