Between 1900 and 1960 some 5 million Mozambican migrant workers were ferried on the night trains that ran between the Johannesburg Goldfields and the Mozambique-South Africa border.
Returning home on the 307 “night train”, for many relatively cash-flush, time-expired Mozambican workers it was a joyous occasion that heralded the chance of being re-united with family and loved ones in the Sul do Save in Southern Mozambique.
But for hundreds of others it was a mass evacuation of the living dead and walking wounded.
The mass evacuation of the living dead from Booysens Station to Ressano Garcia was at its peak from 1901 into the late 1920s when the three biggest killers in the Witwatersrand Mining Compounds – pneumonia, silicosis and tuberculosis – took their toll.
It was not unheard of for a black miner to have been ‘found dead’ at various points on the 307 as it moved slowly east through Waterval Boven, Nelspruit and Kaapmuiden.
Anonymous corpses removed from the train by police were passed on to the District Surgeon – diseased lungs removed and sent back to Johannesburg for medical research – and what remained buried in the local, racially segregated cemetery.
The train was a combination of boxcars cattle and coal trucks with several “hospital coaches” added.
It was in these coaches – fitted with barred-windows & securely locked down – that the casualties from the mines – the living dead, walking wounded, mentally deranged and psychologically traumatised were incarcerated to prevent their escape.
It was the enduring memory and trauma of rail journeys such as the
“Night Train” that chiseled their way into the souls of black men and women from right across southern Africa that inspired the late South African musician
Hugh Masekela to write his evocative, “Stimela” – integral to the soundtrack of this documentary.
An underlying & disturbing theme to “Night Train” is that – by the 1930’s – this trans-national migrant labour system carried with it faint warnings as to how, when racist thought, steam technology and political power are brought into alignment, they carried the potential for crimes against humanity.
In 1901, the British colonialists signed an agreement with the Portuguese colonialists guaranteeing rail traffic from the Transvaal Colony through the port of Lorenzo Marques in return for exclusive access to black labour from Southern Mozambique.
In a naked exchange of rail service for human service the African boys and men of the Sul do Save were sold by the Portuguese to the British
Imperialists and their mining house allies, and the “night train” was born.
None contributed more to the wealth of South Africa than these faceless migrants hauled in from the Sul do Suave region of Mozambique now as a
consequence one of the poorest regions on earth.
This is their story.
With this historical backdrop established, the documentary
moves to present-day South Africa & confronts the current xenophobic attitudes & attacks by South Africans on Mozambicans and other African “foreign nationals” living and working inside South Africa today.