Albert Adams


NIGHT TRAIN [image above from An Invincible Spirit collection by Albert Adams]

[based on the research & writings of South African historian & author Charles van Onselen]

When racist thought, steam technology and political power

are brought into alignment, they carry the potential for

crimes against humanity and, in extreme cases, genocide.

Night Train” is a 60 minute documentary on the men from the Sul do Save region of Southern Mozambique, their contribution to the industrial revolution

that built the prosperous economy of South Africa, and the price that they,

their families & the community paid.



It is estimated that between 1900 and 1960 some 5 million Mozambican migrant workers were ferried back and forth on the WNLA (Witwatersrand Native Labour Association) trains that ran between Booysens Station in Johannesburg and the Komatipoort / Ressano Garcia railway complex on the Mozambique-South Africa border.

Returning home to Ressano Garcia on the 307 down-train, for many relatively cash-flush, time-expired workers it was a joyous occasion that heralded the chance of being re-united with family and loved ones in the Sul do Save.

But for hundreds of others it was a mass evacuation of the living dead and walking wounded.

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 at Komatipoort 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 mass evacuation of the living dead from Booysens 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.

Meeting death on the 307 was a brutal and lonely experience and for these repatriates it was a race against the clock, hoping to get home in time to see a traditional healer or, at least, die among kin and be assured of a proper burial.

For many of the living dead, Lourenco Marques proved to be a bridge too far and by the time the train pulled into Ressano Garcia they were simply moved into the WNLA Hospital where they expired.

Others were collected and hauled through the bush by family members in hammocks.

This was the weekly ritual repeated every Thursday when at 3.15 pm the fourteen-coach 307 eased out of Booysens Station – and via Witbank eventually slithered into the darkness for the long haul across the Highveld, reaching the mountains at Waterval Boven between 12 p.m. and 2.00 a.m.

After a lengthy wait – changing locomotives for the steep drop in to the “devil’s throat” and the long, slow descent into the Lowveld – passing through Nelspruit and Kaapmuiden – with sunrise, the 307 crawled into Ressano Garcia at around 7.00 a. m. some 16 to 18 hours and 372 miles later.

The train was a combination of box cars, cattle and coal trucks.

In the 1920s several additional, dedicated “hospital coaches” were added.

It was in these coaches – fitted with barred-windows & securely locked down – that the living dead, walking wounded, mentally deranged and psychologically traumatised were then incarcerated to prevent their escape.

Also incarcerated on occasion – in the aftermath of the few strikes that occurred during and immediately after WWII – were any politically conscious activists identified as ‘outside agitators’ fomenting ‘native unrest’ in the workplace – systematically rooted out, black-listed to ensure that they would never again work in the Union – on their final train ride back to Ressano Garcia and into the arms of the oppressive Portuguese regime.

Portugal was among the last of the European nations to abolish human trafficking & engagement in the global slave trade.

With a fully-fledged slave station at Lourenco Marques still active in 1820, the Portuguese government and its colonies formally ended human trafficking in 1878.

But old habits die hard.

In 1881, Portugal passed legislation allowing the enforcement of compulsory

labour to curtail any ‘vagabondage’ arising from the abolition of slavery.

In 1899, the Portuguese government – looking to increase income from taxes – passed legislation designed to force subsistence farmers into waged employment.

For the self-sufficient subsistence farmers in the Sul do Save region of Southern Mozambique there was no escape.

Under this legislation, all subjects of the Mozambique Colony had a ‘moral and legal’ obligation to find ‘waged employment’ failing which they would be rounded up & press-ganged into forced labour projects as required by the local administration.

And so was born the system known as “shibalo’ – the forced labour mechanism that forced the men from Southern Mozambique to leave their land and take the ‘iron road’ to the Rand mines.

In 1901, Lord Milner, overseeing post-war reconstruction in the newly acquired Transvaal colony sealed their fate.

Signing an agreement with the corrupt and unashamedly violence-prone Portuguese administration in Mozambique – Milner guaranteed a significant volume of rail traffic from the Transvaal through the port of Lorenco Marques in return for which WNLA was granted exclusive and privileged access to black labour across 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 Witwatersrand mining house allies, and the “night train” was born.

WNLA trains ran under cover of darkness with the lesser part of their journey falling within daylight hours.

The labourers drawn from the Sul do Save were recruited out of sight – in the seclusion of a far-off rural world through mechanisms not readily reconciled with a “free market” labour system and then transported – by night – to be delivered

at Booysens Station – secured and obscured from the sight of the South African public.

Fleeing an abusive regime enforcing a political economy even more exploitative and hostile than that of South Africa – for many recruits the 804 twice-weekly “night” up-train running from Ressano Garcia to Johannesburg was a free ride into the very heartland of industrializing South Africa as tens of thousands hopped off en route never to return to Mozambique.

To prevent this mass desertion, the coaches and trucks attached to the bi-weekly 804 WNLA up-train were securely locked-down.

As the trains ran at night, the most treacherous passage of their journey – in particular for the 307 down home-train – from Waterval Boven dropping to Waterval Onder – had to be negotiated at midnight.

In 1918 & 1949 two “night” train accidents – both with the 307 home-train

– occurred on this stretch in the small hours of the morning taking the lives of eleven and sixty-two sons of the Sul do Save respectively.

In the 1949 tragedy, the white engine driver also lost his life.

