Charles van Onselen: How arrogant nationalists are soiling our history and heritage

The destroyed and vandalised monument at Waterval Boven to the killed miners. (Supplied)
The destroyed and vandalised monument at Waterval Boven to the killed miners. (Supplied)

A little-known train disaster in 1949 symbolises so much more than merely the racist labour regime of the previous century on which the South African economy was built. It also symbolises how useless and arrogant nationalist politicians pay lip-service to this country's history, writes an angry Charles van Onselen.

Last month, September 2019, saw South Africans celebrate – to much fanfare – Heritage Month. 

This month, the provincial administration of Mpumalanga’s department of ‘culture, sport and recreation’ (a strange three-way assemblage that struggles to know where ‘culture’ ends and ‘recreation’ as tragi-comedy begins) proudly announced the 70th anniversary of the 1949 train disaster in a colonial town once known as Waterval Boven, now Emgwenya.    

It is a sombre day, one when the provincial political elite intentionally parades itself before local voters to show its undying respect for ‘heritage’, deepen historical memories and, unintentionally, reminds ordinary folk of the difference between those who lead and those who follow. 

READ | Top historian slams 'arrogant nationalists' for neglect of monument to killed miners in Mpumalanga

An advance departmental notice of this year’s gathering – which, over the coming four weeks, is set to be followed by a great deal of very necessary hurried cleaning and repair work at the two sites associated with the disaster sets the scene:

Every year on November 16 an entourage of not more than 50 dignitaries and state officials, and close to 100 masses (sic. – oops, bit of a problem there) from both Mozambique and South Africa gather at Waterval Boven 1949 Train Disaster Site to honour and commemorate the death of 63 Mozambican Workers.

Since this year marks the 13th occasion on which the notables drawn from the two countries will be gathering on the wrong day, in order to commemorate the deaths of an incorrect number of Mozambican miners, at two sites that have for some time been the subject of scandalous neglect, this may just be a good moment to stand back and reflect on how ‘history’ fares when confronted by the ‘challenge’ that emerges when ‘heritage’ is mangled by ethnic nationalists lacking in professionalism but intent on ‘revolutionary’ political mobilisation. 


The WNLA (Witwatersrand Native Labour Association) trains that conveyed black migrant workers back and forth between Johannesburg and Ressano Garcia for most of the 20th century have left a deep imprint on the minds of many South Africans. In small towns up and down the Eastern Main Line and along its branches that fork out into the Mpumalanga countryside from the Highveld heartland one can still hear the whistle of the old steam engine echoing through oral traditions and witchcraft beliefs, or in musical evocations such Shosholoza and Stimela that evoke the pain of racial subjugation as experienced through industrialisation and technology. 

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We must hear, or better still see such things about a painful past because South Africa’s rulers continue to preside over a system of mass illiteracy in our schools and therefore cannot easily read about them.  We are, in good part, a traditionally aural and visual people, a dancing, clapping, singing people. Such deep-rooted cultural expressions – which should never be abandoned lightly - linger on into what is now a supposedly world bracing itself for the fourth industrial revolution. It is in good measure because we read so imperfectly that we revel disproportionately in mass emotional displays. In the imperfect constitutional democratic system that we have chosen reading and critical thinking remain at a premium when the past is evoked to try and further sectional contemporary political agendas.  

This prioritising of aural and visual ways of absorbing and consuming elements of the past without understanding the broader context that comes from the study of history (a singularly private engagement with an entry price of literacy) is not, of course, peculiar to South Africa or Mozambique. It is as much a feature of the much vaunted First World as it is of the Third heading on Fourth.  There is hardly a literate ‘nation’ on earth where the political elites have not chiselled out bite-sized chunks from the past for public re-presentation as part of money-spinning tourist ‘attractions’ that range from the many that are oftentimes gaudy and mindless through to those – fewer in number – that can, occasionally, be sombre and thought-provoking.       

The umbrella that shields aural and visual presentations - good and bad alike worldwide – from the harsh sunlight of literacy and history is, of course, ‘heritage’.  In multi-ethnic, multi-racial countries marked by sharp ideological and political contestations the chosen site of struggle is, often just ‘heritage’ – which can be defined broadly or narrowly - but its altogether more sinister cousin, ‘cultural heritage’.  ‘Cultural heritage’, or so it was defined by a UNESCO Convention, in 1972 ‘is the legacy of physical artefacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations’.  There are some hooks hidden within that weasel-worded bait, but the pain comes only after swallowing it whole.         

As is to be expected in a youthful democracy focused endlessly on ‘nation-building’ influential members of the current South African political elite are (as were their Afrikaner nationalist predecessors who were equally insistent that “ons bou n’ nasie”) great believers in the merits of ‘cultural heritage’. Indeed, South Africa has long had a national ministry of Arts and Culture that, to a greater or lesser extent is mirrored in the portfolios of provincial governments. There are sometimes even a few councillors in city governments responsible for ‘heritage’ even though they are less prominent in mainstream politics. But that is not the point. The point is, many people up and down ‘the country’ (another problematic construct derived from imperially imposed borders) love an arts and a cultural heritage ‘event’.  Lots of cord-tugging, ribbon-snipping and speechifying make for a short clip on evening prime time television for the well-dressed and, especially, for a damn fine lunch fuelled by much beer, spirits and fine wines.    

Historically ‘speaking’, which alas, will entail some reading of the record, two things that characterise Arts and Culture portfolios at every level of government from the local to the national stand out. The first is the gross and persistent underfunding of the portfolio in a spendthrift public culture where ‘frivolous and/or wasteful expenditure’ has become something of a national pastime for a spectacularly incompetent governing elite. The second is the gross and persistent uselessness of almost every cabinet minister, member of the provincial legislature or town councillor ‘deployed’ to any of these positions. These deficiencies – the one monetary, the other cognitive - are linked and perhaps not entirely unintentionally so.  

