The best anthem for Workers’ Day? ‘Stimela’ – a tale about apartheid’s migrant labour system

Hugh Masekela performing in 2015. Esa Alexander/The Times

The best anthem for Workers’ Day? ‘Stimela’ – a tale about apartheid’s migrant labour system

What is the ultimate song to celebrate Workers’ Day? Many will suggest “The Internationale” which had its roots as a poem written in the aftermath of the Paris Commune in 1871 by Eugène Pottier, a transport worker. Set to music a few years later, it became the anthem for the wider progressive movement. It served as the Soviet Union’s anthem after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, making it more closely associated with the communist movement.

But I would argue that trumpeter Hugh Masekela’s iconic and internationally popular song “Stimela” – the coal train – is perhaps a more appropriate anthem for Workers’ Day in southern and Central Africa. The song speaks about local history and the migrant labour system on the mines.

“Stimela” reminds everyone that South Africa’s wealth and infrastructure was built on the back of labour from all over Africa. They were the force that modernised the country. But the song is also internationalist in focus.

Hugh Masekela’s iconic ‘Stimela’.

Later recordings of the song typically begin with bass rhythms and percussion mimicking the sound of a train on its tracks. Then the instruments retreat to the background and Masekela announces:

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.

Early morning commute

Until recently I was responsible for teaching an introductory course in sociology to first year university students. The auditorium in which I delivered the lectures had a beautiful sound system.

I’d plug in my computer and play music before lectures started. The music served two purposes. I liked to imagine that it allowed students to find some calm after their early morning commute from the city’s periphery on dilapidated trains.

It was also a way to introduce debates about key topics covered in the first year course.

I always started the first lecture of the year with Masekela’s “Stimela” because it was the perfect opening to a conversation about the forces that modernised South Africa.

South Africa’s was not a slow, organic growth of industrialisation that characterised the European transition from feudalism to industrial capitalism, the great transformation that gave rise to my discipline of sociology, with Karl Marx as one of its key contributors.

The emergence of modern South Africa was brutal in a different way. It came about as a result of the discovery of diamonds and gold, and the need for cheap labour to extract metals from the seams that ran through the Witwatersrand’s rock formations.

This was a story of labour shortages and the intervention of colonial administrations and armies across southern and Central Africa. They dispossessed pastoralists of their land and imposed hut and poll taxes on traditional leaders so that Johannesburg could be supplied with the much needed “Black Gold”, as journalist-activist Ruth First described the system.

The song describes what’s on the minds of mining recruits on a steam train as it makes its way to Johannesburg:

They think about their lands, their herds that were taken away from them.

For Masekela, writing “Stimela” must have been, in part, a reflection on his own life. Born in the coal mining area called Witbank, he was raised by his grandmother who made her livelihood from a shebeen (an illegal bar) for mineworkers.

The legacy lives on

Up until the 1970s, when Masekela composed “Stimela” while he was in exile, South African mineworkers typically spent only a few years on the the mines, saving up money or buying cattle to return to their lands.


Read more: Remembering Hugh Masekela: the horn player with a shrewd ear for music of the day


But the 1970s was time of great change in South Africa’s mining industry.

In 1974 72 Malawian mineworkers were killed in an aeroplane crash. A year later, Mozambique became independent. Both Mozambique and Malawi were major suppliers of migrant workers to South African mines and these events put the steady flow of labour at risk.

In the case of Mozambique, the apartheid state was able to strike a deal with the new Mozambican government for the continued supply of labour. But Malawi withdrew permission for the recruitment of workers from their country.

The result was a shift to recruiting more South African workers and the emergence of career mine workers with much longer contracts. This change in the mining labour market eventually led to the founding of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in 1982.

The successful organisation of workers who were at the heart of South Africa’s economy was one of the most important pillars of resistance against apartheid.

Sadly, the mining industry’s contested legacy and its migrant labour system remain challenges in the post-apartheid period. This is evident in a number of ways. The massacre of mineworkers at Marikana in 2012 was a stark reminder of the acute vulnerability and exploitation of workers.

On top of this is the inability of the mining companies and the state to provide many mine workers – now often employed through subcontractors – with decent housing and services. And finally, the issue of land dispossession still haunts the country, and remains unresolved.

Steam trains no longer crisscross southern Africa. Yet “Stimela” remains as much a song about present and future aspirations, as it does of the past.

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