South Africa


There is a train that comes from Mozambique… a harrowing history of SA’s migrant mine labour

There is a train that comes from Mozambique… a harrowing history of SA’s migrant mine labour
A scene from the Kimberley diamond mine compound. (Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Charles van Onselen’s 2019 volume The Night Trains is a harrowing but essential read about how South Africa’s gold mines were actually made, and who made them. This is not about intrepid financiers or brilliant geologists, but millions of Mozambicans who dug the gold.

Over the years, South Africans – probably the majority – and many others around the world have been captured by the intensity of one of the late Hugh Masekela’s most visceral performance pieces, even after one has heard it numerous times. Here we are speaking, of course, of Stimela

The historical legacy of those steam trains transporting the thousands of poor, African workers heading for the coal mines of Witbank and the gold mines of the Witwatersrand since the beginning of the 20th century has, over the years, become inextricably linked with Masekela’s searing rendition of that journey – and the baleful consequences on its rider-victims once they arrived on the mines. 

 In fact, Masekela’s music, as shattering as it became when it washed over audiences, paced by that cowbell ostinato imitating the sound of the locomotive, was still nowhere near a match for the reality of that journey. And the journey was just the beginning of the agonies to come. Thereafter, there was the work that followed deep underground, after the journey to the mines. 

(Perhaps the best evocation of that kind of labour actually has come to us from George Orwell’s great reporting in The Road to Wigan Pier, a first-hand examination of the coal mines and the miners in northern Britain who dug them. (See: – page 21 onward). Different country, yes, but the same essential truths.

With The Night Trains, historian Charles van Onselen has looked into the historical, sociological, economic, and administrative texture of this story, despite his book being described as a “little book”. This book matters in part because these journeys have been given relatively little attention in more standard histories of the mines, mining, and labour exploitation, South African-style. 

Over the years, Van Onselen has crafted a legacy as probably South Africa’s premier “history from the bottom up” scholar, the so-called people’s history-style examination of the broader historical record. However, unlike many exponents of that approach for South Africa, Van Onselen has carefully mined all manner of official archives, right up to the limits of such sources, in the act of researching and telling his chosen stories. These have included his critically acclaimed study of the life of an African sharecropper, The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, A South African Sharecropper, 1894-1985

But Van Onselen has also chosen themes that downplay the criticality of formal borders, arguing instead that what happened inside South Africa-proper must be seen in a larger regional – or even global – context. One of his previous volumes, The Cowboy Capitalist, focused on the transnational career of John Hays Hammond, a US adventurer-investor who was an important, but now nearly-forgotten figure in South African history. 

Hammond had been a mining engineer and entrepreneur in the lightly governed American West and he then moved on to become deeply involved in the infamous Jameson Raid, among other adventures in South Africa. Eventually returning to the US, Hammond became a powerful figure within the Republican Party and at one point even became a plausible contender for a vice-presidential nomination with a reputation based in part on his African adventures. Van Onselen used Hammond’s career to foreground the fluidity of individuals moving in and out of South Africa, and thus how developments in South Africa were connected to larger social and economic trends elsewhere.

The Night Trains looks closely at an international system – a combined economic, government, business weave – that took relatively little cognisance of the South African/Portuguese East Africa border. Instead, Van Onselen found a transnational system that had evolved to suck impoverished labourers from the latter and send them to the former, with very little government oversight, save for an understanding that the larger system would be a mechanism to extract miscellaneous fees and payments from the hapless miners, and would ensure revenue flowed to the often-financially embarrassed Portuguese colonial government that largely consisted of a guarantee that Lourenco Marques’ port would be well-used for much of South Africa’s exports and imports.

