247pp., illus., maps, paperback, Johannesburg, 2019
Winner of the 2021 Academy of Science of South Africa Humanities Book Award.
For half a century trains travelled by night between Ressano Garcia on the Mozambique border, and Booysens station in Johannesburg. The trains, run as a partnership between the mining houses and the railways, carried Mozambicans recruited to work in the mines of the Witwatersrand and returned the time-expired miners - often ill, broken or insane, and preyed on by con men, petty criminals and corrupt officials. While mine labour was recruited from all over southern Africa, Mozambican migrants made up the largest component. Charles van Onselen reconstructs the world of the night trains, revealing how racial thinking, expressed logistically, reflected South Africa's evolving systems of segregation and apartheid.
"Like the poet seeing a world in a grain of sand, van Onselen uses the story of a single railway 'accident' to illuminate the logics of industrial capitalism in southern Africa and the life worlds of some of the millions that it consumed. 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 with an unsurpassable lesson in the commodification and disposal of human life. The brilliantly chosen lens is a single rail line from Mozambique to the goldfields of South Africa, bringing fresh bodies west and returning east with the human remains. The tragic underbelly of capitalist accumulation has never been so sharply etched." James C. Scott, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Anthropology, Yale University
Charles van Onselen's books include The Fox and the Flies, Masked Raiders and The Seed is Mine, which was voted one of the hundred best books to come out of Africa in the 20th century. He has been elected to visiting fellowships at Cambridge, Harvard, Oxford and Yale Universities and has been Research Professor in the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship (CAS) at the University of Pretoria for the past two decades.