Shosholoza: The Mining Song that Moved a Nation
It’s easy to become discouraged about the problems facing the gold and diamond mining industries. From violence, to child labor, to toxic mercury emissions, the problems plaguing these industries are both serious and difficult to fix. When will things ever change? And how do gold and diamond miners themselves maintain hope?
One way they have done so, at least historically, is through music. Tomorrow is National Heritage Day in South Africa, which makes this a good opportunity to listen to a traditional South African mining song. The song is called “Shosholoza.” This joyful melody was once sung by South African gold and diamond miners as they worked in the dark and oppressive mines. As the miners sang, their spirits were lifted. The version below is performed by the Drakensberg Boy’s Choir, a renowned choir from a South African private school for boys.
What is Shosholoza about? The lyrics of the song refer to the steam trains that used to carry migrant miners from Zimbabwe to South Africa. But as the melody suggests, the song is really about hope. Literally, Shosholoza means “go forward” in the Ndebele language. Notice that in the video, the boys are wearing gumboots. Gold miners in South Africa traditionally wore these boots because the gold mines were frequently flooded with dirty, stagnant water. To cope with these terrible conditions, the miners would sing Shosholoza. Often they would sing in a call and response style; a leader would sing out a line and the rest of the group would repeat. Miners would swing their axes in time with the music.
The melody of Shosholoza is uplifting, but is it too sentimental to be taken seriously? Actually, the history of Shosholoza gives reason to believe that, over time, some injustices really can be defeated. In the late 20th century, anti-apartheid activists found the song inspiring and used it to keep up their hopes. Then, when apartheid fell, the song became a vehicle for national reconciliation. As depicted in the movie Invictus, South Africans of all backgrounds joined together in singing Shosholoza in willing their team to victory in the 1995 rugby World Cup. Today, Shosholoza is an unofficial South African national anthem. If you watched the soccer World Cup held last year in South Africa, you may have heard Shosholoza.
South Africa’s gold and diamond mines are still unacceptably dangerous. But thanks in part to Shosholoza and its role in building a new South Africa, the country’s gold and diamond mines are far less dangerous and exploitative than during the days of apartheid. Going forward, Shosholoza reminds us that change is possible—in diamond and gold mining and in society more generally. Hope, persistence, and a sense of common purpose can make it happen.