When it comes to exercising political patronage and making ministerial appointments the Ministry of Arts and Culture is the State President’s trash can and more especially so during cabinet reshuffles.  Few political careers take off from the launching pad of ‘Arts and Culture’. Often it is the graveyard of political ambition. Being made the Minister of Arts and Culture is a bit like being put in charge of camels in the Saudi government; somebody has to do it and preferably someone with a past as well as a future in the countryside. Arts and Culture is where failed or failing cabinet ministers go to when a President wants to keep them ‘on board’ until such time as they have to go overboard. Check it out; you will find that being sent to Arts and Culture during a cabinet reshuffle is almost always a demotion. Hence the link between the mental make-up and the monetary – who is going to give someone you have little or no faith in, or who has proved to be an embarrassment, incompetent or a political liability a wad of money to spend?  Patronage has a hidden political economy all of its own.      

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The destroyed and vandalised monument to the killed miners. (Supplied)

In national terms then, it is the Minister of Arts and Culture who, assisted by the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) and supported at provincial level by the responsible or irresponsible Members of the Executive Council (MEC) who guard ‘heritage’.  Foregrounding heritage, national pride and non-stop nation-building is a vitally important cultural activity and so, as they say, it is both ‘an honour and privilege’ to hold the comparatively penniless portfolio.   

The combination of a damaged career, recent demotion, a lack of funds and imminent joblessness makes for a poisonous concoction and places the newly appointed hapless Minister or MEC under additional pressures. Insiders know that the new incumbent is a political marginal on the way out and without the financial resources to do a job that, beyond it ideological and symbolic dimensions, is almost meaningless.  It is at this point that a further sadness sets in. The newly-appointed heritage men and women have to paddle twice as hard as their peers to stay afloat in shark-filled political waters and work harder than most to prove that they are not only competent (by definition usually a tough ask) but that they are potentially capable of generating funding not only for their portfolios but for ‘the people’.

The question then becomes how the great Arts and Culture illusion – of appearing to be competent while simultaneously trying desperately to raise additional revenue – is to be sustained?  The answer lies in forcing a pliant pimp – in the form of the heritage ‘industry’ – to marry his ageless hooker in the shape of the tourist ‘industry’. The one pockets the cash while the other tries to satisfy the needs of those in the passing trade who are in search of aural or visual stimulation.

Linked in this way the happy couple endlessly recite the magic mantra loved by the parasitic advisers, consultants and experts that latch on to the fat underbelly of stagnating or slow-growing economies - potential.  A series of cash injections administered by a set of well-connected friends or ‘entrepreneurs’ induces a comforting, managerially-induced madness, one filled with talk of ‘potential’.

Potential is the distance that has to be covered when seeking to move between the place where you find yourself and where you would like to be. In businesses located in developed and successful economies the distance separating the two – unless you are on to something extraordinary like the battery-powered car - tends to be relatively small and growth unlikely to be spectacular.  Profits and potential (the latter a word that can offset ‘challenges’ but perhaps not all old-style ‘problems’) – are linked.   The less the ‘potential’ the less likely profit.    

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The monument in 2018, shortly after it was cleaned and repaired ahead of the annual commemoration. (Supplied)

But in those parts of the Third World where the economy has either collapsed or is in the throes of collapsing and the political elite corrupt or ineffectual, where the gap between where you are and where want to be has already moved close to infinity, or is accelerating rapidly in that direction, an extraordinary thing happens.  The GPS system showing the pathways that might link potential to profit goes haywire.  

Instead of indicating precisely where you are in economic terms and providing a reality check (that is, out in the wilderness somewhere) all that the system does is to show where it thinks your destination might be. And since no solid line can be drawn between where think you are you are and where you want to be, the distance becomes infinite. And, as the distance separating those two poles increases so potential and the promise of profits tend to expand exponentially until they reach the outer limits of the known economic universe. The greater the current failure the more the future is filled with ‘potential’.  In Africa, as with the old Chinese maxim, disaster becomes the midwife of opportunity. Go figure; potential is greatest where failure has been near total.  South Africa is now filled with potential; only Zimbabwe has more ‘potential’ than South Africa. The greater and more manifest the failure the greater the ‘potential’. No wonder then that our heritage merchants, the Ministers of Arts and Culture, love ‘potential’ that it totally uncoupled from the reality of here-and-now. 

In a system where the economic lights are fading and the prospect of political joblessness looms large for the largely penniless Minsters of Potential, these MOPS appoint themselves as the ideological points-people of a new order and start directing the traffic. A favourite spot is at the junction where Avenue Heritage in all its visual splendour feeds into, and is within earshot of, the sounds of clinking coins on the great international Tourist Highway. It is not a great site for thinking but it does not really matter, it is more of a show-and-tell business.    


 Now what are we to make of so gloomy a picture?  Well we know exactly what to think about it. It is an Afro-pessimistic, disgustingly cynical, utterly depressing, totally negative and, oh yes – wait for it – racist - portrayal of how government and the heritage and tourist ‘industries’ combine in southern Africa.  In South Africa all current achievements are non-racial and progressive; all failures and criticism the handmaidens of reactionary colonialists and racists who do not subscribe to the national democratic revolution and so on.  And, we might note in passing, heritage and tourism have to be designated as ‘industries’ because we can then pretend that they are able to earn their full keep and feed into another myth – that of government and provincial ‘job creation’ in sea of unemployment.   

Fair enough, dismiss it in that fashion if you have to; after all heritage, history and tourism are forced to compete for limited space in the emerging consciousness of a hoped-for ‘nation’ that is simultaneously, and forever, locked into the process of ‘nation-building’. We are a fully formed ‘nation’ when we succeed (as when celebrating a team-based sporting achievement) but mere ‘nation-builders’ when confronted by a ‘challenge’ or awkward questions about class or race. But, dear reader, since you have already endured so much cynicism and negativity why not take a chance and just try and stay the course? The needle and novocaine are long in and you are over the worst. And, if not, let the fog of submission dull the pain as we drill down into the infected jawbone of a nationalist elite that is about as far-sighted and open to criticism as it is devoted to ‘our’ cultural heritage and history.      

In order try and overcome the infection it may help if we do two things. First, let us examine how the South African political elite along with its Mozambican counterpart has chosen to commemorate the 1949 WNLA rail disaster at Waterval Boven as part of a collective, trans-national heritage.  Let us do so without any a priori questioning of the dominant African nationalist perspective that has informed their joint initiatives thus far.  Secondly, still working within the dominant African nationalist perspective, let us ask how the attempt at creating ‘cultural heritage’ at Waterval Boven might have been improved if only a bit more attention had been paid to ‘history’. 

