South Africa's forgotten history

Jeremy Gordin reviews The Night Trains: Moving Mozambican Miners to and From South Africa, circa 1902-55

The Night Trains: Moving Mozambican Miners to and From South Africa, circa 1902-55 by Charles van Onselen. Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2019.

For 35 years[1], I’ve been reading with delight, envy and wonder the oeuvre of Charles van Onselen, including The Seed is Mine (1996) – which, at 649 pages and given its subject matter, is not for sissies – and I’ve re-read many parts of New Babylon, New Nineveh [[2]] four or five times.

I’ve also spent much of the “livelong day” not “workin’ on the railroad” but reading many old and modern historians. And, though my views will make no difference to my bank balance or to Van Onselen’s, I consider him one of the world’s top historians and one of our most valuable national assets. Let me add for good measure that his theses are always marvelously constructed[3] and his prose beautifully honed.

What’s so invigorating about fine historical study – as in Van Onselen’s work – is inter alia that it’s a major antidote to Fake News and all who sail in it (skimpy studies, bizarre Facebook videos, conspiracy theories, social media, etc.). Uncompromising and well-researched history can save your mind (maybe even your soul?) from several deadly toxins.

Now, a good review of this book elsewhere[4] suggests The Night Trains is Van Onselen’s “best”. I think all his books are his “best” – simply because Van Onselen clearly busts his gut whenever he goes to work; in all his books he so obviously pursues his sources and theses as indefatigably as a bull terrier in fight mode.

Borrowing from John Lennon, one can also think of Van Onselen as A Spaniard in the Works – because the spécialité de la maison Van Onselen is to throw a spanner in the commonly-accepted versions of our history[5]. In short, Van Onselen is implacably opposed to the clichés and cant, of inept, insufficiently researched or propagandistic history.

Still, I suppose The Night Trains could be said to stand out from Van Onselen’s other books because it is shorter (247 pages) than most of his offerings[6] and is thus more directly focussed on its subject and therefore more accessible to 21st century readers afflicted, as we are, by ADD and oodles of questionable “information”.

What is also different about this book is that – if memory serves me regarding the rest of his oeuvre – Van Onselen is more directly polemical in this book than any other, an issue to which I’ll come back.

As the title tells us, the subject of The Night Trains: Moving Mozambican Miners to and From South Africa, circa 1902-55 is the mostly forgotten story of the Thonga-Shangaan men of Sul do Save – the southern region of Portuguese East Africa/Mozambique, south of the Save River (map, p. 46) – railroaded into SA to mine gold and coal. And before you remind me that these men were ostensibly paid – that they had “contracts” – better first read in painstaking detail just how many were officially and unofficially ripped off.

By 1968, by the way, miners’ cash earnings were lower than they’d been 50 years before; got to keep the overheads down for the sake of the shareholders of the mines and create an “extraordinary” ...“industry successfully defying the laws of economic gravity” (41). And who was effectively running this flesh-racking business? Well, the Chamber of Mines and its recruiters, the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WNLA), in collusion with SA and Portuguese East African/former Mozambican governments and the former SA Railways.

But one “problem” (that’s a euphemism) was that those responsible for the Eastern Main Line, both at the beginning and then later, could never quite get their heads around – or didn’t want to do so because it would have cost more – that they were transporting human beings.

So, a railway initially designed to move mining equipment to the Witwatersrand and comestibles and other commodities back to Delagoa Bay, carried people as though they were inanimate objects; i.e., insufficient ablution facilities; massive overcrowding; a paucity of water; no food (except the loaf of bread and the jam handed out at the start of journeys, for which the “boys” were charged!); long hold-ups on the railway line whatever the conditions (“real” [read: white] “passenger” trains got priority); notwithstanding so-called medical coaches, no qualified medical staff on the return journeys, during which many former miners were literally dying (silicosis, TB); and, given that these trains were not classified as “passenger” trains, which would have been driven with a greater regard to safety, a few horrendous, fatal accidents, for which no one was blamed.

One remarkable aspect of this appalling story is that I always thought – and I’m a reasonably well-informed person – that it was black South Africans who bore the brunt of the “excesses” of the Witwatersrand mining industry.

Well, there were 77 000 black men working on the mines in 1903; by the late 1920s, about 200 000; by the 1930s it had risen to 300 000 and stayed at that level to the mid-1950s and beyond. “And ... not once over a 12-month period [during those years] was there a time when the majority of miners were not drawn from ... the Sul do Save” [author’s emphasis] (41). The night trains moved about five million men into SA and back to Mozambique between 1905 and 1960.

