Wankie

Coal Town

Wankie is the site of one of the world's richest deposits of high grade coal with reserves of billions of tons and seams over 46 feet (14m) thick.
Wankie is the site of one of the world’s richest deposits of high grade coal with reserves of billions of tons and seams over 46 feet (14m) thick.

 

Wankie, at dawn, is hot already as the sun begins its climb above the rim of the hills that surround the little town. Here lives a community of 20 000 people who, without fuss and with the efficiency of men who know their job, produce 3,5 million tons of high grade coal a year.

It is a unique town, Wankie, a little gem of enterprise which the majority of visitors and Rhodesians by-pass without a casual glance. South of the town a signpost points the way, but they have set their throttles, their eyes and their hearts on the the tumbling Victoria Falls or on keeping a sharp look out for the turn off to the game reserve.

What they know of Wankie, what they have heard, they dislike. So they pass it by.  It is reputed to be smoggy, coal-gritty and sweaty. Miners live there. It is a place to be avoided. It is a coal town and coal is without glamour.  It is, to them, an out-in-the-limbo society, an isolated community which to visit would constitute a waste of time and cut down their time race between Bulawayo 200-odd miles to the south, and Victoria Falls, 60 or so miles north.  So they dismiss it as casually as a débutante discards a laddered stocking. It is a pity that they do.

Because of its unique position in Rhodesia’s society it should not be missed. The lay-out of the town, the ideals behind its administration and endeavours, its management techniques, could well be absorbed, studied, and at times copied.  Wankie is not a town in the accepted sense. It is not the grouping of individuals who have come together, acted independently and blundered to a semi-efficient condition of municipal autonomy.  It is instead a company town, a privately owned society. It has only one heart, one way of making a living, one method of existence. Coal.

Wankie is coal and coal is Wankie.  Yet it is surprisingly free from the gritty, binding, stale smell associated with coal towns. At first glance it looks as barren as an Atlantic cliff face. But because it is organized, controlled and governed by singular purpose, it shows a face of startling beauty in a sere plan and looks as pretty as a honey bird amongst its brown vulture hills.

To the uninitiated, coal is black, dirty and serves only to supply heat.  One might expect drabness on turning left off the national road.  Instead  one is plunged into a sea of tree-lined streets , green, emerald green; dual carriageways crest-topped with gay splashes of bronze and white frangipani, pillar box red poinsettia, crimson-flame flamboyant and multi-coloured borders of canna lilies.  Mellowed brick houses with golden shower creepers are coolly inviting.

The effect is to shock. The shock is delightful.  The town has bought you.  The stamp of individuality is on its face. And the town is the Wankie Colliery Company.

The colliery is the bank manager, the overseer, the organizer, the overlord, the planner, the paymaster.  Everything from the houses to the shrubs are colliery property.

In the circumstances one might expect to find the finger to the forelock attitude, a lack of appreciation, or dissatisfaction.  There are none of these things.  The master is a benign one; the philosophy a fiercely independent one; their experiment a huge success story.

These people are coal people.  They carry the stamp of coal; they understand, approve and appreciate all that has been done  by, with and for them.

Ant town, or home or village is a dead thing without people.  So in the people we find the clue to Wankie.

People like an irascible little Welshman, as fiercely defensive of the town and its ways as a mother is of her first born.  He was poetic almost in his love for “the ‘ole”.

“To understand coal, man, you must know the ‘ole. It lives.  It is a place of beauty”

So we went down the hole, gliding noiselessly into a world that was strangely calm, very cool and business-like.  A city underground, the source of all that had been built above.  Bobbing lights on hats, like the love dance of glow worms, marked our passage to the face..  Here there was dust and noise and bustle as the grinding, tearing, crunching teeth of the giant cutter ate the coal.  The machine was in the charge of a grinning African who talked to his monster like a dice player trying to make a seven the hard way.

“Come on, baby  Pretty baby. Go man, go.”  he sang, as the great gripping shark-teeth gouged out his quota for the shift.  Everyone was happy. Everybody sang.  The face had the urgency of a theatre dressing room on a first night.

There was no fuss, no confusion; only ruthless precision. This was the spot where the old hands feel the thrill of their job, of being down down the ‘ole and seeing the coal flow.  This was the pulse beat.  Everything that happened above ground was dependent on the three shovels that clear the face to allow the machine to cut.  This was why the little Welshman, why perhaps all Welshmen, are bards.

