Charles van Onselen
Charles van Onselen

The Night Trains etches the lives of millions of people into one’s mind

Trains are mythologised as the engines of industrialism, their tracks forging paths to new frontiers which widened the world and opened doors to economic growth, prosperity and travel.

But they also embody the means of geopolitical hegemony. In Southern Africa, locomotion was certainly not kind: trains were also a harbinger of colonial imposition, of local social engineering; and they were a symbol of the capitalist cravings for what lies below African earth.

SA historian Charles van Onselen has an uncanny ability to unravel, despite fragmentary, almost nonexistent primary sources, vivid reconstructions of lived experiences of the past, and to use these as microcosms illuminating the impact of monumental global forces.

His latest book, The Night Trains (Jonathan Ball Publishers), examines just one railway line, but its 210 pages explore, forcefully but lyrically, the diverse themes of capitalism, colonialism, racism, apartheid and xenophobia. And it etches the lives of millions of people into one’s mind.

Between 1910 and 1960 5-million labourers were transported by rail between Lourenço Marques in then Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) and Booysens station, Johannesburg. The Eastern Main Line, says Van Onselen, was "the umbilical cord and lifeblood that gave birth to the mining revolution that took place on the Witwatersrand between the two world wars".

By the late-1950s, 400,000 rural black miners were being shuffled in and out of the Witwatersrand annually. Measured across any 12 months in the entire half-century, the majority of miners were always drawn from the southern Sul do Save region of Mozambique.

They arrived and returned by twice-weekly night trains, operated as part of the 1909 Mozambique Convention between the Transvaal Republic and Portugal. The agreement guaranteed 50% of the rail freight to the Witwatersrand would transit via the port of Lourenço Marques; in return, southern Mozambique was designated an exclusive labour recruitment zone for the Rand’s Chamber of Mines.

The Night Trains exposes the façade that these were pure market forces: the trains were part of a scheme to guarantee constant, ultra-cheap Mozambican labour to ensure the profitability of the mining industry, in turn enabling the white ruling class to hold economic and political power for over a century.

A push factor was Portugal’s colonial practice of shibalo — harsh, conscripted labour at near-zero wages, a debt bondage system which had evolved from slavery’s effective abolishment in Portuguese colonies only in 1878. Working on the gold mines was a choice, but for the men of the Sul do Save it was the lesser evil.

Their ordeal started with harrowing transportation. In the early years open cattle trucks were used. Begrudging improvements followed, but the coaches remained rudimentary, and earned the moniker bombela, meaning to crowd or crush. They ran at night so that the men would be disorientated, less prone to resisting the dehumanising journey in which ablutions, space and sustenance were ignored; the racist, state-sanctioned system treated the Mozambicans not as passengers — or as men, miners — but as "batches", "freight", "Special Native Fares", and, after a few further years of apartheid, as lumpen "Bantu".

And the necessity within the fabric of colonialism, and then apartheid, was black invisibility. "African labour was recruited out of sight, delivered to the industrial centres invisibly, then made to disappear into the darkness of the underground workings of the mines before being smuggled back home, also unseen, in the middle of the night," writes Van Onselen.

Heading to the mines, the men’s assets were zero, but their health and muscular value were worth protecting, so they were locked into the coaches to prevent desertion. The reverse applied heading home: they were physically shattered — many crippled, or afflicted with terminal diseases such as TB and silicosis — but they were unprotected, their cash savings coveted by corrupt conductors and railway policemen, and lured by confidence tricksters and rip-off SA Railway Service "catering division" concessionaires on station platforms.

The returning train carried today’s equivalent of R2m in collective savings, so it was also regularly targeted by organised train robbers.

Precisely because the fate of Mozambican miners doesn’t register on the scale of 20th-century misery, The Night Trains is mandatory reading for anyone wishing to understand properly the impact of the discovery of gold upon the subcontinent.

The enduring tragedy of the story of the night trains is that the colonial system it represented gave nothing back. Today, the Sul do Save area remains stuck in poverty, and Mozambique is among the world’s 10 poorest nations. As Van Onselen puts it: "What did the railway to the Rand ever do for ordinary men and women in southern Mozambique?"