Book Review | The Night Trains

For over half a century harrowing 600km train journeys between Mozambique and the Witwatersrand goldfields were a central feature of gold mining under racial capitalism on the Rand.

Nine short years after gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand, a snake hatched in Southern Africa.

With its tail languishing in the Indian Ocean at what was then the port city of Lourenço Marques in Mozambique, and its venomous fangs sunk deep into the earth below Johannesburg, the Eastern Main Line train line carried the majority of mineworkers to and from South Africa’s early 20th-century mineral boom.

The story of how the Eastern Main Line destroyed human life wholesale in the service of that boom has since entered the region’s folklore.

African miners in Hugh Masekela’s Stimela cursed the train that brought them to Johannesburg. An earlier Tsonga song mourned their passage home. At a time when South African mining had reached across a border to infect one in every four Mozambicans with tuberculosis, the tune closed with: “The sun has set for me. Oh, my father, I am dying.”

Northern Sotho stories reflecting the barbarity of colonial relations told of stimela sa baloi, the witches’ train, which abducted anybody wandering about at night before transporting them as zombies to places of work. Sometimes, they never returned.

In The Night Trains, Charles van Onselen, the long-time research professor at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship, has penned the latest stanza in the fable of the Eastern Main Line – the snake that poisoned Southern Africa.

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Van Onselen uses the rail lines between Mozambique and South Africa’s goldfields to etch out the brutality of South African capitalism, and lay bare some little-recognised truths about the workers on whom it depended: they were mostly migrants, they were counted as things and not people, and there was nothing free about the market that brought them to the Witwatersrand.

The migrants who built Johannesburg

At the time the metal was discovered in 1886, the Witwatersrand produced only 1% of the world’s gold. Four years later, only £22 million of capital had been invested in the mines. But by the outbreak of World War I in 1914, mines on the Rand were responsible for 40% of global gold production and had devoured £125 million in capital investment.

South Africa’s foetal mining industries were nothing if not ravenous. And the grotesque umbilical cord connecting them to their primary source of fuel – migrant black labour – was the Eastern Main Line.

The majority of South Africa’s black mineworkers between 1903 (when there were around 77 000 men working in the gold mines) and the 1950s (when that number had swelled to more than 300 000) were from Mozambique. This recognition – that South Africa’s “past prosperity, wealth and relatively advanced infrastructure were built on the backs of black labour pushed and pulled out of colonial Mozambique” – is The Night Trains’ organising theme.

A popular choice

The Portuguese colonial authorities guaranteed the Chamber of Mines in Johannesburg carte blanche access to the labour reserves in the Sul do Save – a region in the south of Mozambique – through its recruiting arm, the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WNLA). In exchange, the Chamber of Mines offered huge traffic through the port at Lourenço Marques.

The deal between the two colonial powers – one Protestant and mineral-rich, the other Catholic and eager to increase traffic through its port and generate taxes from its abundantly cheap labour reserves – left psycho-social gashes from which the region is yet to recover.

Mine owners championed the system’s free market fundamentals – the choice of workers to sell their labour where it was best remunerated. It was an exercise in business logic and reasonableness.

The truth, however, was decidedly grimmer. “Exposed to the transformative agency of time,” writes Van Onselen, “the arrogance, condescending nature and deceits of class and culture assume the dark hue that characterises obscene graffiti left staining the walls of abandoned alleyways in what was once a thriving colonial economy.”

Indeed, there was very little that was free about the market forces driving the exodus of men from southern Mozambique.

At the time that South Africa’s mining started gobbling labour from the the Sul do Save en masse, slavery was still a festering wound on the Mozambican psyche after Portugal took longer than most colonial powers to formally abolish the practice in 1878.

In its place emerged shibalo, a system of forced labour conjured by the Portuguese colonial authorities to put men to work on public projects, and tax their meagre wages. Van Onselen describes the system as the “bastard child” of slavery and indentured labour.