These three shovels ultimately provide the many things a soft voiced South African talked about. They bring water, food, light, schooling and sports facilities as magnificent as any on the continent.  They bring film shows, crèches, carnivals, golf course, reasonably priced drinks, leisure  hours, gracious amenities, bus services and medical care.  They bring everything that the modern individual desires from life.

They bring a new perspective to the African, who is tempted to taste a different way of life but who is, at the same time, very wisely coaxed to retain the traditions of his culture.

They have welded Welsh, English, Irish, Scots, Afrikaner, German, Greek, Italian and Rhodesian into a homogeneous group.  They have succeeded in getting Chewa, Matabele, Zezeru, Ngoni, Yao, Tonga, Biza, Lozi and twenty other tribes from  as far apart as Natal and the Congo to live in harmony, without friction or jealousies.

Wankie is a town of superb surprises.  A miner took off his helmet and asked, “How do yah put on these things?” before strolling out on to the cricket pitch to hit a gay, chanceless 58 against tight bowling, with the coal dirt streaking his grinning face.  A charming girl of twenty spoke in the cool soft brogue of the Scottish Highlands, “Please join our party. Nobody sits alone in Wankie.”  A hospital sister with a face like a cherub and a voice like an angel boasted that she gave the best injections in Rhodesia, and I have a mark as big as half a crown to prove her right.

Wankie, a gay little town, a fair little town, a happy little town, where I watched from the hill a long train of coal snail its way north and grumble a whistle at the weight it had to carry.  The whistle has a different note when the train is bringing the teenagers home on holiday from their high schools, 200 miles away in Bulawayo.  A breath of the outside world comes with them; and Wankie, then, is a wonderful place.

By Brian O’Donoghue – 1970

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Wankie Colliery - Plan of Property
Wankie Colliery – Plan of Property

 

The name “Wankie” was one of the spellings of the title of the reigning Chief of the Abananzwa tribe who inhabited this part of the country in the late 19th century. (There were various spellings among which were “Wangi”, “Zanki”, “Whangi” – and, more recently, “Hwange”). The tribe became subjugated by the Matabele but, later, discovering a race of white men had arrived and overturned the supremacy of the Ndebele, they sent two Indunas to Tati as ambassadors to propitiate the white men by presenting a traditional gift of two elephant tusks.  Whilst there they told the new arrivals that in their country there were black stones which burned.  On this information Albert Giese, originally from Germany, decided to explore the area and after various exciting adventures, owing to the presence of raiding Matabele, in 1895 he eventually pegged coal claims on the Kamandama River. This was four miles west of what became No. 1 Colliery where an outcrop of coal 30 feet thick is exposed in the river bed.

 

Albert Giese, discoverer in 1893 of the Wankie coalfield
Albert Giese, discoverer in 1893 of the Wankie coalfield

 

The discovery of coal at Wankie led Cecil Rhodes to divert his trans-continental railway from the originally planned route north from Salisbury via Chirundu so that instead it should run via Wankie and the Victoria Falls.  The rail head reached Wankie in 1903 and Victoria Falls in 1904.  The coal subsequently proved to be of very high quality with a consistent calorific value of well over 13 000 B.T.U. (> 14 000 kJ). The estimated reserves, on a conservative estimate, are in excess of 4 billion tons.

 

Wankies Colliery, Mouth of the Great Drift, 1902
Wankies Colliery, Mouth of the Great Drift, 1902
First train leaving with Wankie coal 1904
First train leaving with Wankie coal 1904

 

The thickness of the seam, which extends in an almost unbroken sheet with generally only slight faulting, varies from 6 feet up to 30 feet although boreholes have proved even greater thickness up to at least 46 feet 10 inches (over 14 m) of solid coal.

By the late 1920s production of coal for use throughout the Rhodesias and the Congo was over a million tons pa.  In 1927 a second colliery was opened but this was closed in 1932 owing to reduced demand during the world depression. It was re-opened a few years later.

The Second Word War led to increased demand and production was increased to reach 2 million tons pa.

