Diamonds and Gold, Johannesburg
As you drive into Johannesburg from the airport, you will see an enormous statue of your left hand side just as you pass the Eastgate shopping centre. By this point, most tourists are too zonked after their international flight to wonder who this bare-chested, somewhat undernourished individual might be, let alone why he's holding a rock triumphantly above his head.
Meet George Harrison, and if you're wondering what happened to his moptop haircut, perhaps I should clarify by stating that this is his lesser known namesake, whose claim to fame is that he was the man who discovered gold in Johannesburg!
In fact, the first gold was found in the region as early as 1853, when Pieter Marais discovered alluvial gold in the Jukskei River, which drains northwards from Johannesburg. However, the source from which this gold had been derived - the Witwatersrand (White Water) Ridge - was not identified until Harrison stumbled over gold bearing outcrop on the farm Langlaagte in 1886. At the time, Harrison didn't realise the significance of his find, and the bitter irony is that, having discovered the largest gold field in the world, he sold his claim for a measly 10 pounds and headed off to the goldfields of the Eastern Transvaal to seek his fortune - as he then disappears from the historical record, one can only assume that he never did!
Even the few people who have heard of Harrison usually don't realise that he was an Australian prospector - for those unfamiliar with colonial politics, there is a keen friendly-ish rivalry between Aussies and South Africans, so this is a bit of a touchy point! Moreover, this statue is in an entirely inappropriate site, as Langlaagte is located about 10km west along the ridge, on the western fringe of Johannesburg. Frankly we should just be grateful that he gets a memorial at all - even if it's in the wrong place - since his find was responsible for the establishment of Africa's economic powerhouse!
Harrison's statue stands in a small park which got a facelift in the run up to the 2010 World Cup, and was still adorned with wire figures of footballers at the time of writing (November 2010) - I am amazed that they still haven't been nicked!
Colonel Ignatius Phillip Ferreira (1840-1921), a speculator in the diamond rush in Kimberly, the gold rush at Pilgrim's Rest and finally the Witwatersrand. In October 1896 he struck gold and formed the Ferreira Gold Mining Company as well as the miner's camp known as Ferreira's Camp which later became Ferreirasdorp. He eventually lost his share, the mine was abandoned and then forgotten.
Interestingly, Standard Bank was the first bank to establish itself in the new mining town of Johannesburg, in October 1886.
In 1986, exactly one hundred years after the mine and Standard Bank started in Johannesburg, Standard Bank built its head office over this mine. During excavation they found an old stope or access tunnel which is now of great historic importance. The bank preserved the stope and its surrounding area and created a museum which is open during banking hours (08:00 to 16:00). Entrance is free.
To solve the problem of subsidence which had previously prevented the building of high rise buildings on this land the bank's engineers developed a new technique that involved caulking the top of the stopes to stabilise the ground. Some of the underground tunnels were filled with concrete and cement grout.
The museum is very much a one exhibit visit, but it is worth seeing if one is in the area anyway and one can spare the fifteen-or-so minute detour to see it (including time spent at the museum). It is also worth seeing if one is interested in pre-machinery mining. One can still see the marks on the rocks where the hand tools cut into them.
There has been an attempt to recreate the ambiance of one of these mines with dim lighting set in reproduction electric lamps and with sepia photographs.
Standard Bank have got a very informative brochure which accompanies the museum visit and this is also free. There are some pictures of historic buildings on the walls of the three story underground museum. Most of these buildings have now been demolished. However, there is a key to the names of these buildings in the brochure.
Ferreira's Mine, Standard Bank Centre, 5 Simmonds Street, ☎ +27 (0)11 636-9111 (email@example.com, fax: +27 (0)11 636-4207). There is parking available but you will need to telephone first to make arrangements and get directions to which parking they reserve for you.
It's one thing to know that Johannesburg is a city founded on mining, but it's quite another to realise that Africa's largest bank - which has helped to fund such mining development and financed much of its expansion that way - literally extends down into its mining roots!
Unlikely though it might seem, during the excavation of the foundations for Standard Bank's new headquarters on Simmonds Street in the 1980s, the engineers intersected to underground workings of the defunct Ferreira's Mine. It is to the bank's immense credit that they were sensitive to the heritage significance of this long before we had legislation that protected this aspect of our history. The original design of the building was modified to incorporate a Mine Shaft Museum, extending three floors below ground level, which preserves one of the original mine stopes and documents the history of one of Johannesburg's earliest mines.
Ferriera's mine commenced operation in 1886, and rapidly extended too deep to continue mining from surface. The company then engaged Cornish miners with experience of underground operations to develop underground stopes to exploit the orebody. Fittingly - given the eventual redevelopment of the site - the Ferreira Gold Mining Company banked with Standard Bank!
Entrance to the Mine Shaft Museum is free, and the only cost involved is the effort expended to find it. When you come in the entrance to Standard Bank's main building at 5 Simmonds Street, turn left and walk through the lobby and on through a connecting door until you see the lift down into the museum (arguably the most luxurious descent into mine workings in the world). It is a small exhibit, but well thought out, with good use of sepia photos and other display material that conjur up a (somewhat sanitised) sense of mining condition around the turn of the 20th century
Although the diamond mines are elsewhere, Jo'burg is South Africa's major market and polishing centre. Check out one of the diamond cutting establishments, maybe The Diamond Centre, and discover how to turn a dull pebble to a real gem!