Heritage Potential and the 1949 Waterval Boven disaster

The history of Waterval Boven’s history is inextricably linked to the concession granted to the Netherlands Railway Company (NZASM) by the government of President S.J.P. Kruger of the South African Republic, in 1884, and the subsequent development of the Eastern Main Line to Mozambique in the mid-1890s.  Renamed Emgwenya, in 2009, Waterval Boven has a population of about 7,000 and falls within the jurisdiction of the Mpumalanga provincial administration and the eMakhazeni (Belfast) municipal council.  Emgwenya sits astride the N4 national highway – the Maputo corridor - and is a touch more than 200 kilometres from the border of Mozambique that lies to the east.      

For 45 years before the dawn of the new democratic age in South Africa, in 1994, two neglected sites in Waterval Boven were all that reminded one directly of the 1949 WNLA train disaster.  Reflecting the political realities of the old apartheid order and racial thinking the two sites were separated – the one in the African township of Emgwenya and the other in the, European cemetery closer to the heart of the town.   The former, on the outskirts of the township, marked the spot of the mass grave where the remains of the Mozambican miners were laid to rest within hours of the tragedy.  The latter, the unpretentious grave of the European engine driver, Welsh Hilly Green, with a headstone that notes he was ‘accidentally killed [in a] train accident’ (sic) that – incorrectly - records the tragedy as having occurred on 15.10.49 rather than 15.11.49.   There is something in the water at Waterval Boven that does not bode well when it comes to the dead.  

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The destroyed granite panel with the names of the killed miners. (Supplied)

It is not known where, when, why or how but, at some point in the early 2000s, a person or persons influential in local political circles appears have been moved by the neglect of the Mass Grave Site (MGS) in the township and thought it deserving of more attention and preservation. This foundational modern thinking around the MGS may have been inspired either by the imprint that the tragedy had left on the minds of ordinary men and women in areas around the Eastern Main Line or, as we will explore later, may have been connected to relatively recent African nationalist thinking that emerged during the course of the armed struggle against the Afrikaner nationalist regime in the 1980s. It may, of course, have come from both sources.

But, whatever the proximate source of this call to action, the idea of treating the MGS in more fitting manner quickly found favour with the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA). At that time, SAHRA reported to national Department of Culture, Sports and Recreation.  From then on, the idea of commemorating the Mozambicans who had lost their lives in the disaster – but not the white engine driver buried in the old racially-segregated town cemetery – rolled down the political hill. An idea sanctioned from on high and motivated by the appeal of demonstrating international, inter-elite co-operation between old liberation movement comrades was approved by the newish Mpumalanga provincial administration.  

The practical dimensions of the unfolding scheme, such as getting tenders for the design and erection of a granite monument at the MGS appear to have been left to the local arm of SARHA and the officer in charge of the Mpumalanga Heritage Resources Authority (MHRA). Information as to who won the tender and in the face of what competition, what skill and prior expertise the winner may have had as regards quality of workmanship, and at what price, seem not to have filtered into the public domain and remain unknown. What is known is that either SARHA and/or MHRA felt it unnecessary to undertake primary research into the history of the disaster they wished to commemorate or, that if they did, the work was rather poorly done. The names of most of the deceased black miners were, however, successfully recovered and, it seems, correctly recorded.    

By 2006, the Premier of Mpumalanga, TSP Makwetla, and members of the local political establishment drawn primarily from the Department of Culture, Sport and Recreation along with an official representative of the Mozambican government and, of course, the officer in charge of MHRA, were all in place for the unveiling of a handsome new memorial stone at MGS in Emgwenya. It was an event designed to demonstrate the importance of cultural heritage, a chance for the locals to see their leaders in action, a moment to emphasise the importance of international co-operation when it came to a painful shared history of colonialism and for SARHA itself to show that, even with a very limited budget, it was responding to a statutory mandate from what it believed to be the peoples’ parliament.   All good then.

The granite-faced monument at the MGS, like others elsewhere across the country where communities supposedly took great pride in their cultural heritage, was enclosed behind concreted palisade fencing in order to keep out those intent on theft of materials that might be stolen, redeployed for domestic purposes in poor households or sold on to specialist scrap metal dealers and others. But at the Waterval Boven MGS there was little that could be stolen other than the fencing and so the new stone monument was left largely secure and the notables left the site content with having done what was a good deed. 


The primary purpose of the memorial – to honour the Mozambicans who had died in the 1949 tragedy –  was unquestionably noble and the political side show that accompanied it secondary. In an ideal world, that dimension – honouring the dead – and another – giving members of the regional political elite the chance to strut their stuff would inform one another positively and all the living could leave the site well content. But, in the case of Waterval Boven MGS monument, it would seem, the deeds of the political elite left the dead mocked by their lack of professionalism, historical ignorance and crass illiteracy.

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The destroyed granite panel with the names of the killed miners. (Supplied)

The slender inscribed granite panel that fronts the memorial, attached to a slightly more substantial concrete backing and base, records that the monument is there to honour the memory of the 63 Mozambican miners who died in the Waterval Boven rail disaster on 16 November 1949. But therein lie a few problems. The official enquiry into the accident recorded 62 rather than 63 deaths and the tragedy occurred not on 16 November 1949, as inscribed, but on 15 November 1949. Those responsible for the event – the officials from SAHRA and MHRA – did not do much better with an inscription on a small stone erected just outside the palisade fencing to record their own noble mission.

South Africans are in the privileged position of being able to choose from any one or more of the eleven official languages when erecting public notices. The majority of the residents in Emgwenya are siSwati-speakers but, presumably keen to ensure easy access for relatively affluent visitors who might be more comfortable when reading English, SAHRA and MHRA officials chose the latter language for an inscription on the stone: ‘This site is protected by the National Heritage Resorce (sic) Act, 25 of 1999’. Clearly, at the MGS site protection did not extend to checking the most basic facts or spelling.

