Bart Luirink

Derailed memories

The historiography of the Nederlandsch Zuid-Afrikaansche Spoorweg Maatschappij pays scant attention to black workers' resistance to exploitation and oppression.

In Absent Presences. Decolonizing our Views of the South Africa House and its collections eleven, contributors explore the origins of the archive built around white tribal affiliation. Absent Presences, launched in March 2024, is published on the occasion of the House’s centenary. Contributions by Nathan Tantraal, Ronelda S. Kamfer, Pieter du Plessis, Christi van der Westhuizen, Vincent Kuitenbrouwer, Manon Braat, Marian Counihan, Nkule Mabaso, Tycho Maas. Contributions by our editors Farren van Wyk and Bart Luirink are published by ZAM too.

Barbara Henkes, André Paijmans and Margriet van der Waal (eds.) Absent Presences: Decolonizing Our Views of the Zuid-Afrikahuis and its Collections. Amsterdam: Zuid-Afrikahuis, 2024. Volume 3 in the SZAHN Series.

A pdf of all texts can be found here

Derailed memories

Both in the many hymns of praise and in the sparse critical reflections on the history of the Nederlandsch Zuid-Afrikaansche Spoorwegmaatschappij (Netherlands South African Railway Company, NZASM), there is scant attention paid to the rebellion and agency of African workers. The history of the Zuid-Afrikahuis (South Africa House, ZAH) in Amsterdam is strongly intertwined with that of the NZASM. Its archives and library contain a seemingly endless array of items that bring this history to life. Many hundreds of annual reports, books, diaries, correspondences, newspaper and magazine articles, theses, photo reports and memorabilia tell the story of a miraculous achievement.

The company, founded in 1887 by Dutch, French and other settlers such as Cecil John Rhodes, with the support of the Rothschild family, made a name for itself, in part due to the construction of a rail link between Pretoria and Mozambique's Lourenço Marques (today's Maputo) near Delagoa Bay.1 The railway, called the Oosterlyn (Eastern Line), gave the Boer Republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State access to a port and secured supplies of machinery, military goods, coal, food and mail, and exports of gold, among other things. This nearly 600-kilometre lifeline, meandered through the South African landscape from 1895, a long way from the then British-ruled Natal. This new railway enabled the Boers to bypass the port city of Durban and avoid the risk of imports and exports falling into British hands.

Caption: One of two NZASM canisters containing numbered stubs related to the dividend payment of NZASM bonds. The description on the canister reads: Nederlandsche Zuid Afrikaansche Spoorweg Maatschappij, 4% Leening ad f 15.000.00. Anno 1890 (NZASM, 4% loan at 15.000.00 guilders, steel canister with painted letters, containing paper stubs). Photograph by Sean Fitzpatrick, 2023, ZAH, Amsterdam.

A few years before the opening of the railway, gold was discovered in the area near Johannesburg. The new South African mining industry unleashed a demand for Mozambican labour. The southern provinces of Mozambique tapped into a seemingly infinite pool of contract workers, who got paid less and, in the belief of the ‘Rand Lords’ (a name derived from the region's name, the Witwatersrand), were more docile than South African workers due to the temporary character of their contracts. Unlike imperialist England and France, the Portuguese regime did not have sufficient capital to invest in facilities for the white, colonial elite. Trading contract workers offered a revenue model, and NZASM trains were used to supply miners. 

In 1900, during the South African War (formerly known as the Anglo-Boer War), the NZASM was placed under British military control. After the war, the company merged with its sister company in the Orange Free State, and the Centrale Zuid-Afrikaanse Spoorwegmaatschappij (Central South African Railway Company, CZSM) was formed. Another merger followed in 1912, two years after the foundation of the Union of South Africa which united the former British colonies of the Cape and Natal, and the Boer Republics. Together with the railway companies of the Cape and Natal, the CZSM formed Spoornet, later to be known as Transnet. While ownership changed time and again, one thing remained the same: the supply of labour power. A calculation from 1960 totalled 5 million journeys by migrant workers up to that point.2

Rehabilitation payments eased the pain of the expropriation of the NZASM by the British. It was a remarkable form of compensation from one limb of the white tribe to another. In the end, the British put a total amount of more than 2.6 million guilders3 on the table of which a little more than 1.4 million guilders was used as start-up capital of the Vereeniging Zuid-Afrikaansche Stichting Moederland (South African Motherland Foundation, ZASM) until its dissolution in 2016.4 Today, these assets and the returns accumulated with it, form the foundation of the ZAH, which grew out of the ZASM. Thus, the flow of money moves through one lifeline to another.

