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On the night trains, the last stop was always hell.

The price exacted from across the African sub-continent for South Africa’s stalled 20th century industrial revolution is – in human terms – still largely hidden from history.  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, that paid the highest price for the development of South Africa’s primary industry. An iniquitous inter-colonial agreement for the exploitation of ultra-cheap black labour in the extractive industries was only made possible through the use of the steam locomotive on the trans-national railway linking Johannesburg and Lourenço Marques.  

The privately-operated, nightly labour trains running between Booysens and Ressano Garcia left deep scars in the urban and rural cultures of black communities whether in the form of popular songs, such as Stimela and Shosholoza, or in a belief in nocturnal witches’ trains that captured and conveyed zombie workers to the region’s most unpopular places of employment. By tracing the up- and down-rail journeys undertaken by black migrants over half a century it is possible to reconstruct how racial thinking, expressed logistically, reflected the evolving systems of segregation and apartheid.  Mozambican migrant labour formed an integral part of a largely hidden, parallel universe that created the wealth of 20th century South Africa and some of the deepest roots of an on-going tragedy lie, to this very day, besides the rails of the Eastern Main Line. 


About Charles van Onselen

Charles van Onselen is the acclaimed author of several books including The Fox and the Flies, Masked Raiders and, most recently, The Cowboy Capitalist. His book, Showdown at the Red Lion, has been opted for an international television drama series based upon the acclaimed title and embellished with characters from Masked Raiders. Van Onselen has been honoured with visiting fellowships at Yale, Cambridge, and Oxford, and was the inaugural Oppenheimer Fellow at Harvard’s WEB Du Bois Institute. He is currently Research Professor in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Pretoria.



Fierce and lyrical, furious and humane, this is the work of a master historian.  Professor James Campbell, Department of History, Stanford University

The great master of social history, van Onselen, provides us an unsurpassable lesson in the commodification and disposal of human life. The brilliantly-chosen lens is a single rail line from Mozambique to the gold fields of South Africa, bringing fresh bodies east and returning west with the human remains. The tragic underbelly of capitalist accumulation has never been so sharply etched. James C. Scott, Yale University


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