Ferial Haffajee: Business book of the year? The Night Trains

If I compiled lists of these things, Charles van Onselen’s majestic The Night Trains published this year would be my business book of the year. 

The master historian tracks the history of the trains at the heart of the migrant labour system which moved five million workers between Mozambican and South Africa’s emerging goldfields in the first half of the twentieth century. As a former labour reporter and history student, I had some, but not a full understanding, of the system of migrant labour. 

The book fills the gap to become an important opus of South Africa’s painful economic history. 

"It is estimated that between 1910 and 1960 some 5 million passengers were ferried between Booysens station in Johannesburg and the Komatipoort/Ressano Garcia station 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," writes Van Onselen.

His book puts that to right.


He is a maestro and so takes the reader on the 804-up train which brought workers into the jowls of the gold mining industry that was guzzling up labour from as far afield as China; and then onto the 307-down train as workers returned, most loaded with wages, some dead, many completely broken by silicosis and other diseases contracted in the gold mines.

The account of the ambulance coaches, which Van Onselen went out to find in train graveyards, will likely stay with me forever as he recounts how maimed and sick workers were chained in the coaches to be returned to waiting families as near corpses sent home to die.  

Van Onselen’s account is of what he calls an “underground industrial war” waged on the Witwatersrand. It is the antidote to the great tales of the Randlords, the money men and mining leaders that dot the history shelves of South Africa. 

Of course, these stories are captured in songs – Stimela, Shosholoza – part of the vital cultural history of the journey but they have been turned to rainbow nation pop soundtrack rather than to the original meaning of servitude and the critique of the minerals complex that underwrote apartheid exploitation.

A better understanding

Why a business book of the year? The militancy of South Africa’s miners often still perplex industry bosses, whether foreign ones parachuted in to mothball end-of-life gold mines and find new extractive methods. Or newbies who try methods of pacification that often make things worse, not better, by emulating former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s hatchet job on British coal-miners.

Systemic exploitation like that documented by Van Onselen has left inter-generational trauma, anger and practice. He shows, for example, how trains disgorged their cargo (the miners were regarded as freight, not passengers) into bunkered stations because the white gentry of the time did not want to witness the chattel being offloaded. 

These cordons were later expressed in the Group Areas Act which boxed (or jailed) people, by race, into different areas creating an apartheid spatial plan that has never been altered.  The mining charter which flows from the Mineral Petroleum Resources Development Act is legislation which, at first blush, can seem punitive is a response to the system Van Onselen so meticulously describes.

In an essay published after the book came out, Van Onselen describes, with some disdain, how the journey of these trains have become part of the instrumentalist annual celebration of heritage – through a memorialisation plaque and 1918 train crash site at Waterval Boven in Mpumalanga. Van Onselen does not visit the communities of the Sul do Save in Mozambique (at least in the narration of the book) which was a major labour contracting area for the Witwatersrand mines. 

But he does suggest that reparations (or repair) is still needed for the system that plucked the area’s productive generation and often sent them back, if not as corpses, then as an army of injured. Labour was employed almost as slave – and some of the miners’ wages were sent as remittances to the Portuguese colonial overlords. 

“A significant part of the workers’ wages, held back in the form of gold bullion, was handed to a third party in Johannesburg by the Chamber of Mines, sold at a premium in the distant world markets of complicit northern-hemisphere financial agents and the different pocketed by the Portuguese colonial administration back in Lourenço Marques. The remuneration of the migrant workers, too, was part of a largely hidden, manipulative and poorly understood system,” writes Van Onselen.

The business books reviewed are often tomes meant to make leaders lead better – how to improve productivity, how to stimulate innovation, how to create great companies or, increasingly, how to think about artificial intelligence. But if mining still is, as President Cyril Ramaphosa has said, industry or sector of great growth potential, then this book is a must-read.  To understand mining’s present, you must know its past – and the Night Trains tracks an essential if extraordinarily painful, journey. 

*The Night Trains by Charles van Onselen is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

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