Under Kruger’s Hollanders

It is an understatement to say that the NZASM was ‘proud’ of the memories it stored in the ZAH collection. Perhaps the crowning glory of this collection is the two-volume historiography of the NZASM, Onder Krugers Hollanders (Amongst Kruger’s Hollanders), published from 1937 onwards, by historian Prof. Dr Pieter-Jan van Winter (1895– 1990), who for many years served as president of the Nederlands-Zuid-Afrikaanse Vereniging (NZAV) and as editor-in-chief of its magazine, Maandblad Zuid-Afrika. The study contains a meticulous reconstruction of the company’s origins and development. It portrays the NZASM as an example of Dutch decisiveness, entrepreneurial spirit and perseverance, qualities which were, until recently, celebrated as part of a true ‘VOC mentality’ (in the wording of a Dutch Prime Minister in 2006), referring to Dutch colonial expansions. Moreover, the construction of the railway portrayed as an expression of solidarity with the beleaguered white broedervolk (brother nation) in South Africa — although this bond between the Dutch and Afrikaners is, as one reads Van Winter, regularly under pressure.

Caption: Building the railway at 200 km mark, ca 1892. (ZAH, Beeldbank, AVA 1 Passe Partout Map 74-28, ‘Aanleg van die spoor by KM 200, ca. 1892’.)

But these are family disputes, and they bear no relation to the terrifying Umfeld in which white South Africa feels it operates. Already on the first page of the introduction to this history, a rather frightening image of ‘ongetelde massa’s naturellen’ (‘uncounted masses of natives’), ‘negrophiele elementen’ (‘negrophilic elements’) and ‘Kaffers’ looms — but that is all.5 In the rest of the study, not one Black South African is mentioned. Only in the epilogue of his book does Van Winter refer to the new mining industry's need for Black labour (whose supply from Mozambique was made possible by the railways).

Anyone who wants to know anything about the Black railway workers who did almost all the heavy work, the relationships with the Black populations living in the construction area, or the transport of Mozambican migrant workers does not need to consult Van Winter. The miracle performed is attributed entirely to the hard-working Dutchmen.

The Night Trains

A study by the authoritative South African historian Charles van Onselen on migrant traffic between the poverty-stricken Mozambican Sul do Save region and the gold fields around Johannesburg between 1902 and 1955 was not yet available in the ZAH library at the time of writing this story. The Night Trains, published in 2019, was ordered some time ago but has not yet been delivered. Postal traffic today takes considerably longer than in the time described by Van Onselen.

His historiography, which fortunately is also available as an eBook, offers a haunting testimony of a colonial practice that, the historian writes, left ‘everlasting scars on the consciousness of poorly educated rural Africans’. The significance of this history marked by deep inhumanity probably extends far beyond southern Africa. With approval, Van Onselen quotes German-American Jewish philosopher and political thinker Hannah Arendt: ‘There was something in the practice of colonialism that might have helped prepare the way mentally for the European barbarism of the twentieth century.’

Caption: The Night Trains by Charles van Onselen. (Image of cover reproduced with permission of Jonathan Ball Publishers.)

The freight carriages were not adapted when they were used for passengers from 1895 onwards. They lacked sanitary facilities and seating; the workers travelled standing for almost 24 hours. Hospital coaches rode along without doctors or nurses, causing many passengers to succumb to the lung disease silicosis tuberculosis en route. ‘Coffins on wheels,’ the Red Cross at the time aptly reported. The workers, including minors, were given numbered dog tags before departure and were locked in cordoned-off carriages. Supervisors restrained the workforce with lashes. The Mozambicans were regarded as goods, as ‘human freight’, and so were Black South African passengers. Both were also referred to as ‘natives in batches’, ‘items of property’, or ‘boys’ — they formed the ‘contents’ of a ‘kaffir train’.

The night train was, in Van Onselen's words, a ‘metal snake’, moving across the landscape with an open mouth and an appetite for Black labour.

