New Books | The Night Trains

For more than a century, night trains took Mozambican men to labour in Witwatersrand mines. Then, often when the men were mentally and physically broken, the trains that serviced racial capitalism spat them back out.

This is an excerpt from Charles van Onselen’s new book The Night Trains: Moving Mozambican Miners To and From South Africa, circa 1902-1955 (2019, Jonathan Ball Publishers).

It is significant that the idea of building a railway linking the South African Republic to Delagoa Bay, in Mozambique – Portuguese East Africa – was first floated in the 1870s, that is, after the discovery of diamonds in the northeastern Cape in the late 1860s had begun to transform economic prospects in the territory north of the Vaal River. President TF Burgers and his Boer notables, however, deeply suspicious of the potentially disruptive combination of British imperial ambitions and mining capitalism as factors underwriting expansion northwards, never saw their own rail link between Pretoria and Lourenço Marques (today Maputo) as the means by which they might develop a rival urban industrial base to that emerging in the diamond fields to the southwest. Rather, the idea was that, besides helping to ensure an economic and military supply line to a coast fairly free of British influence, the rail link might supplement the gradual, more ordered development of an agrarian republic that would benefit indirectly from the urban markets developing in the northeastern Cape. 

But a weak concoction of maize and Mausers did little to enthuse investors in metropolitan Europe, and the idea behind an east-coast line languished for more than a decade until the magical third ingredient – small quantities of gold – was added to the mixture to make it more potent. The new mixture became explosive, however, as soon as the world’s largest goldfields were discovered on the Witwatersrand in 1886. The force of the blast flung the original concept, upside down, into the surrounding countryside, and instead of the link – which was opened in 1895 – serving a sluggish agrarian economy, its raison d’être was transformed into serving a mining industry that gave birth to a new, expanding, urban-industrial dispensation. 

This revolutionary change in the underlying purpose of the railway, from agrarian-industrial to industrial-agrarian, was effectively guaranteed and taken a step further after the British triumph in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. With the Rand mines so desperate for huge quantities of ultra-cheap labour that the Chamber of Mines eventually imported indentured labour from China, and the Portuguese at least as desperate to ensure rail traffic sufficient to underwrite the future of the port of Lourenço Marques, the colonising principals struck a series of deals at the expense of a third party – Africans drawn from south of the Save River (the Sul do Save) in Mozambique. In return for a guaranteed percentage of the rail traffic bound for the new goldfields, the Portuguese eventually granted the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WNLA) sole recruiting rights for cheap black mine labour in the Sul do Save, with the majority of miners to be transported to and from the Rand by WNLA trains.

But, regardless of whether the Eastern Main Line was to benefit an emerging agro-industrial or industrial-agrarian order, the one thing that the Johannesburg-Lourenço Marques railway was never intended for was the transportation of passengers. It was, and remained, pre-eminently a conduit for the movement of bunker coal from the Eastern Transvaal collieries down to the coast, and heavy mining equipment and machinery up to the gold mines on the southern Highveld. Yet move passengers it did – and on an industrial scale. It is estimated that between 1910 and 1960 some five million passengers were ferried between Booysens station in Johannesburg and the Komatipoort/Ressano Garcia station complex on the Mozambique-South Africa border. It was an extraordinary logistical feat but one that, rather strangely, has attracted very little interest from most labour historians, let alone anthropologists, economists or sociologists. 

This apparent lack of curiosity is puzzling because, between them, the Eastern Main Line and the seemingly endless supply of black labour that it conveyed across the face of the southern African plateau formed the umbilical cord and lifeblood that gave birth to the mining revolution that took place on the Witwatersrand between the two world wars. Indeed, the easy and guaranteed access to cheap Mozambican labour – for close on half a century – contributed centrally to the profitability of the gold mining industry that, in turn, drove South African economic prosperity and allowed its white ruling classes to indulge in moral and political electoral self-indulgence for more than a century. 

