Railing Against Apartheid: Staffrider, Township Trains, and Racialised Mobility in South Africa

  • Sarah Gibson
Part of the Studies in Mobilities, Literature, and Culture book series (SMLC)


South Africa has a complex history of racialized mobility politics. This chapter explores the commuter railways that were key in materialising South Africa’s racially segregated cities under apartheid. The everyday commuting mobilities on the township trains were a key site of regulation and resistance to the racial politics of the nation. Focusing on a range of short stories published in Staffrider, including Mango Tshabangu (‘Thoughts in a Train’), Miriam Tlali (‘Fud-u-u-a’), Michael Siluma (‘Naledi Train’), and Brian Setuke (‘Dumani’), this chapter explores how the symbol of the township train, the railway station, the train compartment, and the mobile figures of the commuter and the staffrider were mobilized in the South African cultural imagination as a form of resistance to the racialized mobility politics of the nation.


  1. Aguiar, Marian. 2011. Tracking Modernity: India’s Railway and the Culture of Mobility. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Ahmed, Sara. 2004. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Aldred, Rachel. 2014. “The Commute.” In The Routledge Handbook of Mobilities, edited by Peter Adey, David Bissell, Kevin Hannam, Peter Merriman, and Mimi Sheller, 450–459. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  4. Alvarez, David. 1996. “Train-Congregants and Train-Friends: Representations of Railway Culture and Everyday Forms of Resistance in Two South African Texts.” Alternation 3 (2): 102–129.Google Scholar
  5. Barnard, Rita. 2007. Apartheid and Beyond: South African Writers and the Politics of Place. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Beaumont, Matthew. 2007. “Railway Mania: The Train Compartment as the Scene of a Crime.” In The Railway and Modernity: Time, Space, and the Machine Ensemble, edited by Matthew Beaumont and Michael J. Freeman, 125–153. Oxford: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
  7. Christopher, A. J. 1994. The Atlas of Changing South Africa. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  8. Collins English Dictionary. 1999. London: HarperCollins.Google Scholar
  9. Comaroff, Jean, and John L. Comaroff. 2012. Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  10. Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act No 108 of 1996.Google Scholar
  11. Cresswell, Tim. 2006. On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  12. Cresswell, Tim. 2010. “Towards a Politics of Mobility.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 28: 17–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Davenport, T. R. H., and Christopher Saunders. 2000. South Africa: A Modern History, 5th ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  14. Davis, Clarence Baldwin, Kenneth E. Wilburn, and Ronald Edward Robinson, eds. 1991. Railway Imperialism. New York: Greenwood Press.Google Scholar
  15. de Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  16. Debord, Guy. 2006. “Situationist Theses on Traffic.” In Situationist International Anthology, edited by Ken Knabb, 56–58. Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets Press.Google Scholar
  17. Despotopoulou, Anna. 2015. Women and the Railway, 1850–1915. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Dubow, Saul. 2014. Apartheid, 1948–1994. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Edensor, Tim. 2011. “Commuter: Mobility, Rhythm and Commuting.” In Geographies of Mobilities: Practices, Spaces, Subjects, edited by Tim Cresswell and Peter Merriman, 189–203. Farnham: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  20. Editorial. 1978. “About Staffrider.” Staffrider 1 (1): 1.Google Scholar
  21. Fanon, Frantz. 2001. The Wretched of the Earth. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. Original edition, 1965. Reprint, Penguin Classics.Google Scholar
  22. Fanon, Frantz. 2008. Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto.Google Scholar
  23. Floyd, T. B. 1960. Town Planning in South Africa. Pietermaritzburg: Shuter & Shooter.Google Scholar
  24. Foster, Jeremy. 2008. Washed with the Sun: Landscape and the Making of White South Africa. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.Google Scholar
  25. Fraser, Benjamin, and Stephen D. Spalding, eds. 2012. Trains, Culture and Mobility: Riding the Rails. Plymouth: Lexington Books.Google Scholar
