Photo by EPA

By Themba Khumalo

There is no ultimate song that captures the anguish, pain, frustration and the abuse of black miners better than Hugh Masekela’s iconic Stimela. The song serves as the ultimate reminder to every African that South Africa’s wealth and infrastructure was built with the bare and bleeding hands of black labour from all over southern Africa. They were the abused workforce that gave their all, against their will sometimes, to modernise the country for a few greedy white mining magnates. First released in 1974, for the album, I Am Not Afraid, Stimela became the battle cry against the unjust and evil migrant labour system on the mines.

The late Bra Hugh expresses a deep longing for home and masterfully hits the target in evoking pain and empathy for the subjects of Stimela – the young and old black men, the cheap labourers, the people on whose tortured backs white South African wealth was built. The live version of the song from the 1994 album, Hope, naturally launches with haunting bass rhythms and percussions that produce a lifelike imitation of the sound of the coal train on its tracks, ferrying the subjugated to the mines. There is a stunningly beautiful use of cowbells, agitated drums, welling up into an almost forbearing keyboard, and vocals in the song, and Bra Hugh’s trumpet that conjures up visions of the train as passes through the country side in rush to empty its baggage in Johannesburg. The instruments make a slow, but desired withdrawal to the background to make space for Bra Hugh’s lamentations:
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-mash-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, and their herds/ That were taken away from them/ With the gun, and the 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…

There is nothing bluesy about Stimela. It is way more expressive than a blues song. It carries with it something profound, fuming, excruciating, more ancient, of a soul open to the elements, a frayed heart.
It tells the story of wounds that can never fully heal. It shall forever stand as a monument to the millions of black men on whose lives rich white capitalists built their empires. The rise of industrialised South Africa was a fiercely brutal one. It was birthed by the discovery of precious minerals, diamond and gold, which, according to Randlords, required cheap labour to do the back-breaking work of extracting the metals from the layers that stretched throughout the Witwatersrand’s rock formations. Even though apartheid was enacted into law in 1948, the seeds for its formation were planted many years earlier.

The mining industry, specifically, was responsible for driving the enactment of laws and systems in which increasingly subjugated the country’s black people. At the bidding of the mining industry, consecutive white racist administrations effected processes to concurrently force black men to forsake their families and whatever farming land, for tortuous mine-work, and also blocked them and their loved ones from taking up permanent residence in urban areas. In a 2014 CJPME Foundation analysis, following observation is made: “The gold mine owners faced three challenges to maximising their profits: the gold deposits, although vast, were deep in the ground, the ore was low-grade, the price of gold was set internationally, so the gold companies could not simply pass on the costs of extracting and refining vast amounts of ore to consumers. “As mining production rocketed, the owners therefore sought to keep wages down. Given that tax revenue from the mining sector quickly became a significant part of government revenues, the government was receptive to the powerful Chamber of Mines’ urgings that the government ensure a steady supply of cheap labour. “The government did this by taking various steps to create a migrant black labour force with little negotiating power.”

It its analysis, the CJPME Foundations posits that deep-rock mining is a capital-intensive industry: “Only a handful of people, eventually referred to as the Randlords, managed to obtain the capital needed to engage in that activity. “The Randlords were all either born in Europe or the sons of people who had been. Cecil Rhodes, Abraham Bailey, Alfred Beit, Ernest Oppenheimer and Joseph Robinson were some of the better known Randlords. “The mining industry’s growth generated massive profits for the Randlords and gave rise to new labour policies in rural and urban areas.” To push more African men to desert their farms in the countryside and work in the mines, the brutal regime forced every African male to pay ‘poll tax’ and a ‘hut tax’ for each hut in their homesteads. This was the story of the black people across south and central Africa where shrewd and cruel colonial masters dispatched laws and armies to help supply the mines with much need cheap labour. The Mines and Works Act of 1911 and further amendments in 1926 ensured that black people were prohibited from performing skilled labour in the mines by specifying that certificates of competency for skilled trades in the mines could only be issued to whites.

These racial laws were expressly intended to thwart any attempt by black workers who had ambitions of growth from competing with white workers for better-paying jobs. A report produced by the Commission of Inquiry into Safety and Health in the Mining Industry chaired by Judge RN Leon in July 1994 stated: “As early as 1890, when the Chamber was formed, mining compounds were established to control labour and the Chamber established recruiting agencies.” At that time, one of the Chamber’s primary functions was stated to be “to reduce native wages to a reasonable level because they wanted to prevent competition”, and find ways and means of recruiting labour. “This led to the establishment of a whole process of migrant labour from all over the sub-continents. By 1889, 100,000 black mineworkers were needed on the mines and, at the time, 60% of the labour came from outside South Africa, mainly from Mozambique.” The horror of the trains that brought millions of Mozambican labourers is well captured in The Night Trains, a book written by Charles van Onselen: “The price exacted from across the African subcontinent for South Africa’s stalled 20th-century industrial revolution is, in human terms, still largely hidden from history. For half a century, up to the mid-1950s, privately operated trains travelled by night between Ressano Garcia, on the Mozambique border, and Booysens station, in Johannesburg. The night trains carried Mozambicans recruited to work in the mines of the booming Witwatersrand.
“The up-trains disgorged their human cargo into the maw of the great Rand mining machine, while the down-trains whisked away the time-expired miners – often ill, broken or insane, and preyed on by con men, petty criminals and corrupt officials. While mine labour was recruited from all over southern Africa, Mozambican migrants made up the largest component, and they paid the highest price.”
Regrettably, the mining industry’s murky legacy and its migrant labour system remain untouched in the post-apartheid South Africa. Evidence to this effect is abundant. If you want to get a clearer picture of what post-apartheid has failed to achieve take a cursory glance at the huge sums paid to some chief executives of mining companies. Not so long ago it was reported that Neal Froneman, chief executive of the Sibanye-Stillwater mining company, was paid about R300 million in 2021. This is cringeworthy when you take into account that workers employed by the company went on strike for a mere R1,000 more a month. This disingenuity is a climax of the levels of inequality within mining companies. Reports say the average pay at Sibanye-Stillwater is R14,500 a month. A simple calculation means Froneman earns about 115 times more than the ordinary individuals who work for him. If you were factor and share earnings, he makes almost 2000 times more than the workers. Our memories are also still haunted by massacre of mineworkers at Marikana in 2012.

The Marikana Massacre serves as a glaring aide-memoire of the severe susceptibility and mistreatment of black workers. It is also heart-wrenching that mining companies and the state have failed to provide mine workers with decent housing and proper services.

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