 

Coal cutter No. 2 Colliery, Wankie
Coal cutter No. 2 Colliery, Wankie
Surface plant at No. 2 Colliery, Wankie
Surface plant at No. 2 Colliery, Wankie

 

In May, 1953 the Wankie coalfield, which was owned at that time by Powell Duffryn, was taken over by the Anglo-American Corporation of South Africa (AAC). This led to a significant increase in activity and in the tempo of development as the new company was willing and able to invest the necessary £5 million which its predecessor was not.

Capital resources and investment in new equipment would not lead to the hoped for doubling of production capacity without a skilled workforce. Wankie is very isolated being 70 miles from Livingstone and 200 from Bulawayo.  Although Rhodesia’s strip roads were advanced by African standards they were still a far cry from the fine double width highway which had been built by 1970. This together with the hot location, caused by being in a vast hollow in the hills, and difficult living conditions were not conducive to attracting the men and their families which were needed.

The AAC was thus faced with the dual task of technical coal mining development and a large-scale scheme of building houses and modern civic amenities in a co-ordinated town plan.  It was decided that such a prodigious task called for two managers who would act jointly. One would concentrate on the problem of winning the coal and the other would be responsible for all the rest including the town. The previous general manager, Mr. T.A.J. Braithwaite, was made solely responsible for town development and a new man, Mr. G.F. Rautenbach, was brought in solely to manage the mining.  New mining procedures, including more mechanisation, were introduced in an attempt to improve efficiency and bring production levels up to those obtained in South Africa and elsewhere in the world.

Maybe not surprisingly, the African workforce, the majority of which had been recruited from north of the Zambezi, did not take kindly to the changes and what it considered to be the insufficient rewards offered.  A significant strike ensued and, fearing unrest, Prime Minister Garfield Todd called in additional police and army reservists.  In the event the strike remained peaceful and after about a week thousands of the strikers returned to work. About 300 took up the government’s proposal to leave and return to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).  The government had promised the African labour force that it would appoint a Labour Board to look into their grievances and that the workers could appoint their own committees or deputations to represent them.  In the event the Board recommended an across-the-board pay increase of five shillings per month which, although below the strikers’ more unrealistic demands, was nonetheless welcomed by the Colliery’s black workers.

Following resolution of this set setback, the ambitious objective was reached. The production capacity at Wankie was raised to over 5 million tons pa.

No. 1 Colliery, which had been in production since 1903, had a large “worked out” area. To facilitate and accelerate the mining of coal, the whole of the underground layout of this colliery was reorganised and modernised. The working area was concentrated in a fairly small section equipped with coal-cutters and electric drills. The coal seam in this colliery varies between 5 and 11 feet thick and production capacity from this part of the coalfield was a little over 1 million tons a year.

At No. 2 Colliery, both conventional hand-loading methods and complete mechanisation – with mechanical loading machines, shuttle cars and belt conveyors – were employed. The mechanised section was so fully equipped that it could produce 4 000 tons a day without heavy manual labour. The coal seam here was vastly thicker  than at No. 1 Colliery, varying between 18 and 24 feet.  Production capacity, at 2 million tons pa,  was twice that of No. 1 Colliery.

The new No. 3 Colliery was laid out and equipped to meet an annual demand of at least 2 million tons pa.  Hand loading methods were still employed but an interesting innovation was the use of trucks with much lower sides than is customary in coal mines in Southern Africa. The old tubs, of 0.85 tons capacity, were 3’9″ (1.14m) high compared with the new ones, of 1.25 tons, which were only 2’8″ (0.81m) high. The African shovelling coal into them thus had less distance to lift his spadeful each time.  The saving in his time, and the consequent acceleration in truck loading, contributed considerably towards the extraordinary speed of production at Wankie.

Total coal production capacity at Wankie was thus about 5 million tons pa, which was particularly important before the great Kariba hydro-electric plant came on stream in the early 1960s. Both before and after this, one of the major markets for Wankie coal has been the large copper mines in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and the adjoining Katanga province of the Congo.

Apart from coal, Wankie produced large amounts of coke for the copper mines of the Union Minière du Haut Katanga, the lead and zinc mine at Broken Hill and to RISCO, the Rhodesian Iron and Steel Company at Redcliff. From coke various by-products such as benzole are also derived.

