Review: The night trains by Charles van Onselen

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The night trains
Charles van Onselen

Publisher: Jonathan Ball
ISBN: 9781868429943

The night trains (2019) by Charles van Onselen focuses on the trains that brought masses of migrant labourers from Mozambique to South Africa. He argues that the Eastern Main Line acted as the umbilical cord for the 20th century Mineral Revolution in South Africa. Between 1910 and 1960, more than “five million black passengers [were carried] to and from the mines” (69). These trains were privately operated by a subsidiary of the Chamber of Mines itself, the WNLA (Witwatersrand Native Labour Association). Mozambican labourers from the Sul do Save, south of the Save River, were treated like “human freight” (7), and were “often treated as animals, or worse, as pieces of cargo” (64). It should come as no surprise, therefore, that they were often transported in open cattle trucks for a journey that lasted days on end.

These night trains travelled under the cover of darkness to keep the sight of the influx of foreign labourers from the voting public, who enjoyed widespread economic benefits from the mining industry in South Africa without realising the true cost of it. Van Onselen even speculates that these trains are missing from our national history because “perhaps [it’s] just too painful for [them] to be accommodated easily in the ‘South African’ psyche” (22).

The history lives on in popular culture regardless. The lyrics of well-known South African song “Shosholoza”, as well as Hugh Masekela’s “Stimela”, recall some of the experiences on these trains:

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. (19–20)

By focusing on the Eastern Main Line, with its 804 up-trains from Ressano Garcia and 307 down-trains from Booysens Station in Johannesburg, Van Onselen tells the story of “the children of the Sul do Save” (as mentioned in the dedication), and it’s fitting that the book is dedicated to them as a tale about their forebears – a tale that, until now, has remained largely untold.

His investigation begins with the inception of the Eastern Main Line, which predates the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand. After this discovery, the line was quickly repurposed to fit the mining companies’ endless need for cheap labour. What started out as voluntary recruitment gradually shifted to a system of forced labour. This shift coincided with an increasingly racist ideology that was being built into the management and operation of the night trains. Van Onselen argues that one result of this increasingly dehumanising ideology was the rail accident at Waterval Boven in 1918, in which several miners were killed and others seriously injured (171).

Apart from detailing the logistical history of the night trains, Van Onselen also explores the experiential aspect. He attempts to reconstruct the conditions under which these men worked and travelled, as well as explore the mental and physical toll it must have effected on them (which can be gleaned only from official records). In Van Onselen’s words, the 307 down-trains had the purpose of “returning the living dead” (114). The train down often had “two hospital coaches attached to the rear – one for those suffering from infectious diseases, primarily TB, and the other for non-infectious cases who were nevertheless very seriously incapacitated” (118).

Van Onselen’s exposition of the night trains on the Eastern Main Line offers a clear and focused view of the circumstances surrounding the Mineral Revolution in South Africa. More importantly, it attempts to embody the perspective of those whose lives were most severely impacted by these trains: those migrant labourers for whom the night trains were an inhumane reality.

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