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HERITAGE SITES: Last Grave at Dimbaza

In 1967, 70 families from as far afield as Middelburg and the Karoo, were relocated to an area subsequently named Dimbaza.

Due to the harsh living conditions hundreds of children died of malnutrition, tuberculosis and preventable diseases such as measles. Whereas other towns are built around a civic square, a town hall or shops, Dimbaza’s centre is the children’s cemetery containing many unmarked graves.

The main influx of people occurred between December 1968 and February 1969. The Minister of Bantu Education, M.C. Botha, told Parliament in May 1969 that 2 897 people, of whom 2 000 were children, had been moved to Dimbaza. 

Of these, 203 families came from Middelburg, 67 families originated from Burgersdorp and 39 families from Cape Town. Most of the original residents came from small towns, and quite a number originated from white farms. More than 76,6% of Dimbaza's inhabitants had lived in their previous place of residence for more than 10 years.

When the first residents arrived in Dimbaza, it was without the necessary amenities and they were temporarily housed in wooden huts with zinc roofs. Two-roomed cement and asbestos houses, without floors and ceilings, were subsequently built and the typical township matchbox houses followed suit. It took a year before running water was provided.

Many ex-Robben Islanders were also banished to Dimbaza in the early 1970s, presumably so that the security police could keep an eye on them. In Dimbaza, ANC and PAC ex-prisoners were found on every street. Banned Dimbaza residents included: Ernest Tshazimbane, Moses Bonisile Twebe, Jack Madikane, Walter Cola and Daniel Mafenuka.

The State introduced monthly rations, carefully calculated quantities of food and other necessities. Mass starvation loomed. Whereas most towns are built around a CBD or civic centre, Dimbaza's heart was a children's cemetery.

The children, mostly under the age of two years old, had died of preventable diseases such as malnutrition, tuberculosis and measles. By May 1969 there were an estimated 90 graves, 70 of which were for children, some of whom were buried in tomato boxes, when people ran out of coffins. Heavy rains washed away many of these early graves, but many remain, as silent reminders of the past.

A community developed, deeply opposed to apartheid and the Ciskei Bantustan. People were arrested and imprisoned. Veterans recall the hardship and suffering, but also the fierce stance of resistance to apartheid.

In 1969, a small group of South African exiles and British film students formed Morena Films in London to produce films about the apartheid. In 1974 they produced one of the first, and certainly the most influential, films about apartheid.

LAST GRAVE AT DIMBAZA — shot clandestinely in South Africa and smuggled out of the country—had an enormous impact on global opinion at a critical moment in the struggle against apartheid, revealing to audiences worldwide the shocking inequalities between whites and blacks in South Africa. It went on to win major awards at many international film festivals. With a newly restored digital master, is now available for the first time on DVD.

This documentary exposé is now a rare, primary visual resource, a portrait of a time and place that was largely unrecorded by photographs or film. It combines scenes of everyday life in South Africa with statements from political leaders that characterise the government's blatantly racist policies.

Filmed throughout South Africa, LAST GRAVE AT DIMBAZA visually portrays the stark contrasts between living and working conditions for the majority populace of 18 million blacks and the 4 million whites who rule over them. In addition to revealing the migratory labour system, which separates black families for most of the year, and a repressive passbook policy to control black workers' movements, the film examines the gross inequities in such areas as housing, education, health care, industry, and agriculture.

By combining its clandestinely-photographed scenes of everyday life with relevant statements from National Party leaders such as B.J. Vorster that characterize the government's unabashedly racist policies, LAST GRAVE AT DIMBAZA becomes a stunning indictment of the apartheid system, which had controlled South Africa since 1948.

In May 1972, a local clergyman, Rev David Russell, led one of the most effective apartheid era protests when he attempted to subsist on a black pension for six months. His regular open letters to M.C. Botha helped to expose Dimbaza as an example of the cruelty of resettlement and government policy.

Source: Amathole Museum (Stephanie Victor) / Icarus Films.

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