Harmony Gold Mine, Welkom, Free State, South Africa

A view of the headgear, Welkom, Free State, South Africa. Photo: Graeme Williams / Flickr

Large-scale gold extraction in South Africa started in the Free State Goldfields (FSG, now in Matjhabeng Local Municipality, Free State Province) after World War II. Forty years of gold-mining operations led Welkom, the main town created around the FSG mining operations, to become the second-largest urban area in the Free State.

The gold boom came to an end in 1989, when the gold price dropped suddenly from about US$900 per ounce to about US$300. This led to the closure of many mines that became uneconomic because of ageing infrastructure and the exhaustion of easily accessible deposits, among other things.

The FSG case illustrates the wide range and depth of economic, social and environmental consequences from a rapid decline of mining operations in areas that are highly dependent on this activity. It also highlights the importance of incorporating transition measures that tackle the social and environmental consequences of mining decline.