Resistance as a footnote

Only in the conclusion of his work does Van Onselen refer briefly to forms of protest or resistance to the aforementioned practices. He mentions that in 1911, the South African Native Convention, a precursor to the ANC found- ed a year later, passed a motion calling for better treat- ment of Black workers in the mining sector. Van Onselen also describes ‘a degree of political consciousness […] evident in waves of strikes involving hundreds of “East Coast Boys”’ and ‘disputes around issues of contact, proper payment, food rations’. He concludes by referring to ‘activists’ who were ‘blacklisted’, and to ‘passive resistance [...] faking of illness, go-slows, destruction of mine property and theft of equipment’. Van Onselen cites another warning about ‘natives’ becoming ‘restless’ in a report by the mine bosses.6

All in all, this is a meagre reference to forms of self-determination that are not explored or described anywhere in the study prior to the conclusion.7 It appears as a footnote rather than a truth-based, representative depiction of events. This wrongly risks creating the impression that the masses of migrant workers allowed themselves to be led like meek lambs to the slaughter. 

It is a typical omission. Many current texts by white authors overpower each other in their abhorrence of colonial practices. The superlatives used to describe what was done to Black people drip off the pages. But in the end, an image of mere victimhood prevails. This is also the case with Van Onselen, who seems to want to reinforce his denunciation by repeatedly describing the suffering of workers. This study lacks what should be an important emphasis in the description of colonial exploitation: the story of what Black people themselves undertake to get a grip on their fate. A clear plea not to overlook this drive for self-determination can be seen in Nelson Mandela's choice to make a stanza from a poem by William Henley his motto: ‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.’ Similar omissions have characterized many white studies of the history of slavery and the abolitionist movement. It is only very recently that careful attention is being paid to Black rebellion, imaginative rebel leaders and passive resistance. Events that are already common history among survivors of enslaved people are finally being recognized. 

When victimization is the central narrative, the imaginary of Black people as an amorphous, anonymous mass is never far away. It is remarkable that Van Onselen also falls into this trap. After all, the historian made a name for himself with his impressive study The Seed Is Mine (1996), a biography of South African sharecropper Kas Maine, who lost his land as a result of racist land laws introduced in 1913. In this study, Van Onselen reconstructs Maine's life in the deepest detail.8


That written sources of earlier Black histories sometimes hardly exist is evident, but in his study of the night trains, Van Onselen takes the easy way out. There are quite a few records of the forms of rebellion briefly discussed in his conclusion, even in the ZAH collection, although they are rather hidden in various documents and sometimes described in naive terms. For instance, the 1895 Annual Report of the NZASM mentions (under the subheading ‘Ongevallen’ [‘accidents’]) some arson attacks on kafferrijtuigen (‘kaffir coaches’) near Krugersdorp, whose ‘cause remained unknown’ (‘de oorzaak bleef onbekend’).9 Something similar occurred at Waterval-Boven, where a hospital was also attacked. In this incident, according to the NZASM, it was clear that there was ‘kwaadaardigheden’ (‘malice’). Also, ‘van tijd tot tijd werden weder steenen op de rails gevonden, deels daarop gelegd door kwaadwilligen, deels tengevolge van steen-stortingen’ (‘from time to time stones were again found on the rails, partly laid thereon by malicious persons, partly as a result of stone dumping’).10 The Annual Report for 1896 describes a comparable practice: placing stones on the railway line was still ‘een geliefkoosd vermaak van sommige kaffers’ ( ‘a favourite amusement of some kaffirs’).11 Even before the railway became operational, the NZASM anticipated possible rebellion because several ‘kafferonlusten’ (‘kaffir riots’) were already occurring in the Portuguese-controlled area of Mozambique, according to their Annual Report of 1894.12 Equally remarkable are the statistics of labour arrivals and departures in the various annual reports. Time and again, significantly more workers were transported to the mining areas for the six-month contract period than travelled back when their contracts were up. Mortality in and around the mines was partly to blame for this, but just as likely were forms of desertion.

