The region is peppered with colourful stories – some factual some just legends – about miners who made handsome profits by pulling nuggets from the ground or panning for the precious metal in the river that runs from the mountains above, into the valley and through the village itself, nestling as it does at the at the bottom of Robber’s Pass.
Last year, Pilgrim’s Rest was the focus of a major swindle as government administrators attempted to cancel existing leases for about 30 businesses and reallocate those leases to their cronies. The government action caused an uproar, an outburst, a court case and, eventually the cancellation of all the new leases too. Pilgrim’s Rest returned to the sleepy village it always was.
The few residents of this little village, who had been trading contentedly, for years, intended continuing to do so for many more. Now another interesting project is underway in the town and, if successful, is likely to be replicated across the Mpumalanga province too. It may even be extended to other areas of South Africa too.
A company called Stonewall Resources plans to restart mining activity in at least 40 of the closed gold mines around Pilgrim’s Rest, Barberton and Sabie in Mpumalanga. Stonewall is a ‘junior’ mining company that holds the mining and prospecting rights over 43 old mines. It is listed on the Australian Stock Exchange and is currently contemplating a listing in South Africa too according to its chief executive Lloyd Birrell.
Currently the company produces about 11 000 ounces of gold by extracting tailings from old mines and Stonewall says it hopes to raise this to about 40 000 ounces a year within the next five years.
In fact, it says that if the old and disused mines that it holds licences for can provide the sort of output that the company expects, then it could well be producing upwards of 200 000 ounces by 2016.
Stonewall bought the old Transvaal Gold Mining Estates from Simmers years ago and paid a rather paltry sum of R25-million for the mining and prospecting licences that Simmers held through the Transvaal Gold Mining Estates.
It has already been drilling test holes at many of the mines in Mpumalanga – at places in Barberton and Pilgrim’s Rest – and the results look quite positive. Birrell says that Stonewall is making a profit from its existing mining operations and so will not have to raise additional capital from shareholders or investors to start work on mining the disused shafts.
So the first mine to come into production is the old Beta mine in Pilgrim’s Rest. It will cost about $12-million for equipment needed to re-open it and Stonewall expects that the mine, once running, will produce a consistent 45 000 ounces of gold a year for a number of years to come.
Birrell says that the company may ask shareholders to assist with the capital investment but points out that mostly Stonewall will use its own money – generated from other operations – to fund its growth plans.
Once the Beta mine is producing gold in reasonable quantities, Stonewall says it will then bring Vaalhoek, Rietfontein and Glynn’s mines back into production by re-opening their shafts to get at the gold ore seams underground.
The production plans that Stonewall has may matter little in the overall scheme of gold mining where the major companies are pulling tons of gold from the ground in parts of Africa, South America, Australia and Asia using mechanized technologies and sophisticate refining techniques.
But for the people of the impoverished villages and towns, such as Pilgrim’s Rest and Barberton, the prospect of having any new industry coming back is overwhelmingly glorious. Industry brings jobs, retail opportunities and a whole host of other services too.
Of course there are many other disused mines ain South Africa that could be returned to profitability if the infrastructural costs re not too great. That’s part of the reason that there are so many illegal miners going underground to ‘steal’ gold from the defunct shafts that are not used.
As we know, illegal mining by zama-zamas is dangerous and the deaths of a host of them attest to the real dangers of working underground.
But if the re-opening of mines is done properly – in the way that Stonewall appears to be doing it – then maybe there are many similar opportunities that are waiting for smaller entrepreneurs who can give the unemployed people of deserted villages lsome hope for the future.
Let’s hope, for the people of Pilgrim’s Rest and Barberton, that such an enterprise is successful. Let’s also hope it can be replicated in other forms and in other towns throughout the country. We might not need the gold, but we certainly need the jobs.