The operation of this trans-national migrant labour system between Ressano Garcia and Johannesburg had, for five decades, carried with it the faint warning as to how, when racist thought, steam technology and political power were brought into alignment, they carried the potential for crimes against humanity and, in extreme cases, genocide.

The construction of the railway through the Ottoman Empire under the control of the German official, Lieutenant Colonel Bottrich saw a programme of mass deportation & genocide of Armenians in 1915 & 1916 – as the civilian population was deported east by rail into the Syrian Desert and extermination.

But it was the WW2 holocaust that saw the most deliberate, planned and scientific use of the railway as an instrument for extermination and evil distilled down to its very essence.

In cattle trucks and locked boxcars, millions of Jews were transported to slave labour camps and more especially death camps.

No WNLA train ever transported a single Sul do Save migrant to a death camp devoted consciously to the extermination of a people in a programme focused on genocide and there is an element of obscenity in placing the experiences of Mozambican mine workers on a continuum that might, in some way, imply a parallel with the genocide of Armenians & Jews being transported by rail to sites of mass murder.

It is however, difficult to shake off entirely the uncomfortable feeling that there was something in the practices & mind-set of colonialism that might have helped prepare the way mentally for the European barbarisms of the 20thcentury.

The manner in which WNLA trains were officially sanctioned and operated first under the British colonial and imperial administrations followed by Afrikaner Nationalists in pursuit of grand Apartheid over half a century, point to shared patterns of degraded and dehumanizing racist mind-sets.

Concealment, camouflage and deception were integral to the functioning and longevity of the night trains.

The fact that those controlling the migrant labour system were not intent on genocide did not mean that the WNLA trains did not leave lasting scars on the consciousness of rural Mozambican mine workers, their families and the

communities of the Sul do Save.

In rural minds across southern Africa, the ghosts of the dead and living dead are never far from the image of the train.

It was the enduring memory and trauma of rail journeys such as that

commencing at the port city of Lourenco Marques, in Delagoa Bay, snaking up to the resented coalfields at the eastern Transvaal town of Witbank before eventually terminating in the goldfields of Johannesburg that chiseled their way into the souls of black men and women from right across southern Africa and inspired the late great South African musician, Hugh Masekela to write his evocative, “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 Swaziland,
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
For almost no pay.
Deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth
When they are digging and drilling that shiny mighty evasive stone,
Or when they dish that mish-mesh mush food
into their iron plates with the iron shank.
Or when they sit in their stinking, funky, filthy,
Flea-ridden barracks and hostels.
They think about the loved ones they may never see again
Because they might have already been forcibly removed
From where they last left them
Or wantonly murdered in the dead of night
By roving, marauding gangs of no particular origin,
We are told.
They think about their lands, their herds
That were taken away from them
With a gun, bomb, and the teargas, the Gatling and the cannon.
And when they hear that Choo-Choo train
A-chugging, and a pumping, and a smoking, and a pushing, a pumping, a crying and a steaming and a chugging and a whooo whooo!
They always cuss, and they curse the coal train,
The coal train that brought them to Johannesburg. Whooo whooo!

Sihamba ngamalahle

Although there are oblique references that speak powerfully to the racial oppression experienced by black South Africans inside South Africa during the Apartheid era, the lyrics of “Stimela” resonate strongly with the “outsiders” – Africans drawn in from beyond the country’s borders – men hauled in from

the central and southern regions of the continent for work that demanded

a premium in blood, sweat and tears to secure the development of the mining

industry in South Africa.

Of all the “outsiders”, none contributed more to the wealth of South Africa than

the faceless migrants hauled in from Mozambique – men extruded from

the province south of the Save River – the Sul do Save – now as a consequence

one of the poorest regions on earth.

This is their story.

Night Train” is a 60 minute film and television documentary based on the

research & writings of South African historian & author, Charles van Onselen to be produced and directed by myself, Kevin Harris.

In a research interview, historian Charles van Onselen summed up as follows:

“At Booysens, you can see the old original railway station plus the subway – where once the migrant recruits get off they would go in there and through to the Wenella Compound.

The subway is to keep them out of sight – they were always at pains to make sure that people did not see the black workers – that’s why the train runs at night

– because we’re running a quasi-slave system – we don’t want to own up to it & we don’t want it visible.

No one believes there was forced labour in South Africa – but as you can see from the trains – on the way in from Mozambique to Johannesburg they lock the carriages so the passengers can’t escape.

And then going home – when after 12 or 18 months – the lungs of many of the miners are completely destroyed & several are severely psychologically traumatized – they add on these so-called hospital-coaches – with no trained nurse, orderly or doctor on board – and the patients are confined in these sealed carriages – so you have sealed carriages going in both directions – which illustrates the gravity and destructiveness of the SA Industrial Revolution and who paid the price for it.

This train run raises the spectre of really terrible things – Armenian Genocides & then of course the holocaust – and now, this time with the train being used in industrial genocide if you want to over-elaborate it.

There’s this combination of industrial efficiency – making the system work by keeping the trains going – with this sinister underlying racial exploitation, lack of humanity, lack of compassion, breaking of people, discarding them and then – even discarding their memories”.

Night Train” – a 60 minute documentary on the migrant mine workers from the Sul do Sud – their contribution to building the thriving economy of South Africa -and the price they, their families and communities paid.




You may also like