Imvubu Newsletter

Dimbaza: An Introductory History

© Victor, S. 2006 Imvubu 18: 1, 3.

The Historian is currently involved in researching and recording the history of Dimbaza. Sponsored by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, the project forms part of Buffalo City Municipality’s Dimbaza Wall of Remembrance and Hall of Fame initiative. Apart from gathering all documentary sources on the township, the Historian and an independent consultant, Mr Mfundiso Mahlasela, are also training four fieldworkers to conduct oral history. Money thus fundraised is utilised towards a salary for a Collections Manager in the History section.1

Dimbaza is a symbol of the ‘surplus people’, those that were discarded by the apartheid system.2 More than 30 years after Cosmas Desmond penned down the early history of Dimbaza, it remains a unique and extraordinary place to visit.

Used as an apartheid dumping ground, the first people who were resettled in Dimbaza arrived in December 1967 by truck. 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 just 2 000 were children had been moved to Dimbaza. 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 than76,6% 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 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 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. Cosmas Desmond’s Discarded People and British ITV’s notorious and aptly named film, Last Grave in Dimbaza reinforced international condemnation.

Fundamental reforms followed and the squalid resettlement camp was turned into an industrial showpiece with Dimbaza becoming a centre for industrial decentralization. The inducements to prospective investors were impressive – rebates on power and water, wage bill subsidies and after Ciskei ‘independence’, a flat 15% tax rate. Over 20 factories were eventually established employing Dimbaza residents on small salaries.

Dimbaza was greatly upgraded and improved, to the point of being rebuilt and could boast factories, shops, churches, a beer hall and a police station. Different grades of housing were built and telephones were easily obtainable. Many amenities were developed, previously unknown to long-standing rural communities. Life in Dimbaza started to take a sharp turn for the better, as people received a reliable source of income from local industries. After 1971 the removals became voluntary. Several households came to Dimbaza in order to get employment or a house, which was not easily obtainable elsewhere. Access to housing became one of Dimbaza’s greatest attractions.

Although Dimbaza was touted as the industrial showpiece of the Ciskei, where the Ciskei National Development Corporation (CNDC) spent the majority of its budget, there was a 35% unemployment rate. Like most resettlement camps of the apartheid period, Dimbaza was never very successful as a solution to the problems of the Ciskei, nor could it ever serve as a vindication of the regime’s policy of resettlement.

After 1994, the tax rebates and other incentives ceased and most of the industries moved elsewhere. As a result, Dimbaza became an industrial graveyard and returned to its pre-industrial era. Unemployment is now around 70%, but the community remains, as does the history and the sites and the stories of the people who lived through it.

On 12 August 2005, as reported in the Daily Dispatch, Ms Nosimo Balindlela, the Eastern Cape premier, has appealed to business to invest in the revival of industry at Dimbaza. In the report it was stated that more than 2 000 jobs have been lost since 1994. Recently, the Department of Economic Affairs in Dimbaza invested R9 million in Dimbaza.

Dimbaza is a symbol of the ‘surplus people’, those that were ‘discarded’ by the system. More than 30 years after Cosmas Desmond penned down the early history of Dimbaza, it remains a unique and extraordinary place to visit.

1. The paper was presented to the Dimbaza Wall of Fame and Garden of Remembrance Steering Committee in February 2006.

2.This reference refers to L.Platzky & C.Walker, The Surplus People: Forced Removals in South Africa vol. 2 The Eastern Cape (Johannesburg, 1985) & Cosmas Desmond The Discarded People: An Account of African Resettlement in South Africa (Harmondsworth, 1971).


Eastern Cape Weekend, 05.09.1998

‘Experience life in the Eastern Cape’ =, Promotional booklet published by the Tour of the Dove.

Desmond, C. The Discarded People: An Account of African Resettlement in South Africa (Harmondsworth, 1971).

L.Platzky & C.Walker The Surplus People Project: Forced Removals in South Africa, vol 2, The Eastern Cape (Johannesburg, 1985).