JOHANNESBURG // The deaths at Welkom are the latest in a long line of conflict and suffering that can be traced back to South Africa's mineral wealth and pervade the country's entire modern history. A book on the subject released last year is even titled Diamonds, Gold and War: the Making of South Africa.
Small-scale gold-mining had been carried out in southern Africa for centuries before the arrival of whites - the ancient kingdom of Mapungubwe, centred on what is now the border of South Africa and Zimbabwe, was known for its gold production. In the 19th century, wrote Martin Meredith, author of Diamonds, Gold and War: "In general, the two southern African colonies [the Cape and Natal] were regarded as among the most troublesome, expensive and unprofitable possessions of the British Empire."
That changed, though, when the Witwatersrand reef was discovered in 1886 by one of two itinerant labourers, both called George, who were building cottages on a farm called Langlaagte, in an area that is now part of the Johannesburg city centre. Accounts of which one of George Walker and George Harrison actually found the rock containing the gold differ, and neither made a substantial amount of money - Harrison sold his discoverer's rights for £10 (Dh59.9) and disappeared, while Walker also left the region, returning later to be given a pension.
But others made fortunes. Word of the discovery soon spread, and the gold rush was on, leading to the creation of the so-called Randlord multimillionaires, such as Cecil Rhodes, the founder of Goldfields South Africa. A tent city sprung up, named after Johann Rissik, the acting surveyor-general, and Johannes Pieter Meyer, a local official. The discovery, though, was not in British territory. Instead it transformed the viability of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek, at the time a rural, poverty-stricken state founded by Dutch-speaking Boers who had trekked north and east from the Cape Colony to escape British domination.
Suddenly, the interior of southern Africa, where Britain had been reluctant to expand after being embroiled in frontier conflicts over land described by one colonial official as "the most sterile and worthless in the whole Empire" was of vital commercial and geopolitical interest, and other European powers, particularly Germany, were quick to establish links with the ZAR. Using the excuse of rights being denied to non-Afrikaner arrivals, Britain began reinforcing troops in its colonies of the Cape and Natal, until Paul Kruger, the ZAR president, declared war in 1899.
"Britain's aggressive approach would have been inconceivable had the ZAR been producing only potatoes or peas," wrote the authors of a history of South Africa published two years ago. "Ultimately it was an Anglo-Boer contest to decide who would have supreme authority over all of the country's minerals, productive lands and dispossessed black labour." Early Boer advances soon stalled, but British expectations of a quick victory, after a months-long campaign, also went unfulfilled. Instead, the war lasted 2½ years, as eventually 450,000 imperial troops faced off against guerrilla forces who had the advantage of mobility and knowledge of the terrain.
In an attempt to deny the fighters support, British commanders interned Afrikaner women and children in what were termed "concentration camps", where conditions were so dire that an estimated 26,000 died. Mr Meredith describes it as "the costliest, bloodiest and most humiliating war that Britain had waged in nearly a century". Finally, though, imperial might told, but as part of the peace agreement the Boer republics - the Orange Free State had also been part of the war - were given rights of self-government, and in 1910 the British and the Boers negotiated to form the Union of South Africa.
Blacks were excluded from the talks, and from any role in the new government. In the meantime, mining had resumed and expanded with a vengeance, with vast numbers of blacks leaving their rural homes to go to the Transvaal in search of work. The Land Act of 1913, which restricted blacks to land ownership in only eight per cent of the country, only expanded the pool of cheap manpower available for the labour-intensive, ever-deeper gold mines.
The war's repercussions "lasted for nearly a century", writes Mr Meredith. "Out of the turmoil came a virulent form of Afrikaner nationalism that eventually took hold of South Africa, setting off yet another titanic struggle, this time between white and black." Eventually Afrikaner fears of domination - this time by a black population that was growing much faster than the white inhabitants of the country - resulted in the National Party, of DF Malan, winning a majority in the whites-only election of 1948, promising to introduce total racial separation, apartheid, to deal with the "swart gevaar", or black threat.
The mines themselves remained the mainstay of the economy for decades, even though South Africa has now slipped to third place on the world list of gold producers. They are also a mainstay of criminal activity. Statistics are inevitably impossible to derive with certainty, but a paper by the Pretoria-based Institute of Security Studies in 2007 concluded that at a "very moderate estimation" illegal gold-smuggling syndicates in South Africa could have an annual turnover of more than R1.8billion - more than US$250 million at the time. Since then the price of gold has risen by 40 per cent.
But the wealth the gold brings comes at a high cost in human lives. Even in the legal mining sector, about 200 miners have died annually in recent years, and the Welkom disaster is only the latest to befall illegal miners - 20 were killed in a fire at a mine near Barberton, east of Johannesburg, this year. email@example.com