With comprehension, literacy and professionalism at a premium in the national and provincial political elites these errors at the MGS remained uncorrected for close on half a decade even though, as best one can tell, there was an annual, official, wreath-laying visit to the site.  The infelicitous inscriptions at the MGS were cognitively processed by the politicians from both sides of the border once every twelve months. But nobody cared enough to correct the errors – even though one would have to acknowledge that it might have been awkward for those most concerned about ‘the community’, ‘cultural heritage’ and ‘fostering good relations’ with a neighbouring country.

The MEC for Culture, Sport and Recreation in Mpumalanga, however, remained aware of the collective potential that Waterval Boven (set in picturesque of surroundings) and the site of the 1949 tragedy itself might hold for local and international tourists. What then was needed was a further initiative of a sort that might complement that which the national lead agency, SAHRA, had pioneered at the Emgwenya MGS. So, about three years later, in 2009, it was decided that an additional stone memorial would be erected just outside the town, near the old bridge that marked site of the train disaster (TDS) on that awful day.   

The MEC was clearly of the view that there was no need for any additional historical research to be undertaken for the TDS memorial. Nor was there any need for anything as expensive as the monument at the MGS, or for any palisade fencing to enclose a small memorial stone tendered for and provided by an unknown local craftsperson at a price that never featured publicly. When it came to the possible wording for the new stone at the TDS that on the existing MSG monument would provide a rough guide but, this time round, more respect would be accorded to the contemporary Mozambican political notables and the deceased miners alike by including a few sentences in Portuguese recalling the disaster. The new TDS stone would, once again, underscore the trans-national nature of the 1949 rail disaster.

On 22 November, 2010, the ‘Mpumalanga Department of Culture, Sport and Recreation’, part of a political undertakers’ business it its own right, put out a media statement, in near-English, informing the public of the unveiling of the new memorial stone scheduled to take place 12 days later, on 4 December 2010. The Department assured all who were interested and could read that it was ‘serious about matters of heritage’ and of the need for ‘nurturing good diplomatic ties between South Africa and Mozambique’. The Mpumalanga MEC would deliver the ‘keynote address’ and the event would be attended by the Mozambique Consul for Mpumalanga and Limpopo.  But other important agencies, dignitaries and officials would also have their moment in the sun. ‘During the event a commemorative stone will be unveiled, which will feature the level of protection of the crash site as per Mpumalanga Heritage Resources Authority standards’.    

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The terrain of the mass grave and monument to the killed miners. (Supplied.)

Although it would be Big Heritage Men and Women who would dominate formal proceedings on the day, the media statement was designed to inform less cerebral members of the broader public about the deeper, less obvious, but nevertheless beneficial, dimensions of so important an initiative. The event and memorial stone would help ‘develop the crash site into a tourist attraction in Mpumalanga’. Perhaps not the most felicitous of phrasing, but you get the idea. More importantly perhaps, the unveiling of the stone was to be ‘part of the Department’s plans of stimulating and developing the informational capacities of the people of Mpumalanga’.  The TDS stone would unleash the developmental potential of the masses even if the media statement itself might have been a bit difficult to follow.

The memorial stone was duly unveiled on the appointed day. It comprised a large granite stone mounted and hinged on a relatively small plinth that may or may not have been adequate to the task. The stone itself contained some familiar as well as a few new words:




We remember The 63 Mozambican Workers Who

Tragically Lost Their Lives in the Waterval Boven

Train Disaster of 16 November 1949


And To Them We Say: Not Lost to Memory!

Not Lost to Love! But Gone to Our Father Above!


May Their Soul (sic) Rest in PEACE



For the second time in less than five years the Heritage Men and Women – the literate responsible custodians in a new, historically broadening, non-racial, non-reading dispensation dedicated to expanding the ‘informational capacities’ not just of nationalist elites but of ‘the people’ – had put it out that the Mozambican miners had died on the wrong date, in the wrong numbers.  But all was not lost.  The deceased miners had by then developed a single, collective, soul which was probably a good thing. The European locomotive driver, W.H. Green, who by this version either never was, or who was not worth remembering, mouldered on in his whites-only grave back in the town cemetery.  Nation-building struggles with questions of race.

At some point after the opening of the MGS, in 2006, the Heritage Folk, keen to be seen to be concerned and performing their custodial duties conscientiously, decided that there would be an annual, official pilgrimage, to the sites in Emgwenya. This they did even though it was a mite disappointing that members of the local community, many of whom still had a long way to go in terms of embracing the memorial as an important part of their own ‘cultural heritage’, did not turn out in numbers worth reporting on. After the unveiling of the TDS stone, in 2010, the annual visits by the visiting notables focused on both sites. The spirits of the deceased were appropriately propitiated in time-honoured fashion and this was accompanied by the laying of wreaths.

But despite the leadership shown by the Mpumalanga MEC and local SARHA official, the masses continued to lag when it came to taking ownership of their cultural heritage.  There was not much evidence of care, let alone loving care, around the MGS.  At the TDS things were, if anything, a touch worse. Some distance from day-to-day communal activities, the ‘crash site’ failed to develop a reputation as a ‘tourist attraction’ although it certainly was visited by a few curious folks passing through the town.  The problem at the TDS was that on occasion, a few of the younger anti-social elements, ‘the youth’ – among the least developed sections of the population when it came to ‘cultural heritage’ and totally immune to the Department’s ‘plans for stimulating and developing the ‘informational capacities of the people of Mpumalanga’ – took to preying on the tourists and visitors.   

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The National Heritage "Resorce" Act? (Supplied)

All this occurred even though every now and then the local press and national broadcaster did their very best to try and stimulate the interest of historically curious tourists. For example, the state broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) – an ugly old parrot that could be relied upon to repeat the message of its governmental master –  conducted interviews with notables at the opening of the TDS to help emphasise the importance of a memorial of obvious trans-national significance. The fact that the Mozambican dignitary attending the event that day appeared to know as little about the real story of the miners from the Sul do Savé as did the local notables did not really matter. He, like the rest of the local nationalist elite was seen being interviewed on television and that was what really mattered. And a jolly good cultural Heritage Day was had by all.   