A group of miners with safety lamps in the Robinson Deep Gold Mine on the Witwatersrand in 1939. (Photo: Reg Speller / Fox Photos / Getty Images)

The Eastern Main Line from the Witwatersrand onward to Mozambique had been originally designed by the old Transvaal Republic to avoid having to deal with the encroaching British. But, by the early 20th century, the implacable demand for labour for the mines (corresponding to the Portuguese colonial government’s almost equally desperate need for revenue) created an unholy multi-partner marriage, including the birth of the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WNLA) as a quasi-commercial arm of the mining houses to recruit and process Mozambican labour. 

The South African Railways (SAR) provided the railroad line, but the rolling stock was the WNLA’s problem. It was a mix of barely appropriate cars for the labourers, on through to cattle and coal cars (literally), and so-called hospital cars for those miners grievously injured on the mines, critically sick from pneumonia, silicosis, and TB, or who had quite literally been driven into insanity by the work and the conditions. Not surprisingly, there were no qualified medical personnel assigned to those hospital cars. The sufferers were thus largely without medical care, save for supplies of brandy to deaden their pain. The trains were usually called “the night trains” – both to and from the Witwatersrand – because they were scheduled to run through the night with their human cargoes so as not to disturb the sensibilities of the country’s white citizens.

Moreover, since the WNLA trains were not quite regular SAR trains, and because they existed in a kind of nether region between passenger services and freight services, the WNLA trains were often delayed in deference to regular passenger services – and even freight trains. Not surprisingly, with basic food, water and ablution facilities often meagre to non-existent in many cars on these trains, a not-particularly-subtle comparison to the way people were packed into cattle cars to be deported to the concentration, slave labour, and death camps of Nazi Germany during World War 2 can be contemplated.

Van Onselen’s relatively slender volume is actually a major contribution towards a better understanding of a more comprehensive southern African economic history – and, crucially, the debt owed by today’s South Africans to the Mozambicans who travelled to Egoli in search of some relief from the grinding poverty of their lives in southern Mozambique, the Sul do Save

Beyond the calamities of their transport, Van Onselen also explores the many ways miners returning to their homes in Mozambique after their work contracts had ended were systematically fleeced of their hard-won earnings. The trains on the way back to Mozambique carried miners who had been paid out and who were carrying the bulk of their earnings on their persons or in their belongings. They could easily be robbed or conned out of their money. (There were no secure lockup facilities for the miners’ savings.) In addition, the miners’ baggage was largely unsecured and it, too, was frequently pilfered for valuables and cash. Meanwhile, as the miners waited in their trains or whenever they were allowed out to take a stretch break on an intermediate train platform, touts and vendors swarmed on the miners to sell them food, beverages, small trinkets, apparel and miscellaneous goods like razors. 

Inevitably, miners were often overcharged and the vendors cheated them on any change that might be due. But even after all this, returning miners had still not yet survived the entire gauntlet confronting them. There were still currency exchange transactions to the disadvantage of the miners awaiting them, either via informal traders ahead of arrival, or even through more official processes. 

Effectively, the returning miners had no recourse in any of this as the Portuguese authorities paid them little heed; the train operators eschewed responsibility; the SAR denied it was responsible for WNLA’s effectively private trains; and the South African government had little or no interest either in helping out people whom they saw as temporary foreign workers who were somebody else’s problem. When accidents happened, responsibility for the crash or compensation to injured miners or the families of those who had perished might also be diffused into nothingness in an eventual evasion of responsibility.

Meanwhile, giving a sense of scale for this operation, Van Onselen calculates that for around half a century, some five million miners (some obviously on repeat contracts) were part of this vast human migration – a transhumance by rail. In that sense, Van Onselen argues that the very idea of the railroad as an exemplar of progress and modernity – a standard conceit in Western literature – is gravely misplaced, given its use in southern Africa as the preeminent way to move vast numbers of people in and out of the mines and mine compounds, but largely without otherwise transforming their lives.