  26. Freuh, Jamie. 2003. Political Identity and Social Change: The Remaking of the South African Social Order. New York: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  27. Gqola, Pumla Dineo. 2001a. “Contradictory Locations: Blackwomen and the Discourse of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) in South Africa.” Meridians 2 (1): 130–152.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Gqola, Pumla Dineo. 2001b. “In Search of Female s/Staffriders: Authority, Gender and Audience, 1978–1982.” Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa 13 (2): 31–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Guelke, Adrian. 2005. Rethinking the Rise and Fall of Apartheid. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Gunne, Sorcha. 2014. Space, Place, and Gendered Violence in South African Writing. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Gwala, Mafika. 1979. “Staffrider Workshop.” Staffrider 2 (3): 55–58.Google Scholar
  32. Harber, Jesse. 2018. “One Hundred Years of Movement Control: Labour (Im)Mobility and the South African Political Economy.” In Urban Mobilities in the Global South, edited by Tanu Priya Uteng and Karen Lucas, 155–172. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  33. Jackson, F. 1952. “Planning the New Railway Station at Johannesburg.” The South African Institution of Civil Engineers 2: 167–182.Google Scholar
  34. Jones, Megan. 2013. “Moving.” In Categories of Persons: Rethinking Ourselves and Others, edited by Megan Jones and Jacob Dlamini, 38–51. Johannesburg: Picador Africa.Google Scholar
  35. Jones, Megan. 2016. “The Train as Motif in Soweto Poetry.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 53 (1): 21–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Kaplan, Caren. 2003. “Transporting the Subject: Technologies of Mobility and Location in an Era of Globalization.” In Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration, edited by Sara Ahmed, Claudia Castañeda, Anne-Marie Fortier, and Mimi Sheller, 207–223. Oxford: Berg.Google Scholar
  37. Kiernan, J. P. 1977. “Public Transport and Private Risk: Zionism and the Black Commuter in South Africa.” Journal of Anthropological Research 33 (2): 214–226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Kirkwood, Mike. 1980. “Staffrider: An Informal Discussion.” English in Africa 7 (2): 22–31.Google Scholar
  39. Klintworth, P. J. W. 1975. “The Johannesburg Railway Station.” Die Siviele Ingenieur in Suid-Afrika 17 (12): 324–325.Google Scholar
  40. Kruger, Loren. 2013. Imagining the Edgy City: Writing, Performing and Building Johannesburg. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Lefebvre, Henri. 1971. Everyday Life in the Modern World, translated by Sacha Rabinovitch. London: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  42. Lefebvre, Henri. 2003. “Preface to the New Edition: The Production of Space.” In Henri Lefebvre: Key Writings, edited by Stuart Elder, Elizabeth Lebas, and Eleanore Kofman, 206–213. London: Continuum.Google Scholar
  43. MADEYOULOOK, and Santu Mofokeng. 2011. “Tracks.” In African Cities Reader II: Mobilities and Fixtures, edited by Ntone Edjabe and Edgar Pieterse, 64–69. Vlaeberg: Chimurenga and the African Centre for Cities.Google Scholar
  44. Manase, Irikidzayi. 2005. “Making Memory: Stories from Staffrider Magazine and ‘Testing’ the Popular Imagination.” African Studies 64 (1): 55–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Massey, Doreen. 1994. Space, Place and Gender. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  46. Mathieson, Charlotte. 2015. Mobility in the Victorian Novel: Placing the Nation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  47. Mbembe, Achille. 2003. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 15 (1): 11–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Mbembe, Achille, Nsizwa Dlamini, and Grace Khunou. 2008. “Soweto Now.” In Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis, edited by Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe, 239–247. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.Google Scholar
  49. Mbembe, Achille, and Sarah Nuttall. 2008. “Introduction: Afropolis.” In Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis, edited by Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.Google Scholar
  50. McCaul, Colleen. 1991. “The Commuting Conundrum.” In Apartheid City in Transition, edited by Mark Swilling, Richard Humphries, and Khehla Shubane, 218–230. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  51. McClintock, Anne. 1987. “‘Azikwelwa’ (We Will Not Ride): Politics and Value in South African Poetry.” Critical Inquiry 13: 597–623.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. McCracken, Donal P., and Ruth Teer-Tomaselli. 2013. “Communication in Colonial and Post-Colonial Southern Africa.” In The Handbook of Communication History, edited by Peter Simonson, Janice Peck, Robert T. Craig, and John Jackson, 424–439. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  53. Mom, Gijs, Colin Divall, and Peter Lyth. 2009. “Towards a Paradigm Shift? A Decade of Transport and Mobility History.” In Mobility in History, edited by Gijs Mom, Gordon Pirie, and Laurent Tissot, 13–40. Switzerland: Presses universitaires suisses.Google Scholar
