Article Place & Self

South Africa 1899: a lesser known march of defiance

Just over 115 years ago, 7000 South African mineworkers fled The Second South African war, walking 400 km in ten days . Earlier this year a young runner decided to retrace their journey. This is the story of 7001 marchers, of remembering history and of often painful perseverance.

In 1899, Johannesburg’s mining industry was booming. Home to some of the world’s richest gold-fields, it drew in mineworkers from across the country in search of better lives. It was also the year that the Second South African War swept through the country that would, over the next two and three-quarter years, take the lives of twenty-two thousand British, twenty-five thousand Boere and twelve thousand black South Africans. Among those caught in the cross-fire were 7000 Zulu mineworkers and their families that simply wanted to get home and escape the war. The commandeered trains meant that they had to choose: stay in Johannesburg and risk death, or walk the 400 km home to the coastal province of Kwazulu-Natal.

For ten days, this group of men, women and children walked this treacherous route home. Unbelievably, there were no deaths as they navigated through harsh terrain, hostile Boer soldiers and fought off ailments and injuries. It is an event in South Africa’s past that is not taught in history classrooms, nor largely discussed at dinner tables. There is a book though, written by the South African historian - Elsabé Brink, whose fascination with the event led her to un-digging this part of her country’s history and using her research to celebrate this unique,resilient and peaceful journey in a time of war.

It is this same book that runner Brandon Finn, a 24-year-old South African Urban Geographer discovered online in late 2013. Drawn to stories of politics, mobility and social movements, Brandon was intrigued, and he reached out to Elsabé when he found her details online.

It is so exciting to see others as intrigued by this piece of history as I am

“She was excited by my interest in her book, and invited me to her house to discuss it further. I already had some ideas planted in my head and wanted to share them with Elsabé,” said Brandon. He went to visit her in her home in Hermanus, a small coastal town in the Western Cape of South Africa, known for its whales and elderly communities.

“If you put a roof over Hermanus, it could be a retirement village,” laughed Elsabé, welcoming Brandon into her book and art-filled home. She was thrilled to hear of Brandon’s interest in her work.

“I want to retrace the route,” he told her. “I want to run the 400 km route in the same amount of time that the miners did it so that more people can know of this story, and I plan on using it to raise money for charity.”

Elsabé began to pull out old maps and notes she used to research the book. She started tracing the route once more, scribbling directions for Brandon. “It is so exciting to see others as intrigued by this piece of history as I am. This is something so special for me.”

Expedition Imashi

Just over one year later, when many South African’s were waking up to New Year’s Eve hangovers, Brandon was celebrating 2015 with a run. He had chosen to call the it ‘Expedition Imashi’, meaning ‘march’ in Zulu. He stood outside Witswatersrand University, his running shoes tied, water-pack filled and his chattering teeth making his smile jump. Fingers of sunlight began to break the darkness, highlighting behind him a round, blue plaque. On it read: ‘The Epic March of Zulu Mineworkers, walking away from war. On 6th October 1899, 7000 Zulu mineworkers, mainly men, left this site where they had gathered the night before, to walk to their homes in Zululand and Natal.’

As I left Volksrust at about 5 30am, my calves, knees and quads were really struggling

Brandon began the run, slowly, responsibly, at a pace he hoped to keep throughout the day’s running. Behind him, drove his ever-loyal parents, whose pride for their son was evident in the car’s new adornments; flashing hazard lights, South African flags and laminated signs with the words ‘Expedition Imashi’ and ‘#Imashi’ decorating the car. Passers-by hooted, cheered, and clapped as they drove past. Forty kilometres later, day one ended just before Heidelberg, a small town alongside the N3 highway between Johannesburg and Durban.

Brandon was all smiles, with only “a few aches” to name. Suddenly the impending nine days ahead seemed more do-able than before. But from day two onwards his pains began to spread exponentially, as did his homemade sports strappings that began to weave their way across his legs like a child’s scribble.

“The first hour this morning was the toughest moment so far during Expedition Imashi. As I left Volksrust at about 5 30am, my calves, knees and quads were really struggling. Luckily, after the first hour, things eased up a lot and I got into quite a good rhythm!” wrote Brandon on his blog after the eighth day.

The toughest day so far

As Brandon left Volksrust and headed towards Newcastle, he went through his toughest running day so far. Elsabé wrote that this too, happened to be “the most dangerous and exhausting leg of the long march”. The marchers were confronted with Boer commandos who demanded that they turn back immediately. Luckily, J.S Marwick, the Natal Native Agent who had led and organised the march from day one, continued to navigate through a contentious situation as he had been doing all along.“We have seven thousand natives on the verge of starvation. They are treading on the heels of three thousand armed Boers. This constitutes the elements of a great massacre of defenceless people.” Marwick’s words and connections meant they were able to pass on peacefully, but not before the Boer commandos had temporarily commandeered 400 of the strongest marchers. In the spitting rain, they were forced to assist in dragging two guns and six ammunition wagons up the hill. In exchange for their work, they were allowed to pass early the next morning.

On days eight and nine, Brandon was on hill patrol, imagining whether each one could possibly have been the same one the marchers trudged up all those years ago. He had long since passed the point of a “few aches”. Visible limps interspersed his stride. Where hurt the most? “Everywhere,” he answered. At this point, he was excited for it to be over, yet pulled out Elsabe’s book in the evenings to remind himself why he had embarked on this masochistic run in the first place.

I believe that with the current retelling of this story, a wider audience will be reached, especially the descendants of those 7000 workers who began their long march home on 6 October 1899

Understandably, it was not an easy march,as the book details through its descriptions of young children with fevers, or a mineworker with a recently amputated toe. “I slept in B&Bs every night,” admitted Brandon openly. “There is no denying that embarking on this run is something I could only have done with enough resources. Some of the marchers slept in the open veld on ant-heaps, sometimes in the rain, because they had nowhere else to sleep. These are hardships I did not have to endure.”

On day ten, as Brandon’s adrenaline kicked in, silencing his aches and shooting pains, he sprinted towards the now dilapidated train station that the miners would have boarded in Hattingspruit over 115 years earlier. Throughout the course of his run, and the time building up to it, Brandon had five radio interviews and featured in almost twenty published articles. He also raised R20, 550 for the Big Issue’s job creation and skills development programme, which aims to equip unemployed Capetonians with the skills to drastically increase their chances of future employment.

In ten days, it was all over, and yet the retelling of this story, again and again, is what Elsabé believes brings us closer towards the truth of the march all those years ago. “I believe that,” she wrote, “with the current retelling of this story, a wider audience will be reached, especially the descendants of those 7000 workers who began their long march home on 6 October 1899.” “Courage, discipline and a communal spirit” are what Elsabé feels were essential characteristics to ensure the miners safe arrival in such a troubled time. This is something with which Brandon, based on his own experience, surely agrees.

Photo caption: Brandon celebrates the end of Expedition Imashi at the dilapidated Hattingspruit train station. Photo taken by author.

How this article was made

  • 2000 points
  • 19 backers
  • 4 drafts
Creative Commons License

Also in this issue