South Africa: Book By a Master Historian Takes a Nocturnal Train Ride Into the Region's Predatory Mining Past


South African historian Charles van Onselen has again enlightened our understanding of the past, this time via a rough and tumble ride down a little-known track of history. 'The Night Trains', focused on the nocturnal passage of poor rural Mozambicans to and from the Witswatersrand's mines, casts an unflattering light on the 'legacy issues' that haunt the mining industry today.

"Public-Private partnerships" is one of those buzz terms frequently thrown around these days, often as if the concept was something fresh and exciting that will take the economy into the brave new world of other hip concepts such as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Yet the linking of the private and the public cannot be decoupled from history, notably the mining industry in southern Africa, as historian Charles van Onselen reminds us in his new book The Night Trains.

The trains in question operated in the first half of the 20th century. They took poor, rural Mozambicans up to the Highveld to labour in the coal collieries of what is now Mpumalanga and Eldorado that was the Witwatersrand's goldfields. They then took them back down to the subtropical Lowveld and across the border to what was then Portuguese East Africa. The...

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