Explosive denial about dynamite by former number 1

Denials that dynamite was being imported were proven false when the product exploded in a test.
An archive image of the first dynamite factory in the ZAR.

Paul Kruger was not one to back down, even in the face of explosive facts such as when a test of a product that he and his henchmen claimed was definitely not dynamite blew up in their faces.

As described in the soon-to-be-launched book Looted Gold, the importation of dynamite in the mid-1880s was by far the most controversial of the scores of contentious ‘concessions’ (otherwise known as monopolies) that Kruger, as the President of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR), granted to various entrepreneurs.

The concessions policy was introduced in 1881 to lift the Republic out of bankruptcy well before there was any inkling that gold would be discovered. For more on the ZAR concessions policy, see https://bit.ly/3lODfAo.

Without dynamite, Johannesburg mining houses were unable to undertake the deep-level mining needed to access and extract gold-bearing ore from the many gold mines around Johannesburg.  

Dynamite rights

In 1887, Kruger participated in granting the exclusive right to manufacture dynamite, gunpowder, explosives and ammunition for a term of 16 years to German concession-hunter Edouard Lippert.  A factory to manufacture dynamite was to be erected in the ZAR within a year.

Once the factory output was able to meet local demands, no further imports of dynamite would be allowed. This deal was approved by the Volksraad in 1888.

Lippert sold the concession to a French consortium based in Paris and the French purportedly launched local production in Johannesburg in January 1889. In due course, the government cancelled all import permits for dynamite.

It soon became evident, however, that the French consortium was importing not raw materials for manufacturing dynamite but dynamite itself – all duty-free.

Kruger rushed to the defence of the French consortium. A government commission concluded in 1892 that Lippert and the French consortium had indeed been importing dynamite and avoiding payment of customs duties in clear breach of their concession.

Explosion proves product was dynamite

A committee of the Volksraad decided to test the material, which detonated in a huge explosion despite Lippert’s claim that the material was not dynamite. Ignoring the conclusive proof provided by the test, Kruger continued to defend the concession.

The shenanigans surrounding dynamite didn’t stop there.

The ZAR government took over the dynamite monopoly in 1893 and effectively placed ownership of the dynamite industry in foreign hands. Only a small percentage of the profits was paid to the ZAR while the overseas shareholders happily took home the bulk of the profits as the Republiek’s goldfields became the largest producers of gold in the world.

The question Looted Gold co-author Mike Dwight and I raised in examining the veracity of the myth of the missing Kruger millions: did a share of those profits sent overseas end up in private bank accounts linked to major figures in the ZAR hierarchy?

People killed in massive explosion

The Volksraad’s obduracy around the dynamite question was further illustrated by a massive explosion in a railway siding in Johannesburg on 19 February 1896.

Eight freight trucks loaded with dynamite weighing about 60 tons and standing on a siding at the station exploded when a shunting engine collided with the trucks. The explosion blew a crater 90m long by 20m wide and about 15m deep.

More than 70 people were killed and about 300 injured. At least 1 500 houses were destroyed.

It emerged later that faulty dynamite had exploded at a factory in Germany but despite government safety concerns the product was shipped to the Transvaal in late 1895.

You’d think that the ZAR government would have rushed into setting up an official enquiry. But no competent or independent inquiry was ever held.

Here’s the link to an earlier story in the Chronicle MediaHub about how the book Looted Gold came about: https://bit.ly/3lN8s6Q

To see more creative work by SAFREA freelancers go to: https://safreachronicle.co.za/.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.

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