The “choice” of the hundreds of thousands of Mozambicans who travelled 600km to toil for declining wages underground was less “popular” than mine owners imagined. Instead, it was a rational response to the alternative of a slave-like labour system at home administered by a colonial regime prone to violence.

Cargo trains

The Eastern Main Line’s primary purpose was to move heavy mining equipment and timber props from Mozambican ports to the mineral riches stranded on the Highveld. It was a rail system hardwired for commodities, not people.

As Van Onselen notes, however, “there seems to be something in the very design and operation of the railway, the steam locomotive and the train as a form of temporal mobile incarceration that lend themselves to … social engineering and marginalising the vulnerable”.

The classification of workers from the Sul do Save as “human freight” being “imported” to the South African mines underscores the systemic designation of generations of men as chattel and not people.

The WNLA imposed train fares on workers for the trip to the mines, during which they were kept in locked carriages to stop them deserting. (More than 100 000 men were sentenced and incarcerated for attempting to escape mine labour between 1902 and 1937.) So, before they had stepped on to the Booysen’s platform in Johannesburg, workers were indebted. It required at least the first month of their 12-month contracts to repay the fare.

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Penniless peasants on the up train, however, were turned into cash-flush proletarians on the down train by a year of wages on the mines. But insidious ways were found at both ends of the Eastern Main Line to profit even from these wages.

During the first decade after gold was discovered on the Rand, for instance, the amount of Vinho Para O Preto – “Wine for Blacks” – shipped into Mozambique from Portugal, which was struggling to sell its surplus wine on European markets, grew by a staggering 1 123 %.

Mine owners in South Africa also sensed an opportunity to recoup the money they were spending on wages, and advocated against prohibition while investing heavily in spirit distilleries that received their fruit from Afrikaner farmers.

Flooding a workforce under severe stress from its overcrowded, dangerous and oppressive work environment with cheap alcohol was but one of the examples of how the Southern African mineral-industrial complex destroyed both the bodies and minds of workers.

History and biography

By some lyrical chance, Dylan Thomas summed up TheNight Trains more than a half century before its publication: “Brief, thronged, grisly and bewitching … Nothing is too prodigious or too trivial to put down in this tall, devilish story.” (This is from the Welsh poet’s 1950s review of Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard in The Observer newspaper.)

In TheNight Trains, the torture of South African capitalism neither ebbs nor flows. Free of hesitation or delay, it drips from every page. Van Onselen’s real success has been to make such an unmitigated purgatory readable.

History and biography are the two motive forces behind the slow march of time. The first is the province of structure. The latter, the domain of agency. And it is from the unfolding ballet between them that the human story emerges in full.

It is a dance that has marked Van Onselen’s uniquely brilliant writing in the past. In The Seed is Mine, Van Onselen, who has spent his career laying meticulous waste to the notions and fruits of nationalism, manages to tell the story of dispossession in 20th-century South Africa through the life story of one man, Kas Mein, and his family.

Filled with history, The Night Trains is largely absent of any similar biographical substance. We do not learn the names, for instance, of any of the Mozambican workers sacrificed for South African profit. Van Onselen says this is a result of deficiencies in the archival material available to us.

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It is a mistake, however, to commit the horrors of the Eastern Main Line entirely to the archive. The debris of the mineral-industrial nightmare outlined in The Night Trains is strewn across South Africa’s rich mineral deposits. Today, about 150 mineworkers, who were mostly recruited by mining houses from their homes in southern Mozambique in much the same way as those who rode the Eastern Main Line, have been abandoned on the platinum belt, dying of hunger and disease.

Van Onselen rebukes the treatment of workers on the Eastern Main Line as “first and foremost as a collective, as a commodity, as a factor of production and only thereafter as individuals with distinctive characters, temperaments and histories”. Without a fuller engagement with either the lives of the men devoured by those trains, or with the living horrors of their successors, his otherwise excellent account repeats the mistake.

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