Interviews recorded by South African journalist and scholar Ruth First offer numerous references to disgust and protest. First, who was killed by South African death squads in Maputo with a letter bomb in 1982, researched migrant labour. Her posthumously published book, Black Gold: The Mozambican Miner, Proletarian and Peasant (1983),13 offers an impressive account of the experiences of hundreds of former miners whom she and her students encountered in the compounds of the recruiting society in the late 1970s and early 1980s. First refers to the fact that around 1895, the region from which most migrant workers came was a hotbed of resistance to colonial rule. The rebellion, led by resistance leader Gugunyana, was fuelled in part by the growing demand for what First describes as ‘forced labour’. Her interviews with workers recruited in later years make frequent references to the uprisings. Equally striking are the many songs the miners sang during labour. These are lyrics that were often handed down from generation to generation. Texts like ‘(t)here is great suffering under the colonialist’ and ‘I am burdened with colonial passes’ translated from Tsonga into English by First are not uncommon. Some texts are laced with indignation but sometimes resign themselves to an inevitable fate. ‘Stay where you are even if you have to suffer’ is an apparent reference to an even more disastrous reality in the homeland. In another song, addressed to the women left behind: ‘Your husband has not deserted you (...) he is the victim of the white men's way’. These were unintelligible lyrics to the white overseers. 

The history of colonial migrant labour has been articulated and depicted in a wide range of cultural expressions. In 1974, South African jazz musician Hugh Masekela recorded Stimela (Steam Train). It is a ten-minute ode to migrant workers brought in from all over southern Africa, intoxicated by the rhythm of the ever-thriving train. Anyone opening the photobook Portrait of a People (1981) featuring work by ANC sympathiser Eli Weinberg, will find several images of mining and railway workers.14 Such images also stand out in South African photographer Ernest Cole's oeuvre. His image of undressed miners, subject to the scrutiny of supervisors, can be seen life-sized in the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. In this space, too, one might wonder why so little attention is paid to aspects of migrant labour that represent a vanquished victimhood. After all, the mining industry is also the birthplace of a powerful trade union movement, a massive expression of the desire for self-determination that made an extremely important contribution to the struggle against apartheid. For many migrant workers, both from South Africa and neighbouring countries, the great migration to Johannesburg meant new vistas of a rapidly developing world that offered opportunities to escape poverty and resist systemic racism. 

Obviously, a future collection of the ZAH should do justice to the testimonies of a deeply inhuman system of dislocation and oppression. Here lies an important task for researchers. It is quite possible that the archive of the ZAH still contains many seemingly hidden traces of systemic oppression of the Black workforce. This is equally true of other collections, such as those of the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, and certainly in South Africa and Mozambique. But at least as interesting are sources and memorabilia that draw attention to forms of resistance under which that system eventually succumbed.

1. ZAH, Archief NZASM, inv. nr 74. ‘Stukken betreffende uitgifte aandelen. Incl. enkele exemplaren van aandelen en obligaties 1899, archief van de Nederlandsch Zuid-Afrikaansche Spoorwegmaatschappij, 1884–1909’

2. Charles van Onselen, The Night Trains: Moving Mozambican Miners to and From South Africa, 1902–1955 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, online edition, 2019), 23.

3. Using the IISG calculator, the amount of 2.6 million guilders paid in 1908 would have been worth roughly € 32.8 million in 2021 (inflation correction having been applied). The start-up capital for the ZAMS is equal to about € 17.6 million.

4. B. J.H. de Graaff, De mythe van de stamverwantschap. Nederlanders en de Afrikaners 1902–1930 (Amsterdam: SAI, 1993), 82–91. In memoriam N.Z.A.S.M. (Amsterdam, n.d.), 160–161.

5. P.J. van Winter, Onder Krugers Holladers, deel i (Amsterdam 1937), 1.

6. Van Onselen, The Night Trains, 511.

7. The concept of self-determination is a complex one that has many different meanings, especially in the South African context. Whereas it was often used in an African context after 1945 to refer to the process of decolonization and development of African nationalist politics, it was also used by Afrikaners in South Africa during the twentieth century to stake their claims for an ethnicity-based system of political sovereignty and Afrikaner nationalism.

8. ZAH, Archief NZASM, map 9. Jaarverslag NZASM 1895, 34.

9. Ibidem, 35.

10. ZAH, Archief NZASM, map 10. Jaarverslag NZASM 1896, 42.

11. ZAH, Archief NZASM, map 9. Jaarverslag NZASM 1894, 31.

12. Ruth First, Black Gold: The Mozambican Miner, Proletarian and Peasent (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1983).

13. Ruth First, Black Gold: The Mozambican Miner, Proletarian and Peasant. (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1983).

14. Eli Weinberg, Portrait of a People: A Personal Photographic Record of the South African Liberation Struggle (London: International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa, 1981).