The press, restricted to the printed word, had a harder task when it came to stimulating local historical imaginations even though, like the Department of Culture, Sports and Recreation, it faithfully reflected the wrong date and wrong number of dead miners whenever covering the annual pilgrimage to the new shrines. Once or twice there were attempts to build upon a myth with deeper roots in the wider community to cultivate a sense of mystery around the cause of the 1949 derailment when, in truth, there was none. Despite the existence of an official report which attributed the cause of the disaster to the excessive speed of the runaway train, a good number of black and white South Africans believed that the ‘real cause’ of the accident was never discovered. (Such conspiratorial explanations and ‘real causes’, we might note in passing, tend to have a long shelf-life in countries - such as the United States - where sections of the under-classes have low literacy rates.) Thus, in late 2014 The Highveld Gazette did not hold back and told interested readers that the dead engine driver ‘took the secrets of those final terrifying moments on train 513 with him’ to a grave in a ‘quiet corner’ of the local cemetery.


Despite the commendable political lead and energy emanating from successive Mpumalanga-based MECs when it came to cultural heritage, officials at the SAHRA head office, in Cape Town, wished to ensure that that their original investment at MGS was being properly maintained and protected.  It was part of SAHRA’s mandate to so do and, as in many other nation-building dispensations, ‘mandates’ derive ultimately from the will of the people and are therefore not to be trifled with.  The fact that at Emgwenya ‘the community’ - a vital conceptual cornerstone when it came imagining ‘the nation’ - had shown little interest in following the lead of local heritage commissars only made the need for examination even more urgent and serious.     

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The enclosed monument, behind palisade fencing. (Supplied)

Officials at SAHRA decided that it they would inspect the MGS at Emgwenya during a visit to other sites of much greater national importance in Mpumalanga during the month of February 2016. The most significant site to be visited during the tour of duty would not be the MGS where mine workers drawn from the Sul do Save had lost their lives, but another site where far more important Mozambicans and others had met their death on South African soil. It was located at Mbuzini, near where the borders of Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland meet, that President Samora Machel and 34 other passengers had died in an aircraft accident back on 19 October 1986.

The Samora Machel Monument, erected at an initial cost of a quarter of a million US dollars, was officially opened in 1999, and then declared a National Heritage Site in 2006. It, too, is associated with mystery in that many believe – although definitive evidence has never been forthcoming from either side of the border – that the aircraft was lured into a fatal accident by a false radio beacon.  The ‘real story’, as with the Waterval Boven disaster has yet to emerge, it is believed. 

In countries low on literacy and high on witchcraft beliefs, including tales where modern technology has been incorporated into the narrative in suggestive ways, such ‘mysteries’ are unsurprising. In the United States ‘flying saucers’ (which have become a little less common of late as advances in knowledge and sightings of modern space technology has become more widespread), were often attracted to places where books, libraries and serious readers were at a premium.

The Machel Monument correctly records the date of the accident as well as the number of those who died in the aircraft accident. The two sites, one linked to the memory of a President, at Mbuzini, and the other to that of proletarians, at Emgwenya, should, in theory, be equally deserving of professionalism when it comes to accurately recording the details underpinning the tragedies. But for cultural activists who are also the beneficiaries of political patronage from an insurgent nationalist movement the ‘heritage’ deriving from liberation struggle heroes will always outweigh the claims of mere workers.

The semi-literate official who chose to report on the SAHRA visit to the MGS at Waterval Boven, in February 2016, in near-English rather than any of the other official languages in which he/she might have been more proficient, was quite comfortable when it came to seeing, to taking in the visual via photographs but was less gifted when it came to accuracy, curiosity or insight. His or her superior, who accepted and signed-off on a document that is still easily retrievable via the internet was not much better. No matter; both believed firmly in the importance of ‘cultural heritage’, were probably fine patriots if not ruling party members, and ‘nation-builders’ with quite well-paid jobs.

The SAHRA site inspector asked no questions about the wording on the monument at Emgwenya, about the incorrect date given for the 1949 disaster, or about the number of migrants said to have died there. He/she was there to see, not to listen to the members of a poor community ill-served by the post-liberation school system. It was, after all, just a routine, not a special inspection. Nor did he/she question the spelling of the word ‘resorce’ (sic) as it appeared on the stone that alerted visitors to a site proudly protected under the provisions of the National Heritage Resource Act of 1999. He/she took a photograph of that same stone and then reproduced it in his subsequent report as ‘Annexure 1’ above the brilliantly original and memorable caption – ‘Plague (sic) depicting a national protection’. 

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Poor workmanship. (Supplied)

There was, by now, no way of protecting the nation from the plague that had descended upon it via the national or provincial agencies charged with the custody of heritage, or from the reporting emanating from it. Inside the palisade fencing at the MGS, it was correctly noted, the ground leading up to the monument had, long since, become overgrown with grass, partially obscuring the view. But that did not detract from the ‘significance and status’ of the monument which was, er, um, carefully laid out in the official report on the site: It reads thus:

In 1949 a train carrying mainly Mozambican miners crashed in Waterval Boven. The place was later referred to Waterval Boven train disaster (sic). In order to remember those who lost their lives, SAHRA erected monument in consultation with the country of Mozambique (sic). 63 Mozambicans were confirmed dead and the details of the cause of the accident still remain none conclusive (sic). 

The old magical ‘mystery’ tour of Waterval Boven – the one in search of the ‘real cause’ of the disaster was still on. In Mpumalanga there is no easy separation of that part of cultural heritage informed by witchcraft beliefs and that which derives from official accident enquiry reports and the use of modern technology. But none of that detracted from a powerful two-sentence conclusion to the report. ‘Frequent monitoring is required for the site (sic). The provincial authority must see to it that the cemetery is maintained to ensure proper visibility of the monument’. And that, was that. 

In the ten years following on the 2006 SAHRA inspection of, and report on, the MGS things appear not to have gone particularly well on the cultural heritage-meets-tourism front at Waterval Boven. Potential, that bouncing baby boy, born in 2006 was dying slowly.

