TRC on the role of Mozambicans in SA's economy couldn't come at better time

Fred Khumalo Watching You
A new book 'The Night Train' speaks of the misfortune of Mozambicans who were conscripted to work in Joburg mines. /Sunday Times
A new book 'The Night Train' speaks of the misfortune of Mozambicans who were conscripted to work in Joburg mines. /Sunday Times

Come, let's look at this man: he's a subsistence farmer in rural Mozambique in the early 1940s. At age 28, he is at the prime of his life.

With two wives and eight children, he has to work hard to keep them happy. And this is the challenge he is looking forward to.

One day our hero is labouring in his millet plantations when three uniformed men come galloping on horses onto his land. Uniforms are associated with the government. The Portuguese government has never been friends with the indigenous people.

Indeed, the uniformed men introduce themselves as government officials.

One of them says, "Roberto, we have a new job for you."

Our hero responds: "First of all, sir, I am not Roberto. Secondly, I don't need a job. I'm happy running this little farm of mine."

"You don't understand," says one of the men. "From today onwards, your name shall be Roberto. Tomorrow you're to pack your bags and meet other villagers at the Indian shop down the road. From there you'll be taken to the train station. You have been selected as one of the men who are going to work on the mines of Joburg. If you run away, we will deal with your family."

Our hero is aware of men from neighbouring villagers being taken, at gunpoint, on the long journey to the mines of Joburg. Those who resisted were killed.

This, in summary, is the journey of the average Mozambican man who had the misfortune of being conscripted to go and work on the mines of Joburg, according to a new book The Night Trains, by Charles van Onselen, the social historian.

I found it shocking that, not only did the men from Mozambique come to the mines against their will, the Portuguese regime also took a percentage from the salary of each man.

It was only in the 1960s that the regime relaxed the rules, and only those men who voluntarily wanted to come to SA did so.

I was also gobsmacked when I read that Mozambicans accounted for more than 50% of the mining workforce. Because locals refused to go underground, it was left to Mozambicans to go there. The locals worked above ground. Underground there was death by rockfalls. There was mental sickness. There was TB and silicosis.

"Of all the peoples of southern Africa at that time, it was the men, women and children of the Sul do Save (a region in Mozambique) who were perhaps most ruthlessly preyed upon by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - Conquest, War, Famine and Death," writes Van Onselen.

If being forced to the mines and having their salaries stolen by the Portuguese regime was an injustice, it was the men's return to their homeland that was a tragedy.

Some of them never went back home - they absconded from the mines and ingratiated themselves with local society, becoming South Africans.

Those who went back were shells of their former selves, having succumbed to mental illness, alcoholism, TB silicosis, syphilis, broken limbs.

It's remarkable that this truth comes at a time when locals and "foreign nationals" are at loggerheads, the main issue being the fight over limited resources.

When, at the end of the book, Van Onselen calls for a truth and reconciliation commission into the role played by the Mozambicans in shaping the economy of this country I can only echo his clarion call.

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