The Awards Committee found the book to be an outstanding example of humanist scholarship: engaged, humane and displaying all the qualities of sharpness, insight and balance that embodies the work of critical and engaged academic thinking at its best.
Johannesburg, South Africa (05 April 2021) – Prof Charles van Onselen was awarded the 2021 ASSAf Humanities Book Award for his book titled The Night Trains: Moving Mozambican Miners to and from South Africa, circa 1902-1955.
For more than 50 years, privately operated trains travelled by night between Ressano Garcia, on the Mozambique border, and Booysens station, Johannesburg. Their ‘cargo’: human beings, Mozambican migrant workers in their thousands. The Night Trains examines the largely neglected social and political economy of these workers, bringing into focus the human suffering involved in the economic partnership between the mining houses and the railways. This was a partnership in which the brutal logic of industrial capitalism is fully exposed, working to maximise profit at the expense of the health, well-being and the very lives of its immigrant workers.
The Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) awards this prize bi-annually to a scholarly publication that made a noteworthy contribution to developing a new understanding and insight of a topic in the Humanities, Social Sciences or the Performing Arts. This year ASSAf received 35 nominations with the publication dates limited to 2017, 2018 and 2019.
ASSAf was inaugurated in May 1996. It was formed in response to the need for an Academy of Science consonant with the dawn of democracy in South Africa: activist in its mission of using science and scholarship for the benefit of society, with a mandate encompassing all scholarly disciplines that use an open-minded and evidence-based approach to build knowledge. ASSAf thus adopted in its name the term ‘science’ in the singular as reflecting a common way of enquiring rather than an aggregation of different disciplines. Its members are elected on the basis of a combination of two principal criteria, academic excellence and significant contributions to society.
The Parliament of South Africa passed the Academy of Science of South Africa Act (Act 67 of 2001), which came into force on 15 May 2002. This made ASSAf the only academy of science in South Africa officially recognised by the government and representing the country in the international community of science academies and elsewhere.
Van Onselen is a Research Professor in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Pretoria (UP). He holds a B.Sc. and University Education Diploma (UED) from Rhodes University, a B.A. Hons. (Wits), a D.Phil. from Oxford University and a D.Lit. (Honoris Causa) from Rhodes University.
The Awards Committee found the book to be an outstanding example of humanist scholarship: engaged, humane and displaying all the qualities of sharpness, insight and balance that embodies the work of critical and engaged academic thinking at its best. The Night Trains is a harrowing and powerful text. It is written with passion, and with a deep understanding of the country, and the Southern African region’s difficult, contentious, and complex past.