Another important activity of the Wankie Colliery is the production of bricks – in particular being the only source of refractory bricks in south central Africa utilising fireclays found within the coal-bearing measures. The brick works themselves also have a capacity of over a million building bricks per month.

 

In addition to coal, Wankie produces coke, and other by-products, such as refined tar, creosote,concentrated ammonia liquor, benzol, toluol, xylol and naptha. It alsso makes refractory bricks. The brick kilns, the coke ovens and by-products, seen here, are at No. 1 Colliery.
In addition to coal, Wankie produces coke, and other by-products, such as refined tar, creosote,concentrated ammonia liquor, benzol, toluol, xylol and naptha. It alsso makes refractory bricks. The brick kilns, the coke ovens and by-products, seen here, are at No. 1 Colliery.

 

To cater for the health needs of the community Wankie has a hospital as good as any in southern Africa for a town of its size. The European section has 60 beds, including up-to-date maternity and children’s wards, while the African community is catered for by five wards able to accommodate nearly 300 patients.

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Wankie No. 2 Colliery Explosion

On 6th June 1972 Wankie suffered a catastrophe which would have been terrible for any country but was particularly felt in country like Rhodesia with its smallish population of only one tenth of that of the UK. A series of large gas explosions occurred underground in No. 2 Colliery which led to the loss of 427 lives in what was by far the worst disaster in Rhodesia’s history.

At approximately 10:27 am on Monday the 6th June, 1972, a violent explosion ripped through the entire extent of the underground workings of No. 2 Colliery. Tremendous columns of smoke and gases poured out of all the shafts, mounting hundreds of feet into the atmosphere. The Kamandama fan was totally destroyed and the Bisa fan nearly so. The Kamandama incline shaft was completely blocked by falls of roof and twisted steel girders.

The proto teams, working in relays, penetrated 2 000 metres into the míne among scenes of the most appalling devastation. Explosions were heard at frequent intervals and freely burning fires were encountered. In the end the rescue attempt was abandoned and the teams withdrawn. It had become obvious that nobody had survived the holocaust.  427 persons had died ín one of the greatest, underground explosions ever known.

Eight men were pulled alive from the mine after the initial explosions. Two new explosions on 7 June poured clouds of poisonous gas into the 3 miles (4.8 kilometres) of tunnels, making further rescue attempts impossible.

On 9 June, the general manager of the Wankie colliery, Gordon Livingstone-Blevins, decided to leave the 423 bodies where they were. Three bodies had been recovered after the initial explosions. A mass memorial service took place on 11 June at a nearby football stadium, where a crowd of about 5,000 people paid tribute. “This has cast a gloom over the whole country,” Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith said during the service.

 

The Prime Minister, Mr. lan Smith, and Mrs. Smith at the Memorial Service at Wankie. The Minister of Mines, Mr. lan Dillon, is on the left of Mrs. Smith. On the extreme right is Sir Keith Acutt, Mr. Harry Oppenheimer and Mr. G.J. Livingstone-Blevins, the general manager of Wankie Colliery.
The Prime Minister, Mr. lan Smith, and Mrs. Smith at the Memorial Service at Wankie. The Minister of Mines, Mr. lan Dillon, is on the left of Mrs. Smith. On the extreme right is Sir Keith Acutt, Mr. Harry Oppenheimer and Mr. G.J. Livingstone-Blevins, the general manager of Wankie Colliery.

 

Wankie disaster provoked reaction throughout the world

The Wankie disaster, in which over 400 men lost their lives as a result of an explosion in No. 2 Colliery, ranks as the worst mining disaster in Rhodesia.

lt provoked reaction throughout the world. Messages of sympathy poured in from all quarters and included those from Queen Elizabeth, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the British Foreign Secretary. the Pope, the Prime Minister of South Africa, Mr. B. J. Vorster, the Leader of the Opposition, Sir de Villiers Graaf, and the British National Coal Board.

In addition offers of help came from many parts of the world. Both South Africa and Zambia sent rescue teams to Wankie and the South African Chamber of Mines sent special standby orders to its mammoth R$500 000 mobile rescue unit to be ready to travel to Rhodesia. The Zambian State Mining Company, Mindico, said it would give absolute priority to any request for assistance required in the rescue operation.

