A discussion about great labour songs might start with The Internationale, the African-American folk song John Henry, or old-school Smithsonian union songs from Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger or Hazel Dickens. Perhaps Billy Bragg’s Power in a Union, Gil Scott-Heron’s Three Miles Down, Bruce Springsteen’sFactory, or even Dolly Parton’s more poppy 9 to 5, might get a look in too.
But there’s no doubt that Hugh Masekela’s iconic and internationally revered masterpiece Stimela (The Coal Train), would have to make the cut. Fort Hare Labour academic Andries Bezuidenhout wrote that it “reminds everyone that South Africa’s wealth and infrastructure was built on the back of labour from all over Africa. They were the force that modernised the country. But the song is also internationalist in focus”.
Already a decade in exile in the US, Bra Hugh was suffering from depression in the early 70s. “I had destroyed my life with drugs and alcohol and could not get a gig or a band together,” he told jazz historian Gwen Ansell.
It was during this time, on a gloomy 1971 night during a drinking session, that he wrote Stimela. All the darkness, homesickness and anger about the evils of apartheid translated into one of the great anthems in South African songbook. It was recorded for the first time for his 1974 album, I Am Not Afraid.
My favourite version of the song is the 10-minute opus on a 1994 live recording called Hope. Imitating the steam train on the tracks, it starts with cowbells, then agitated drums, flowing into almost resigned keyboards, before Bra Hugh’s lived-in voice starts to conduct the long journey south:
There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi,
There is a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe,
There is a train that comes from Angola and Mozambique,
From Lesotho, from Botswana, from Swaziland,
From all the hinterland of Southern and Central Africa.
This train carries young and old, African men
Who are conscripted to come and work on contract
In the golden mineral mines of Johannesburg
And its surrounding metropolis, sixteen hours or more a day
For almost no pay.
This is not just the blues. It is something deeper, angrier, painful, more primal, of a soul exposed, a heart shredded, wounds never to be fully healed. This is not a song – it is way more eloquent than that. It is a monument to the men on whose backs rich capitalists built their empires.
Deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth,
When they are digging and drilling that shiny mighty evasive stone,
And when they hear that choo-choo train,
They always curse, curse the coal train,
The coal train that brought them to Johannesburg.
This nearly 40-year-old song still echoes today. “Sadly,” as Bezuidenhout wrote, “the mining industry’s contested legacy and its migrant labour system remain challenges in the post-apartheid period. This is evident in a number of ways. The massacre of mineworkers at Marikana in 2012 was a stark reminder of the acute vulnerability and exploitation of workers.”
Stimela remains a howl against the injustices of capitalism and colonialism.