Legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela’s train came to a stop for good on Tuesday, but his song Stimela (The Coal Train) will forever be remembered by the working class for shining a spotlight on the injustice and brutality of migrant labour across the African continent.
Masekela died on Tuesday following a long battle with prostate cancer.
The lyrics to Stimela, released as part of Masekela’s “I am not afraid” album in 1974 , spoke to unionists and exploited black workers: “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,” were the lyrics of the song released as part of Masekela’s.”
The South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) recalled his performance before union members at a Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) event almost 15 years ago.
“No-one who attended his concert at the Cosatu 8th National Congress in 2003 will ever forget his electrifying performance of his biggest hits, like the Stimela (the Coal Train), which dramatically brought back to life the experiences of South Africa’s migrant workers,” Saftu said in a statement.
“He wrote about this song that ‘For me songs come like a tidal wave … At this low point, for some reason, the tidal wave that whooshed in on me came all the way from the other side of the Atlantic: from Africa; from home’. And, typical of the struggle hero that he was, he did not ask for a cent for this performance.”
The union federation said Masekela’s legend transcended being one of the world’s greatest jazz musicians, and that he was “an inspiring leader of the struggle for national liberation”.
National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) described Masekela as a champion of the cultural revolution, a soldier of the revolution and a cultural leader of the movement against apartheid rule.
“Bra Hugh knew that it was workers from the length and breadth of the African Continent who produced the wealth in our country, whose wealth was used to build proper infrastructure for white communities whilst Africans remained packed like sardines in inferior infrastructure of the townships,” a statement from Numsa said.
“He knew that trains in Africa came with industrialization and the breaking up of African families as they took workers into economic centers to be exploited.”
Both Saftu and Numsa extended condolences to Bra Hugh’s family, friends and music lovers across the world, adding that the music legend was an example of how music could be used to spread consciousness.
“Bra Hugh was produced by the dusty town of Sophiatown. He used his trumpet both as a musical tool to entertain and as a weapon to fight injustice. Through his skillful beautiful and creative music, he used his trumpet as a tool to advance the struggle against the apartheid police and regime.”