The existence of coal had been known in Northern Natal since the mid 1830’s, but the industry only began to develop as a business, when the railway lines reached the coalfields from the port of Durban in 1888. The Dundee Coal Company- launched on the London Stock Exchange in 1889, was initiated by a group of Durban merchants, and the Elandslaagte Coal Company, financed with capital from the sugar industry.
The simultaneous development of the Transvaal coal industry made it difficult for the mines on Natal to develop. Although Natal coal was superior in quality to Transvaal coal, the mines in the Transvaal were better situated to markets, for labour and mining costs.
Transvaal coal cheaper to mine that Natal, as it was located in thick seams, usually close to the surface.
Natal coal lay in broken country which had been extensively disturbed by past volcanic action. The heat from molten rocks had formed sheets of rock overlying the coal seams, intersecting them and in places altered the character of the coal, through every stage to anthracite. Natal coal seams were comparatively thin and located at much greater depths than in the Transvaal.
In the early days there was no market for anthracite and much of Natal coal was considered to be “bad” coal as most of the Natal mines were “fiery” in that methane gas and dust, was widespread, which raised the problem of coal dust explosions. This made for difficult and expensive mining conditions. Conditions were not as adaptable to using machines as in the Transvaal.
Before the Second World War 40% of the total output of Natal collieries was exported, and Natal supplied 80% of South Africa’s total coal export trade.
The key role of the shipment trade is reflected in the names given to some of the major colliery companies, the Durban Navigation Collieries launched in 1902 with British capital, and the Transvaal financed Natal Navigation Collieries inaugurated in 1898.
The Natal coal trade was one of “struggle”. Only when other coal producing countries suffered, did the Natal coal industry experience real periods of prosperity. During the First and Second World Wars, when the war devastated the coal areas of Europe, Natal coal was sent as far afield as South America. Bunker demand also soared as shipping was moved away from the Mediterranean and Suez Canal zones to the Cape route. Strikes in coal producing countries – Great Britain in 1926, also had the effect of increasing demand for Natal coal.
The industry suffered from alternating periods of prosperity and depression, made worse by labour and transport difficulties, which influenced the use of machines to extract the coal in Natal collieries before the early 1950’s.
However, hand-loading and hand-tramming of the broken coal face and haulage remained well into the 1950’s.
Pillar and stall was the most popular method of winning coal, although experiments were made with longwall methods. These were usually made very difficult because of roof conditions and labour inexperience.
The chief problems to full mechanisation were the structure of the coal seams and the high cost of purchasing and maintaining machinery.
In 1903 the Natal Mines Department, worried about the increasing number of colliery explosions, as the mines became deeper and methane gas more of a danger introduced regulations to deal with this.
The end of the Anglo-Boer War in 1902 brought a high demand for coal. Anxious about increased working costs, mine managers in turn formed the Natal Mine Managers Association to fight these regulations.
In 1909 the Natal Coal Owners Society and new regulations were proposed after the Glencoe Colliery disaster of 1908, which left 77 men dead and 8 injured.
It took 14 years after the Inspector of Mines first suggested the idea in 1910, for a Central Rescue Station to be established in Dundee. The delay was caused over arguments about who would bear the cost of training and equipping rescue brigades.
Some of the worst disasters ever to afflict the Natal coalfields were associated with periods of upswing. The D.N.C. No. 2 explosion in 1926 destroyed the entire night shift of 125 men. Three serious explosions were associated with the “rushed” period of the Second World War, when demand for coal greatly outstripped supply. Two of those, at Northfield in 1943, which caused 78 deaths, and at Hlobane No. 1, when 57 men died, were the results of poor supervision of miners who made tragic errors.
In the 1950’s and the 1960’s, the Natal coal industry had to adjust from a reliance on the shipping trade to the requirements of the expanding South African economy.
The threat of oil as an alternative fuel, the transport crisis of the early 1950’s, and the rival producers of the U.S.A. and Poland all created concerns in the industry.
In 1922 the Electricity Supply Commission (Eskom) had been established to stimulate industry through the provision of power, and major power stations were opened in Natal.
