I stumbled on the Nights Train by Charles van Onselen – Moving Mozambican Miners to and From the Witwatersrand Mines, 1902-1955. It was the people of southern Mozambique, bent double beneath the historical loads of forced labour and slavery, and then sold-off en masse as contracted labourers to the new coal and gold mines of the Witwatersrand by a Portuguese administration intent on securing a guaranteed volume of rail traffic for its east coast port.
The Nights Train, deals with Mozambican miners from 1902 to 1950. It stands to reason that many more were forced into labour from other countries such as Namibia, Lesotho, Angola and Botswana. In Stimela, Hugh Masekela refers to how these men always cursed, cursed the coal train, The coal train that brought them to Johannesburg.
Van Onselen refers to lyrics of Stimela. 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 Zwaziland.
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.
I have listened to Stimela many times with little or no context. It is one of my favorite songs, musically and lyrically. It is only now that I have connected the song with the hardships of life lived by African miners. Its a new perspective, that labour had to be imported to develop the Witwatersrand mining towns. I never applied my mind on where these miners were from. I knew some where from neighboring countries, I never appreciated the scale. Van Onselen estimates in excess of 200 000 miners moved by Night Trains from 1902 to 1955.
The same should be said of Shosholoza by Masingita Ngoveni. Its believed the song is originally sung by groups of men from the Ndebele ethnic group that traveled by steam train from their homes. In the lyrics , there is part that refers to “Stimela siphume South Africa” meaning the train from South Africa.
In summary, I have a new context of the Stimela and Shosholoza. A perspective of forced labour, A perspective of modern slaves, A perspective of migration.
African miners have nothing to show for except Silicosis. Most of them died in poverty back in Lorenzo Marques. This is in the face of profitable mining houses.
I close with Send Me (Thuma Mina) – Hugh Masekela. I wanna be there when the people start to turn it around. When they triumph over poverty.