The Night Trains

Moving Mozambican Miners to and from the Witwatersrand Mines, 1902–1955

Charles van Onselen

This seminal and beautifully written book tells the story of commodification of black labour in South Africa.

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The Night Trains Paperback
August 2020£25
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This seminal book reveals how black labour was exploited in twentieth-century South Africa, the human costs of which are still largely hidden from history. It was the people of southern Mozambique, bent double beneath the historical loads of forced labour and slavery, then sold off en masse as contracted labourers, who paid the highest price for South African gold. An iniquitous intercolonial agreement for the exploitation of ultra-cheap black labour was only made possible through nightly use of the steam locomotive on the transnational railway linking Johannesburg and Lourenço Marques. These night trains left deep scars in the urban and rural cultures of black communities, whether in the form of popular songs or a belief in nocturnal witches’ trains that captured and conveyed zombie workers to the region’s most unpopular places of employment.

By tracing the journeys undertaken by black migrants, Charles van Onselen powerfully reconstructs how racial thinking, expressed logistically, reflected the evolving systems of segregation and apartheid. On the night trains, the last stop was always hell.


Charles van Onselen is an acclaimed historian of Southern Africa and Research Professor at the University of Pretoria. He has been honoured with visiting fellowships at the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford and Yale University.


‘The great master of social history, van Onselen, provides us an unsurpassable lesson in the commodification and disposal of human life.’ — Professor James C. Scott, Yale University