In 1928 the Iron and Steel Corporation (Iscor) was founded with the long term view of making South Africa self-sufficient in its steel requirements. In the 1940’s the Orange Free State and Far West Rand gold mines were opened.
A major problem in changing from export to domestic was the structure of different sizes of coal. The shipping trade consumed round coal. Small coal i.e. nuts, peas and dross, the “natural arisings“ from the mining of coal was either dumped, or sold at very low prices to whoever would take it, because in the early years there was no market for it. As demand for small coal increased with the advent of Escom and Iscor, prices improved slightly.
A large variation remained between inland and shipping prices. The formation of the Natal Coal Owners Association in 1913, tried to allocate fix prices and did manage to keep prices at a reasonable level.
Export coal could get good prices in times of high demand
The Coal Commission of 1946/7 was set up to investigate the conserving of South Africa’s dwindling coking coal reserves. Natal was at that time the only source of true or straight coking coal, which was an vital ingredient in manufacturing of steel. Natal thus played a critically important role in South Africa’s industrial revolution, but because of the way in which Natal’s coal trade had developed, a large proportion of coking coal was leaving the country as steam coal for the export market.
In 1954 Iscor acquired control of the Durban Navigation Collieries in order to ensure coking coal supplies. Anglo-America’s entrance in the Natal coal fields started a trend in which powerful companies, with significant gold mining interests, would assume an increasingly important role in the Natal coal industry.
In 1963 General Mining Corporation took over the Natal Navigation group which controlled the Hlobane, Northfield and Kilbarchan collieries. These developments had important implications for the iron and steel industry.
In 1965 Iscor introduced state-of-the-art mechanised longwalling techniques in a section of Durban Navigation Collieries, and Iscor coking coal contracts with such collieries as Hlobane, Northfield and Indumeni encouraged mechanisation in order to meet increased production needs.
Demand for power station coal also increased, and in 1963 Escom brought into commission, the Ingagane power station near Newcastle, fed by the only “captive colliery” in Natal, Kilbarchan, which was linked to the power station by conveyor belts.
By 1969 hand-got methods were still predominant in the Natal coal fields, slowly disappearing and with the involvement of big companies and Iscor, saw increasing mechanisation, including mechanised opencast mining.
The world energy crisis in the 1970’s, marked a turning point in the history of South Africa’s coal industry.
The realization that supplies of oil and natural gas were not infinite and that available reserves of coal were still vast, led to fossil fuels as a medium term solution, to the energy crisis.
The South African coal industry expanded greatly in response to an increasing demand for coal. The establishment of the new coal terminal at Richard’s Bay, with sophisticated railway lines, which came into operation on 1 April 1976, allowed for increased exports. By 1982, 44% of Natal’s coal production was being exported. This constituted 10.8% of the 23.9% of the total South African production, exported in that year.
Rising demand for anthracite led to the development of the fields in KwaZulu, known to exist since the 1890’s. By 1976 coal had become the largest export earner after gold. The massive increase in demand in the 1970’s stimulated mechanisation.
By 1977 most Natal collieries had mechanised, and many also mined part of their output by opencast methods. More sophisticated mining methods required a more skilled labour force and training facilities for both white and black miners were introduced. Together with this went the steady improvement of living and working conditions on the mines.
By 1982 conditions had altered considerably as the world economy slid into a decline in the demand for steel dropped. Between 1981 and 1983, working mines in Natal had reduced from 44 to 21, and Natal’s total sales output plunged from 14 million tons to 9 million tons. Natal was able to retain most of her export markets as overseas buyers wanted high quality coal, which was regularly graded and delivered in small consignments. Coal for power stations continued to be supplied by large mechanised mines in the Transvaal.
With the closure of power stations in the late 1980’s many mines lost their customers and eventually closed.
As in the early days of the Natal coal industry, exports held the key to potential prosperity.
Numerous mines close after imposition of sanctions in 1983. In the Dundee area alone that year 19 mines closed.
Small operations continue to win blocks of coal, but the days of the big companies in the KwaZulu Natal coal fields has reached an end.