Moreover, the logistical system that underpinned this mass, transnational sell-off of Africans into industrial servitude in exchange for rail traffic – an exchange that did very little for the long-term benefit of the people themselves – grew out of an unusual partnership on the South African side of the border that is equally intriguing, yet one that has also remained almost entirely unexplored. The WNLA, a company offshoot of the Chamber of Mines, was allowed to run a privately operated train on publicly owned tracks managed by the South African Railways (SAR) and its predecessors. This private-public partnership gave rise to a set of intermanagerial conflicts and tensions that were never fully resolved. 

A private train running along public tracks effectively rendered the Eastern Main Line part of a legal no-man’s land – part of a conveyor belt that was seldom inspected, let alone systematically so, over the longue dureé by the state’s health, safety or labour agencies. Nor, for that matter, was it directly policed by the South African Railway Police (SARP), who confined their law-enforcement duties largely to station precincts. Indeed, had WNLA trains and their passengers fallen directly under state scrutiny for a sustained period, those agencies might have picked up that the migrant workers were not only confined to carriages for a day and a half, undernourished and without easy access to potable water, but also lacked the most basic ablution facilities. More seriously still, in order to prevent the desertion of some migrants who had been fed into the system via forced-labour practices in Mozambique, the misleadingly named “recruits” on the journey up from Ressano Garcia were frequently locked into railway carriages by WNLA conductors. 

This neglect by the state of the condition of the private trains or the welfare of the migrant workers they carried – an indifference that extended fully to the SAR administration – did nothing to encourage the WNLA management to improve the “service” that it ran. But, as the WNLA management discovered, to its cost, there was a flip side to such insouciance. The SAR and its operatives, focused on moving freight through the system, were unwilling to accord a private train carrying black migrants the status of a passenger service entitled to the same priorities and privileges enjoyed by the regular mail train ferrying whites up and down the line. The resulting delays in delivering labour to the mines hampered industrial efficiency and proved to be a constant source of tension between SAR managers and the WNLA. 

Differences in managerial ideologies, operational priorities and the terminology employed by the SAR and the Chamber of Mines when it came to categorising or referring to black workers were, however, never confined to timetables. In general, it was true that the railways were always willing to slow the flow of migrant traffic through the system, and more especially so as the SAR’s catering arm focused on selling food and drink to cash-flush miners at stations on the route back to Ressano Garcia. But WNLA managers, usually striving for industrial efficiency in their delivery of men to the mines, always wanted to increase the tempo and improve the turnaround times for their trains. 

The great promise of the steam locomotive was that it provided the power and speed needed to conquer distance. But, when it came to the functioning of the long-distance labour trains running between Johannesburg and Ressano Garcia, there were contradictory forces at work that stemmed from racist thinking. The SAR was inclined to view the black migrant trains as carrying goods, or “human freight”, and did little to expedite their movement through the system. The WNLA managers shared much of this thinking but, for reasons of industrial efficiency, wanted their trains to be treated as passenger trains. The net result was that the supposed advantage offered by the steam locomotive – its capacity to conquer distance through speed – was severely compromised. 

The disagreement over whether migrant workers in transit should be treated or seen as mere commodities – inanimate things – or as human beings fully deserving of the status of passengers, had consequences that went well beyond timetabling issues. It was the official designation of a train as “freight”, “passenger” or “mixed” that determined the level of competence, experience and skill required of a locomotive driver. The driver’s understanding of the nature of the train he was operating – black or white, goods or freight, or mixed – thus also determined the speed at which he operated the locomotive. All of this held the potential for confusion and uncertainty, which in turn was capable of compromising the safety of the train and its passengers. In short, in a society steeped in racial thinking there was no easy way to seal off the operational realities of the railway system from the broader patterns of racial prejudice to be found in the society at large. These southern African peculiarities further complicated any understanding of the cause and nature of accidents, including fatal accidents, involving the labour trains.

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