Failure of the Merriespruit gold tailings dam in 1994 in South Africa was unusual in that never before had a gold tailings dam in South Africa failed in such a catastrophic fashion. Conventional thinking was that gold tailings would always exhibit dilative characteristics upon loading, primarily because of the method of deposition which allows significant consolidation to occur due to sun-drying. This paper demonstrates that the concept of a steady state line, which separates dilative from contractive behaviour upon undrained loading, is applicable to Merriespruit tailings. Four particle-size distributions of Merriespruit tailings were tested to determine the influence of the percent finer than 75 mum on the position of the steady state line. The tailings with the greater percentage of fines gave a steady state line that plotted above all the others, which translated to the requirement that a greater relative density was necessary to produce noncontractive behaviour than for the low-fines tailings samples. The difficulty of defining a unique steady state line for a particular tailings, due to errors in measurement of initial sizes, is illustrated and it is recommended that error bands be assigned to any steady state line. In a companion paper, evidence from the post-failure investigation is combined with the test results in this paper to explore the likelihood of static liquefaction as the cause of the Merriespruit flow failure.