By 1926 the platform at Booysens station, in central Johannesburg, had a tunnel linking it directly linking it to the WNLA reception and “distributing” compound. The tunnel started as something to obviate the need for migrants crossing an exposed section of track and to ensure there were no desertions. But the tunnel was also necessary to screen sensitive white folks from seeing the “labour entrails of the mining economy” (67).

This became apparent when in 1959 the Johannesburg rail system was being re-jigged, and the GM of the WNLA wrote to his SAR counterpart that “a large number of primitive natives ... is to be seen on the main platforms ... [which] is bound to cause comment ... Natives, too, are now walking through the centre of the city ... and this has led to adverse comment from the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce ...” (67-8). The “adverse comment” came from “senior office bearers in big business, the Chamber of Mines and the WNLA – English-speakers almost to a man, and most ... better educated and with a far more ‘liberal’ outlook than the Afrikaner Nationalist government ...” (68).

This is a shocking and astounding book that tells us about a part of “colonialism” that few think, remember or even know about. I could bang on but won’t. Any complaints from me? A very minor one – I’d have liked the map of Sul do Save to have been placed closer to the beginning of the book than p. 46 so that I could see early on precisely which region the author was discussing.

A more significant “problem” – but one of which Van Onselen is fully aware – is that there are almost no first-person testimonies from Mozambican miners or their families in this book; it has been constructed pretty much entirely from the archives. But thank heavens for that – because, of course, most of those folk are now dead and it’s unlikely that anyone except for Van Onselen would have taken the trouble.

Let me turn now to a sentence I came across on the Charles van Onselen Wikipedia entry. It reads: “He [Van Onselen] is a well-known critic of Afrikaner nationalism”. No sir/no ma’am. You get 3/10 only. First, the sentence is at best only 50% accurate. Plus, you lose another two points for taking the easy, politically correct approach.

To wit: I mentioned above that it could be said that Van Onselen is in this book more polemical than usual. The reason is that he’s angry; he’s damned angry. Not about Afrikaner nationalism – but about all nationalism. Here’s what he writes on p. 13:

“Nationalist politicians in many countries, often as incoherent as they are illiterate, find playing with the past in public almost irresistible, because it allows for moral posturing about ‘our’ heritage without taking meaningful responsibility for safeguarding and studying history ...Heritage is often about ...solidifying an electoral base, it is part of a narrowing and mobilizing strategy. History, when done well, is an appeal to the mind, and is about debate, contingency and questioning received wisdoms in ways that deepen our appreciation and understanding of who we are and why and how we did certain things, and perhaps even allows us to learn. // Neither Mozambique nor South Africa now wants for heritage-peddlers, many of them wholly owned bureaucratic lackeys of nationalist politicians dispensing patronage and trading shamelessly in their own real, or more often imagined, versions of the past ...”


[1] It was Mike Kirkwood, then running Ravan Press, who said to me at some point in 1984 during a conversation about Johannesburg and writing: “You’ve got to read Van Onselen, you must, what he has to say about early Johannesburg is beyond remarkable”.

[2] Originally Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand, 1886-1914, 2 vols. (1982).

[3] Regarding his “theses,” I have heard it occasionally charged that Van Onselen sometimes goes over the top – e.g. Richard Poplak finds The Fox and the Flies (2007) “downright wacky” (see book review in End note iv below). To each his own.

[4] Richard Poplak in the Johannesburg Review of Books.

[5] Until New Babylon, New Nineveh, we were fed goody-goody history about early Johannesburg; on reading The Fox and the Flies (2007), we learned how Jack the Ripper might very well have been a Polish-born psychopath who spent time in SA; and, on reading The Cowboy Capitalist (2017), we were intrigued to discover that the Jameson Raid seemed to have had almost as much to do with a Yankee as Cecil John Rhodes.

[6] Van Onselen notes that The Night Trains is but part of a larger project that is still to be published (p. 209). Masked Raiders (2010) is 292 pages only; but it is a specific, time-circumscribed study of a “displaced ethnic minority” [Irishmen in SA] who “engaged in banditry over the few decades that pre-dated the birth of the modern Union of South Africa in 1910”. The Small Matter of a Horse: The Life of Nongoloza Mathebula 1867-1948 (1984), the one Van Onselen book I don’t own, is presumably also pretty short; but the reason for this is the same reason I never bought it: the story told there can be found (as best I know) in the last chapter of New Nineveh.