After the opening of the Train Disaster Site near the old bridge, back in 2010, officials from the Mpumalanga Department of Culture, Sport and Recreation, along with an invited Mozambican dignitary undertook annual pilgrimages to both the MGS and TDS.  The spirits of the dead were properly propitiated, and wreaths laid.  But there was no reading or thinking about the misleading information on the two memorial stones and members of the Emgwenya community did not turn out in their numbers to take ownership of the occasion.

waterval boven

The destroyed granite panel with the names of the killed miners. (Supplied)

The nationalist elite in Mpumalanga now had good reason to be concerned about how the 1949 train disaster memorials at Emgwenya were taking root in the community’s historical consciousness and how its ‘informational capacities’ were developing. The grass encroaching inside the fence at the MGS and the stone balanced precariously on as modest plinth at the TDS appeared to be doing little to help convert sites of ‘cultural heritage’ into ‘tourist attractions’ that might, in turn, assist in creating badly-needed jobs in a region scarred by endemic poverty and illiteracy. But for the politicians, the local heritage men and women, it was beginning to look like the game was no longer worth the candle.    

2017 was not a particularly good year for SAHRA or the Department of Culture, Sport and Recreation in Mpumalanga. Despite the Department having been reminded by SAHRA of its responsibilities at the MGS a decade earlier, the ‘plague depicting a national protection’ was still losing its battle with the long grass outside the palisade fencing. Inside the fence the situation was worsening, too, but then again, the MGS was not quite in the same league as the monument at Mbuzini was it? Now there was something the elite were rightly worried about and deserving close, on-going attention.  

In any case, the most immediate local cultural heritage problem in 2017 was not at the MGS but at the TDS where the collective ‘soul’ of the 63 miners was not lying in the inscribed, hoped-for, ‘PEACE’.  Someone or some people, perhaps young people who were having trouble appreciating a site of trans-national importance had simply pushed over the memorial stone which, in any case, appeared to have been poorly hinged at the point where it sat on the plinth.

A new and more militant MEC in a Department and province that prided herself on its political militancy was outraged. She issued a firmly worded statement designed to put any avid, anti-social, stone-toppling elements in Emgwenya who read press statements firmly in their place. Like President Roosevelt, she believed in talking softly and carrying a big stick. She started out with the soft talk.

‘We are deeply saddened by the vandalism of the commemorative plaque’, she wrote.  (Whew! Close shave that.) ‘These acts of vandalism, barbarism and hooliganism’, she continued, ‘have no place in the democratic dispensation’. Undaunted, she pushed on; ‘As the custodians of matters of culture and heritage in Mpumalanga we encourage people to respect historical monuments. It was, however, not only the fact that the stone had been toppled but that the toppling had taken place at a most inconvenient and unfortunate time for the visiting political elites. ‘It is more disturbing’, she noted, that the vandalism took place as the province is preparing to commemorate the 68th anniversary of the train disaster’. The timing of the vandalism at the TDS was ‘more’ reprehensible than the act itself not because it disrespected the memory of the dead miners but because it threatened to inconvenience those in the trans-national political elite organising and getting ready to attend the up-coming commemoration.    

The MEC was no pushover, she was tough. Her comrades in the provincial government were all committed revolutionaries when it came to matters cultural and the stone-topplers would be left in no doubt as to just how resolute they were. ‘Despite the destruction of the commemorative plaque, the department remains committed to transforming the history landscape of the province and to honour struggle heroes and heroines who fought against the apartheid regime’. And, with those strong words both the class-base and time horizon for heritage initiatives in the province shrank a bit further.

The situation on the ground at Emgwenya, however, remained of concern for the provincial heritage men and women. The annual commemoration that took place at the TDS towards the end of each year by a few notables - if not the masses - had been compromised by stone-topplers unfamiliar with calendar and watch alike. If the event was to proceed as usual, then the Department and its allies in the struggle for cultural advancement would have to act swiftly. It was starting to look like the makings of an emergency.

A few labourers were set to work but, given an inadequate budget and a genuine lack of concern and professionalism on the part of the Department, they had neither the equipment nor the materials to effect the necessary temporary repairs properly. So, the workers simply scoured the site and found a few sturdy flat rocks that might serve as wedges. They then righted the fallen memorial stone, placed it back on the plinth, and propped up the edifice so that it would at least be standing to attention when seen by the notables.

And so there the TDS memorial stood months thereafter, holding its breath, waiting from the next invasion by ‘barbarians, hooligans and vandals’.  But the horde never materialised leaving the collective ‘soul’ of the miners at rest if not exactly at PEACE.   But the idea that the memorial was now effectively being propped up on a few rocks of uncertain character and determination was not meet with universal approval or complacency within in the community.  The passage of time, it was feared, would see the stone starting to lean in one direction which would limit its appeal as a tourist attraction. 

In 2018, a concerned citizen (but who, alas, was not a party man) therefore took it upon himself to build a new, more solid foundation for the TDS memorial stone largely at own expense. This initiative was roundly criticised by the jobs-worth official at the MHRA who threatened to take legal action against those who had restored the stone to its original secure position without seeking prior permission from him and who had therefore placed the security of his own position as a custodian of culture and heritage in jeopardy. But, there for the moment, the TDS memorial stone stands – a compromised public edifice on a private base – part of an informal private-public partnership that has been abandoned by the state.

At the MGS things were, by 2018, not much better than they had been for some years. The nationalist notables in Mpumalanga, sensing that there was little political mileage to be gained from preserving a site the community itself was not particularly endeared to, had neglected the memorial and allowed the grounds to become to litter-strewn. In mid-year, the Chairman of the Lowveld and Escarpment Fire Protection Agency (LEFA) – a volunteer body enjoying statutory recognition – sent in a task team as part of a civic-backed initiative to restore the monument to a semblance of decency. But, not long thereafter, the same concerned citizen who had placed the memorial stone at the TDS back on a solid footing noticed something even more alarming at the MGS memorial stone.

Something appeared to be amiss with the quality of the workmanship in what at first glance seemed like a solid standing stone monument.  Could it perhaps be traced back to the unknown contractors who had successfully tendered for the work in 2010?