  54. Morley, David. 2000. Home Territories: Media, Mobility and Identity. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  55. Moss, Glenn. 1997. “Ringing the Changes: Twenty-Five years of Ravan Press.” In Ravan: Twenty-Five Years (1972–1977), edited by G. E. de Villiers, 13–23. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.Google Scholar
  56. Mutloatse, Mothobi. 1980. “Introduction.” In Forced Landing, edited by Mothobi Mutloatse, 1–7. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.Google Scholar
  57. Mzamane, Mbulelo Vizikhungo. 1977. “The Short Story Tradition in Black South Africa.” Marang: Journal of Language and Literature 1 (1): n.p.Google Scholar
  58. Mzamane, Mbulelo Vizikhungo. 1991. “The Impact of Black Consciousness on Culture.” In Bounds of Possibility: Steve Biko and the Legacy of Black Consciousness, edited by N. Barney Pityana, Mamphela Ramphele, Malusi Mpumlwana, and Lindy Wilson, 179–193. Cape Town: David Philip.Google Scholar
  59. Mzamane, Mbulelo Vizikhungo, and David R. Howarth. 2000. “Representing Blackness: Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement.” In South Africa’s Resistance Press, edited by Les Switzer and Mohamed Adhikari, 176–220. Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies.Google Scholar
  60. Ndebele, Njabulo S. 1986. “The Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Some New Writings in South Africa.” Journal of Southern African Studies 12 (2): 143–157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Nicholson, Judith A., and Mimi Sheller. 2016. “Race and the Politics of Mobility: Introduction.” Transfers 6 (1): 4–11.Google Scholar
  62. Nuttall, Sarah. 2004. “City Forms and Writing the ‘Now’ in South Africa.” Journal of Southern African Studies 30 (4): 731–748.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Nyamnjoh, Francis B. 2013. “Fiction and Reality of Mobility in Africa.” Citizenship Studies 17 (6–7): 653–680.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Oliphant, Andries Walter. 1990. “Staffrider Magazine and Popular History: The Opportunities and Challenges of Personal Testimony.” Radical History Review 1990 (46–47): 357–367.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Oliphant, Andries Walter. 1992. “Forums and Forces: Recent Trends in South African Literary Journals.” In On Shifting Sands: New Art and Literature from South Africa, edited by Kirsten Holst Petersen and Anna Rutherford, 91–103. Coventry: Dangaroo Press.Google Scholar
  66. Oliphant, Andries Walter, and Ivan Vladislavic. 1988. “Preface.” In Ten Years of Staffrider, 1978–1988, edited by Andries Walter Oliphant and Ivan Vladislavic, viii–x. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.Google Scholar
  67. Penfold, Tom. 2017. Black Consciousness and South Africa’s National Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Pirie, G. H. 1986. “Johannesburg Transport, 1905–1945: African Capitulation and Resistance.” Journal of Historical Geography 12 (1): 41–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Pirie, G. H. 1987. “African Township Railways and the South African State, 1902–1963.” Journal of Historical Geography 13 (3): 283–295.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Pirie, G. H. 1989. “Dismantling Railway Apartheid in South Africa, 1975–1988.” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 8 (1): 181–199.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Pirie, G. H. 1992a. “Rolling Segregation into Apartheid: South African Railways, 1948–53.” Journal of Contemporary History 27 (4): 671–693.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Pirie, G. H. 1992b. “Travelling Under Apartheid.” In The Apartheid City and Beyond: Urbanization and Social Change in South Africa, edited by David M. Smith, 173–182. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  73. Pirie, G. H. 1993. “Railways and Labour Migration to the Rand Mines: Constraints and Significance.” Journal of Southern African Studies 19 (4): 713–730.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Pirie, G. H. 2009. “Virtuous Mobility: Moralising vs Measuring Geographical Mobility in Africa.” Afrika Focus 22 (1): 21–35.Google Scholar
  75. Pirie, G. H. 2015. “Colours, Compartments and Corridors: Racialized Spaces, Mobility and Sociability in South Africa.” In Cultural Histories of Sociabilities, Spaces and Mobilities, edited by Colin Divall, 39–51. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  76. Pirie, G. H. 2016. “Letters, Words, Worlds: The Naming of Soweto.” In Place Names in Africa: Colonial Urban Legacies, Entangled Histories, edited by Liora Bigon, 143–157. Switzerland: Springer.Google Scholar
  77. Priya Uteng, Tanu, and Karen Lucas. 2018. “The Trajectories of Urban Mobilities in the Global South: An Introduction.” In Urban Mobilities in the Global South, edited by Tanu Priya Uteng and Karen Lucas, 1–18. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  78. Revill, George. 2012. Railway. London: Reaktion Books.Google Scholar