One other important point evolves out of Van Onselen’s analysis and it is a perspective that stands in contrast to views that have long infused discussions about the contract miners that so many mines depended on in South Africa. From Van Onselen’s research on the night trains, he explains that the usual discussion has been about the domestic movement within South Africa of men going to work on the mines, when, in fact, the movement of those millions from Mozambique was enormously consequential for South Africa’s growth – a wealth extraction by labour from Mozambique. This movement eventually even contributed to a nascent national consciousness in Mozambique that ultimately contributed to Frelimo’s beginnings.  

As Van Onselen concludes, “So where might all that leave the more thoughtful citizens of the most advanced and diversified economy in Africa? Members of the new political elite in a democratic South Africa have inherited a few limited, yet important, historical and political responsibilities that derive from a modern infrastructure that was financed, in good measure, by the cheap labour of southern Mozambican miners who, in numerical terms, outnumber that provided by any other grouping of colour in southern Africa. The inhabitants of the Sul do Save, now one of the poorest regions on earth, may have entered the modern world poor, but the mining revolution in South Africa helped keep them and their descendants poor.

“For those interested in truth and reconciliation in the greater southern African region, the moment may just have arrived to think about the role that predatory capitalism, the night trains and an always compliant South African state played in socioeconomic history that is as integrated as it is troubled. All South Africans, but more especially those who owned and own the coal- and gold-mining industries, need to acknowledge that much of the country’s past prosperity, wealth and relatively advanced infrastructure were built on the backs of black labour pushed and pulled out of colonial Mozambique.”

The Central Company’s shaft at the Kimberley diamond mine in South Africa, 1888. (Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Although Van Onselen does not cover it in this book, there was also the precedent of Kimberley’s earlier diamond discoveries. As mining historian William Worger described labour practices there, because the Kimberley mines were exploiting the actual diamond-bearing ores rather than more dispersed alluvial diamonds, they quickly became characterised by large-scale industrial processes and the mobilisation of international capital virtually from the beginning, and the gold mining followed suit. 

Worger noted that diamond mining had such a massive impact on southern Africa, that, “Within a year of the opening of the mines, every black society south of the Zambezi River, with the exception of the Venda and Cetshwayo’s Zulus, was represented at the diamond fields, whether by labourers, artisans, or independent businessmen.” 

This reviewer also had personally heard stories from old men in Swaziland who could recall when the late King Sobhuza had called on young Swazi men to enlist as workers on South Africa’s mines so that a share of their earnings could underwrite efforts by the not-yet-independent nation’s traditional leadership to buy back farmland owned by foreigners. 

Van Onselen’s relatively slender volume is actually a major contribution towards a better understanding of a more comprehensive southern African economic history – and, crucially, the debt owed by today’s South Africans to the Mozambicans who travelled to Egoli in search of some relief from the grinding poverty of their lives in southern Mozambique, the Sul do Save

If there is any criticism that can be offered about this fine study, it is that the actual, direct voices of those Mozambican miners remain largely missing. That may well be because of the actual absence of such material since most of the miners were, after all, illiterate. Or, perhaps, it may be that such primary material that existed was destroyed in the fighting that plagued Mozambique, both pre-independence and then, thereafter, in a long civil war. Future scholars may yet find such material, and access to it to flesh out the personal circumstances of those miners – and further illuminate their experiences going to and returning from the City of Gold. In the meantime, Van Onselen’s book is the place to go for an understanding of their travails – and why that matters still. DM

The Night Trains by Charles van Onselen is published by Jonathan Ball, 2019.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Martin Dreschler says:

    This book should be made compulsory reading at every South African and Mozambican schools.

  • J.F. Aitchison says:

    Caption: “A group of miners with safety lamps in the Robinson Deep Gold Mine in Kimberley in 1939.”

    The Robinson Deep Mine is in Johannesburg, to the east of the suburb Booysens.

  • Allan Taylor says:

    And now the ANC has taken over from WNLA as they import Cuban doctors and engineers, paying vast sums to the Cuban government, while these latter day migrant labourers receive a fraction of the fees. I am sure the ANC syphons off a cut for their own nefarious uses.

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