The thin front panel on the memorial stone, the one bearing the main inscription along with the names of the 63 dead Mozambican miners, was coming adrift from the backing on which it had been mounted.  The concerned citizen took a photograph to record how the panel was peeling away from the inadequate concrete backing that had once held it in place. When the topic came up at a meeting dealing with ‘heritage’ issues in the town, the man from the MHRA man was unwilling to acknowledge or call into question the quality of the workmanship originally commissioned by SARHA. Instead, he reached for the template already to hand and that derived from experience at the TDS. The front panel it was now claimed had been ‘vandalised’ by a person or persons unknown. And so, for the moment, there the monument commemorating the names of those Mozambican who died in the 1949 train disaster stands minus that of the white locomotive driver, as a large, blank rectangular space behind palisade fencing enclosing a litter strewn site and, in one corner the fragmented names of the deceased mine workers. 

The 1949 Waterval Boven Tragedy seen as History

But let us put aside the tacky realities of the ‘cultural heritage’ and ‘tourist potential’ world as we find them at the MGS and TDS in Emgwenya in 2019 and - banishing all that is destructive, negative or racist from our minds - try instead to think the unthinkable.

What if we were to retain a broadly Africanist view of the 1949 train disaster and then attempted to re-contextualise the acts of commemoration at Waterval Boven?  What if we tried to keep the agency bureaucrats and provincial nationalist politicians away from the hoped-for ‘heritage’ honey-and-money pots for a time and, instead, encouraged them to take the act of reading and historical research a bit more seriously in the hope of doing a touch better?  Might it not be that the notion of ‘cultural heritage’ could be refined and improved on by being a bit more respectful of the history of the disaster?  What if there were other marginally more authentic, and plausible, links between orthodox African nationalism and the Waterval Boven 1949 disaster than the ideologically militant, semi-literate, ‘revolutionary’ politicians in Mpumalanga ever thought of?

waterval boven

A clean-up operation in 2018, ahead of the annual commemoration. (Supplied)

Any SARHA or MHRA official, or MEC for Culture, Sport and Recreation preparing a ‘keynote address’ to be presented before a tiny gathering at one of the annual pilgrimages to the MGS and TDS by the notables might be well advised to reflect on a few aspects related to the disaster that both the audience and bored journalists might find more interesting than all the familiar old stuff about ‘mysteries’ and dark ‘secrets going to the grave’ with someone.

If the aspiration of the ‘cultural custodians’ is for sites such as those at the MGS and TDS in Waterval Boven to become less prone to neglect or vandalism, then it is necessary is to encourage members of the community to take active ownership of their heritage. It cannot simply be left as a top-down, elite-centred and driven initiative. And, in order for that to succeed it is necessary first to undertake the necessary in-depth historical research that will enable the national agencies and politicians to demonstrate – in slightly more convincing terms – that the two monuments hold some plausible meaning for members of the local community and that it resonates in the consciousness and memories of ‘the people’.

In Emgwenya a good starting point might be to underscore that Waterval Boven was always and perhaps still is, pre-eminently a railway town. The history of the town and its inhabitants, black and white alike, have always been tightly bound to that of the national rail system and that it has been the site of not one but of two disasters involving migrant Mozambican workers – the one, involving eleven fatalities, in 1918, and the other in 1949. The ties of Waterval Boven to the men and women of the Sul do Save are deep and systemic – not merely accidental or incidental. The 1918 and 1949 tragedies are therefore locked into a broader history of industrial exploitation and racial oppression within the region as a whole and are part of an authentic, shared, trans-national history.  

Wateval Boven is no historical backwater.  It is located at the midpoint of the umbilical cord that pumped life through the political economy of the region.  The train disasters were not merely ‘accidents’ – they offered a painful and poignant illustration of the systemic, exploitative and racist nature of the South African mining industry in the eras of segregation and later, apartheid.

It may also help if we were to delve a little more deeply into how the trains are recalled in the memories and in the witchcraft beliefs of community members in adjacent parts of the province.  We know from other anthropological and historical research elsewhere along the lines of rail in Mpumalanga that many Africans have vivid tales about stimela sa baloyi that inform certain aspects of their lives.  

The Mpumalanga political elite may – quite rightly – want to commemorate the 1949 rail disaster by erecting memorial stones and facilitate trans-national co-operation and goodwill at various events.  But, through their belief in, and tales of, trains that run by night through the veld without the need for rails as they move zombies to dangerous and unpopular places of employment ‘ordinary’ black South Africans have, long since, used their own cultural pathways as a way of remembering the migrant labour conveyed up and down the Eastern Main Line. It is not the African population of Emgwenya and Mpumalanga that needs to be drawn to commemorative functions on terms set by the political notables, but the governing black elite that needs to find more meaningful way of exploring the popular consciousness of its own supporters.   

The African inhabitants of Emgwenya township had a complex relationship with the Mozambican migrant trains as they passed up and down through Waterval Boven station for more than half-a-century. One the one hand, some of the African railway staff and local black hawkers were party to exploitative practices and theft as they sold food and other items to the migrants, or stole the coins due to their customers as small change during various transactions.

But, on the other, inhabitants from Emgwenya were also capable of showing compassion and tried to be helpful to those passengers whose health had been impaired by mine labour by selling them traditional herbal medicines. More pertinently, the local African branch of the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade rendered excellent first aid to accident victims during 1949 disaster and was later the subject of special commendation in the report of the official enquiry into the cause of the accident. There was real and practical concern expressed by certain members of Emgwenya at the time of the tragedy and, if properly recalled and rendered by communal leaders, it should give the inhabitants a greater sense of ownership of the MGS and the TDS during the annual pilgrimage to the sites.   

In much the same way those ‘nation-builders’ intent on constructing non-racial, non-sexist society in South Africa might want to give some critical thought to the fact the 1949 disaster and its sequel at the time was indicative of a strangely skewed, weird, social order. Not only was it a segregated 3rd class train that derailed but the European train driver who died in the tragedy was buried separately from his passengers, in a ‘whites only’ cemetery. The deceased Mozambicans, considered to be indistinguishable as individuals, were all placed in a single mass grave as a collective of black men, an unfortunate impression now, albeit unintentionally, partly perpetuated at the TDS – but not at the MGS – where the memorial stone not only gets the number of victims wrong but as a result of studied indifference claims that 63 men share one ‘soul’.