  79. Richards, Jeffrey, and John M. MacKenzie. 1986. The Railway Station. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  80. Richter, Amy G. 2005. Home on the Rails: The Railroad and the Rise of Public Domesticity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.Google Scholar
  81. Savage, Michael. 1986. “The Imposition of Pass Laws on the African Population in South Africa 1916–1984.” African Affairs 85 (339): 181–205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. 1986. The Railway Journey. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  83. Seiler, Cotten. 2009. “Mobilizing Race, Racializing Mobility: Writing Race into Mobility Studies.” In Mobility in History, edited by Gijs Mom, Gordon Pirie, and Laurent Tissot, 229–233. Switzerland: Presses universitaires suisses.Google Scholar
  84. Seroke, Jaki. 1981. “Staffriders Speaking: Black Writers in South Africa. Miriam Tlali, Sipho Sepamla, Mothobi Mutloatse.” Staffrider 4 (3): 41–43.Google Scholar
  85. Setuke, Brian. 1980. “Dumani.” In Forced Landing, edited by Mothobi Mutloatse, 58–68. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.Google Scholar
  86. Sheller, Mimi. 2018. Mobility Justice. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  87. Sheller, Mimi, and John Urry. 2006. “The New Mobilities Paradigm.” Environment and Planning A 38 (2): 207–226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Sheller, Mimi, and John Urry. 2016. “Mobilizing the New Mobilities Paradigm.” Applied Mobilities 1 (1): 10–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Siluma, Michael. 1978. “Naledi Train.” Staffrider 1 (4): 2–4.Google Scholar
  90. Simons, Harold Jack, and R.E. Simons. 1969. Class and Colour in South Africa, 1850–1950. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  91. Spalding, Stephen D., and Benjamin Fraser, eds. 2012. Trains, Literature and Culture: Reading and Writing the Rails. Plymouth: Lexington Books.Google Scholar
  92. Thomas, Peter. 2014. “Railways.” In The Routledge Handbook of Mobilities, edited by Peter Adey, David Bissell, Kevin Hannam, Peter Merriman, and Mimi Sheller, 214–224. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  93. Tlali, Miriam. 1980. “Voices from the Ghetto: The Last Train from Faraday.” Staffrider 3 (4): 3–4.Google Scholar
  94. Tlali, Miriam. 1989. “Fud-u-u-a.” In Footprints in the Quag: Stories & Dialogues from Soweto, 27–42. Cape Town and Johannesburg: David Philip.Google Scholar
  95. Trump, Martin. 1988. “Black South African Short Fiction in English Since 1976.” Research in African Literatures 19 (1): 34–64.Google Scholar
  96. Tshabangu, Mango. 1978. “Thoughts in a Train.” Staffrider 1 (2): 27.Google Scholar
  97. Urry, John. 1994. Consuming Places. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  98. Urry, John. 2007. Mobilities. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  99. Vaughan, Michael. 1982. Literature and Politics: Currents in South African Writing in the Seventies. Journal of Southern African Studies 9 (1): 118–138.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  100. Vaughan, Michael. 1984. “Staffrider and Directions within Contemporary South African Literature.” In Literature and Society in South Africa, edited by Tim Couzens and Landeg White, 196–212. Harlow: Longman.Google Scholar
  101. Vaughan, Michael. 1985. “Literature and Populism in South Africa: Reflections on the Ideology of Staffrider.” In Marxism and African Literature, edited by Georg M. Gugelberger, 195–220. London: James Currey.Google Scholar
  102. Vladislavic, Ivan. 2008. “Staffrider: An Essay.” Accessed 11 December 2018.
  103. Wade, Michael. 1994. “Trains as Tropes: The Role of the Railway in Some South African Literary Texts.” In Altered State? Writing and South Africa, edited by Elleke Boehmer, Laura Chrisman, and Kenneth Parker, 75–90. Sydney: Dangaroo Press.Google Scholar
  104. Witulski, Udo. 1986. “Black Commuters in South Africa.” Africa Insight 16 (1): 10–20.Google Scholar
  105. Wolmar, Christian. 2009. Blood, Iron & Gold: How the Railways Transformed the World. London: Atlantic Books.Google Scholar
  106. Wright, Laurence. 2010. “Third World Express: Trains and ‘Revolution’ in Southern African Poetry.” Literator 31 (1): 1–18.Google Scholar
  107. Wright, Laurence. 2011. “‘Iron on Iron’: Modernism Engaging Apartheid in Some South African Railway Poems.” English Studies in Africa 54 (2): 1–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  108. Zander, Horst. 1999. “Prose-Poem-Drama: ‘Proemdra’: ‘Black Aesthetics’ versus ‘White Aesthetics’ in South Africa.” Research in African Literatures 30 (1): 12–33.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sarah Gibson
    • 1
  1. 1.Culture, Communication and Media StudiesSchool of Applied Human Sciences, University of KwaZulu-NatalDurbanSouth Africa

Personalised recommendations