The Anglo American representative in London, Mr. Dobbie Dobson, sent R$20 000 worth of ventilation equipment to Rhodesia by air and masses of equipment were sent from all over the world. The equipment included ventilation fans, all sorts of transport and television cameras as it was planned to use closed circuit television in the rescue operations.

The television equipment was ordered from France and again no political objections were raised. A special cameraman who had been working on another disaster, was standing by in Los Angeles awaiting orders to fly to Rhodesia, when it was decided rescue operations would have to stop.

The President. Mr. Clifford Dupont, and the Prime Minister, Mr. Ian Smith, visited Wankie after the disaster. Both were accompanied by the Minister of Mines. While at Wankie the Prime Minister, on behalf of the nation, expressed deep sympathy to all the people of Wankie and particularly the families of the men who had been lost.

“This great tragedy.” he said, “has not only affected Wankie, it has cast a cloud over the whole of Rhodesia and there have been repercussions throughout the world.” The Prime Minister went down No. 2 Colliery in 1970. On that occasion he was accompanied by Mr. Basil Papenfus, No. 2 Colliery manager, who was among those in the mine when the disaster occurred.

The Prime Minister, accompanied by Mrs. Smith, attended the vast memorial serv1ce held at the Colliery on June 11. Also present were the Minister of Mines, Mr. Ian Dillon, Mr. Harry Oppenheimer, Chairman of the Anglo American Group, and his deputy. Sir Keith Acutt, Chairman of the Wankie Colliery. On the same day special prayers were said for the victims in churches throughout Zambia.

Men laying an extra rail down the shaft at No. 2 Colliery during rescue operations.
Men laying an extra rail down the shaft at No. 2 Colliery during rescue operations.
A rescue team going down the shaft on the rapidly constructed rail.
A rescue team going down the shaft on the rapidly constructed rail.

 

Rescue teams came from all parts of Rhodesia, South Africa and Zambia. Here some of the men are seen at the pit-head shortly after some bodies had been recovered.
Rescue teams came from all parts of Rhodesia, South Africa and Zambia. Here some of the men are seen at the pit-head shortly after some bodies had been recovered.
The President, Mr. Clifford Dupont, watches rescue work in progress at the pit-head of No. 2 Colliery.
The President, Mr. Clifford Dupont, watches rescue work in progress at the pit-head of No. 2 Colliery.

Wankie Colliery disaster report

The main cause of the Wankie Colliery disaster in June, 1972, causing 427 deaths was provided by the failure to realise the danger of coal dust in the mine and the failure to remove that danger, states the report of the commission of inquiry tabled in Parliament.

The report says the management of the mine believed the safety measures adopted were satisfactory and adequate. The commission (headed by retired judge Sir Vincent Quénet) believed the explosion which caused the disaster originated in a shaft as the result of a blown-out shot, the flame of which ignited fire-damp. Methane was being encountered in the area with increasing frequency.

Supervision exercised by the Department of Mines at the colliery at the time of the disaster was inadequate. This was because the Government Mining Engineer resident at Wankie “laboured under the grave disadvantage of having had no previous experience in coal mining”. His situation, said the report, was such that he was unable to apply critical standards to the conditions he was there to inspect and report upon.

“In this he was hardly to blame. Those who knew what his experience amounted to had appointed him to the post.” The commission had some difficulty in reaching its conclusions. “Obviously, we could make no direct observation of conditions at No. 2 Colliery. The persons who were immediately concerned in maintaining standards and could have told us of them were lost in the accident.”

Contraventions of the mining and explosives regulations occurred before the disaster and should have been noticed by the Department of Mining Engineering and appropriate action taken. The commission recommends that many of the provisions of the South African Mines and Works Act be introduced into the Rhodesian Act. “We recommend that the regulations relating to coal mines should form a separate and distinct part of the mining regulations.”

 

When rescue operations were stopped the entrance to No. 2 Colliery was barricaded. At the barricade a young widow pays her last tribute to her husband who was one of the men lost in the disaster.
When rescue operations were stopped the entrance to No. 2 Colliery was barricaded. At the barricade a young widow pays her last tribute to her husband who was one of the men lost in the disaster.

 

Wankie 1 : 50 000 scale map extract (combined from two)
Wankie 1 : 50 000 scale map extract (combined from two)