UP’s Prof Charles van Onselen awarded prestigious Academy of Science of South Africa Humanities Book Prize

Posted on March 15, 2021

Professor Charles van Onselen, Research Professor in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Pretoria (UP) and affiliated to the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies, has been awarded the prestigious Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) Humanities Book Prize for his highly acclaimed book, The Night Trains: Moving Mozambican Miners to and from South Africa, circa 1902-1955 (Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2019). 

The book has been applauded by a range of high-profile academics, including Professor James Campbell of Stanford University who states that this is “the work of a master historian”. Professor Alois Mlambo of the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies at UP observes that: “Van Onselen has produced a masterpiece and a seminal contribution to scholarship which should be a must-read for anyone who wishes to have a deeper understanding of the forces that helped shape the historical experience and present reality of Southern Africa since the late nineteenth century”; while Professor James Scott of Yale University writes that: “The great master of social history Van Onselen provides us an unsurpassable lesson in the commodification and disposal of human life.” This book is indeed regarded by many as one of Van Onselen's finest. 

Night Trains has been described as a “tour de force that deals with a very important aspect of Southern African political, economic and social history”. It focuses on a train journey from Mozambique to South Africa to demonstrate how the interests of both local and international capitalism, underpinned by mining, rode roughshod over the dignity and human rights of large numbers of workers from Sul do Save and horribly exploited, ill-treated and dehumanised them.

As the back cover indicates, “The story of the night trains echoes today through songs such as ‘Stimela’ and ‘Shosholoza’. But the experience of the poverty-stricken Mozambicans who travelled on the trains has never been told. Night Trains lays bare the hellish world.”

Prof Van Onselen is the recipient of numerous other awards. He has been the recipient of an ‘A’ rating by the National Research Foundation four times. He has also been awarded the UP Chancellor’s Award for research; the UP Vice-Chancellor’s Book Award; and the Human Sciences Research Council gold medal for a distinguished contribution to the Social Sciences and Humanities.

He has received numerous other book awards, including those for Masked Raiders and The Fox and The Flies. His book, The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine - A South African Sharecropper, 1894-1895, won the Sunday Times Alan Paton award for non-fiction and was also voted one of the hundred best books to come out of Africa in the twentieth century.

UP and the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies wish to congratulate Prof Van Onselen on yet another accolade and, along with the historical fraternity, look forward to the release of his next publication.

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