The sequel to the 1949 derailment signalled the coming of more rigorous apartheid-style thinking at the time of the accident and the same sort of racial thinking has been reproduced on the memorial stones at the MGS and TDS where no reference is made to the fact that an engineer, a white male, also happened to have died in the disaster. The engine driver and his passengers were separated by race, in death, at the time of the disaster and, to this day, they remain symbolically separated in a new dispensation that prides itself on non-racialism. If ‘cultural heritage’ efforts are to rise above old-style racial separation and thinking and contribute meaningfully to ‘nation-building’, then we need to be far more sensitive to the symbolic significance of new monuments and that, in turn, will require paying far more attention to the complexities of history.

Finally, if, as an MEC recently once reminded the faithful – that the Department was ‘committed to transforming the history landscape of the province and to honour struggle heroes and heroines who fought against the apartheid regime’ then there is one promising, albeit tangential tale that points in the very direction demanded by modern hack nationalists – a purely instrumental way of linking a ‘struggle hero’ to the 1949 Waterval Boven train disaster through deep historical research rather via pancake-flat ‘cultural heritage’. 


At some point in the mid- to late 1980s, but most probably around in 1985, by when he was focusing intently on the African National Congress’ (ANC) underground military struggle being waged by Umkonto we Sizwe against the apartheid regime within South Africa,  S.R. ‘Mac’ Maharaj, began moving fairly freely in and out of Mozambique and adjacent Swaziland. In addition to infiltrating ANC leaders back into South Africa, the Revolutionary Council of the ANC under the leadership of O.R. Tambo, encouraged Maharaj to identify possible military targets for Umkhonto within the country. 

During this search Maharaj was impressed by the political opposition coming from within South Africa by the Johannesburg-based End Conscription Campaign which was gaining traction among some young white males who were becoming increasingly reluctant to fight an apartheid war. Maharahj felt that, in a liberation war, military conscripts became a legitimate target and had heard it said that there was an important air force base at Hoedspruit – not far from the Mozambican border. This pattern of thinking was extended when he was introduced to a young Umkhonto operative who hailed from Mpumalanga, but was based in Swaziland, and who had assumed ‘Castro’ as his nom de guerre.     

The revolutionaries then aligned the two strands of their thinking –  identifying a suitable military target and launching an attack on an intake of military conscripts.  Unable and unwilling to attack the well-guarded air force base itself, they settled instead on the idea of launching a strike on a train carrying conscripts to Hoedspruit. The plan, fleshed out with the assistance of technical experts in Maputo, was to use of the momentum of the train as it engaged a bend in mountainous terrain to help derail it. It would require only a few sticks of dynamite - strategically placed and detonated manually – to derail the locomotive and send the coaches and hundreds of conscripts plunging into a ravine. If the plan succeeded the apartheid regime would have been dealt a massive blow and   the End Conscription Campaign gifted a major propaganda tool.  

It is difficult, no impossible, to believe that when Castro, who hailed from Mpumalanga, was asked to identify a promising site for such an operation he did not draw his inspiration from the memory of the 1949 rail disaster the Waterval Boven in which the momentum of the train on a bend across the bridge had played a decisive role. Indeed, the 1949 disaster provided the revolutionaries with a tailor-made template for action. The site chosen by the two Umkhonto operatives lay between Waterval Boven and Waterval Onder.  

The plan was approved in principle by a hesitant Oliver Tambo and Maharaj and Castro then set about refining the detail.   Designated underground operatives, working on a need-to-know basis, were deployed all the way down along the Eastern Main Line so that the revolutionaries would be absolutely certain that they had identified the correct locomotive and train for destruction once it left Waterval Boven and reached the bend in the track they had chosen.

By the time that the annual round of conscriptions got underway Maharaj had everything in place and was ready to go despite the fact that he was finding the tension so great that his hands had erupted into ‘festering sores’. The pressure mounted when Tambo, never comfortable with the idea of a mass killing, told Maharaj to place everything on hold. Tambo was uncertain if the ANC would be able to cope effectively with the political repercussions of such an operation and feared the military reprisal that was bound to come.  But Maharaj, locked into his Swaziland command centre, was not convinced by Tambo’s arguments. Maharaj believed the project was so advanced that it was too late to back out.

In effect, Tambo and Maharaj waited to see who would blink first in a situation where hundreds of lives were at stake.  Maharaj did.  He retreated to Mozambique and, from there flew to London for a set of political meetings, was present at the birth of his child, and went on to recover his composure and health.  He never reported formally to the ANC on the aborted mission and the tale remained untold until it was revealed in an interview that is now preserved in the O’ Malley archives at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Memory.  In a most unlikely way then, the horrors of the WNLA train journeys on the Main Eastern Line and the disaster at Waterval Boven endured by countless Mozambican miners over many decades, helped to spark the imagination of South African freedom fighters.

‘Cultural Heritage’ projects, opportunistically embraced by ignorant and/or semi-literate nationalists who are unable, or unwilling to commission or undertake the necessary in-depth historical research that might back efforts focused on the potential of the market for tourism are doomed to failure. In an ideal world, heritage projects and historical research should march in lockstep and inform each other to their mutual benefit. But in a country where illiteracy dominates, and arrogant or poorly briefed nationalists position themselves to advance their own aural and/or visual take on ‘heritage’ without situating it in a more broadly convincing historical context both ‘heritage’ and ‘history’ will emerge the poorer for their interventions. At Waterval Boven, history and heritage need to be brought back into a semblance of alignment to the benefit of all.

In a final irony that points to the real gap separating the contemporary political elite from both history and ‘the people’, it appears as if nobody now knows or can remember the real name of ‘Castro’ – the Mpumalanga man who perhaps risked most of all. 

* Professor Charles van Onselen is a historian attached to the University of Pretoria's Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship. He has written numerous books, including the seminal The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, A South African Sharecropper, 1894-1985, and recently The Night Trains, about the tragic consequences of the forced labour regime out of Mozambique which propped up the South African mining industry. 

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