Black Man Alive. Last Grave at Dimbaza.
Land of Promise

Films on South Africa

by Patrick O'Meara

from Jump Cut, no. 18, August 1978, pp. 7-8
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

In June 1976, thousands of African high school students demonstrated against the white South African government.(1) Their immediate concern was the use of Afrikaans as a language of instruction, but their discontent went far deeper, challenging the very existence of the white dominated political system. Despite hundreds of deaths and thousands of political arrests, demonstrations have continued. In September 1977 Steve Biko, who founded the South African Students Organization, became the twentieth black to die in a South African prison over the past 18 months. The intensification of the struggle between blacks and whites in South Africa, independence for Angola and Mozambique after five hundred years of Portuguese colonial rule and the current guerrilla war in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe all indicate that the southern quadrant of Africa is inevitably moving towards black self-determination.

Propaganda in the form of leaflets, books and films has long been an important and heavily subsidized tool of the South African Information Service; and in the United States several expensively produced documentaries have been widely distributed by Sterling Films for many years. However, African liberation movements have only recently begun to use the important vehicle of film.

LAST GRAVE AT DIMBAZA (1974, 45 minutes) is perhaps, the first major cinematic statement opposing the racial policies of South Africa produced by an African. Nana Mahomo, who studied mass communications at M.I.T., is on the Executive Committee of the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), a militant African liberation movement. His company, Morena Films, composed mainly of South African exiles, was responsible for LAST GRAVE AT DIMBAZA. In Mahomo's first film, PHELA NDABA: END OF A DIALOGUE (1970, 45 minutes), it was already apparent that the technically proficient and sophisticated South African government propaganda films were being challenged by an equally proficient and sophisticated film made by an African. LAST GRAVE was shown on PBS in October 1975 and also on British and Canadian television. It won awards at the Grenoble International Short Film Festival, and Le Monde considered it "the most remarkable documentary shown at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival. Mahomo's intention was

"to show what it is like for the black people of South Africa to be on the receiving end of the white government's apartheid policy."

However, behind this ambitious purpose, there are a number of important assumptions: the use of film as a determined and conscious part of the struggle for black self-determination and the decision to meet head on the awesome propaganda machine of the South African Information Service with its vast technical resources and budgets.

In an interview for Cineaste (7:3, Fall 1976) Mahomo maintained,

"One acquires techniques. [They are] made to sound mysterious."

Mahomo and his team of eight people, six South Africans and two English associates, had less than $1000 to start with.

"We felt we could shoot with something like a Beaulieu, for instance, which is manageable. It's portable and you can carry it and shoot. It isn't conspicuous."

Ultimately dedicated to the bringing about of change in South Africa, the team struggled to pay for the processing and other costs. In the Cineaste interview, Mahomo said that he wanted the visual material to speak for itself.

"They thought I was exaggerating the problems, overstating the case, that what I said was happening in South Africa could not really happen in this day and age. There was a credibility gap until I realized there was another way of communicating."

It was unlikely that LAST GRAVE AT DIMBAZA would ever be shown in South Africa. Its only official showing was in the Hendrik Verwoerd Office Building in Cape Town to government officials, Cabinet ministers and members of the Senate and House of Assembly. Therefore, Mahomo's film statement was clearly not intended for use within South Africa. His intention was to influence foreign decision makers in Britain and the United States, to shift policy from the National Security Study Memorandum 39 (NSSM 39) mentality, adopted by the Nixon administration in February 1970. This memorandum projected a strategy of "selective relaxation of our stance towards the white regimes" (including both Rhodesia and the Portuguese colonies) on the grounds that "the whites are here to stay and the only way that change can come about is through them." Mahomo's intention was also to educate. He said that unless "the people in America know what the issues are, they could quite easily be sold the idea that America had to intervene on the side of white South Africa."

LAST GRAVE AT DIMBAZA graphically depicts a number of the injustices of apartheid: the migratory labor system, inadequate African health care facilities, the crowded living conditions of the black urban areas and the poverty and malnutrition of the Bantustans or homelands.  The South African government anticipates that these homelands will all ultimately become independent, thus taking some of the pressure off South Africa itself. They are, however, rural, impoverished blocks of land which amount to not quite 13% of the country and in which Africans, who total more than 70% of the population, have been given some political rights.

The film employs some dramatic sequences in order to better convey its central political message. For example, a black nurse feeds her white employer's child when the commentator tells us that her own son died of malnutrition. The film ends in Dimbaza, an African township thirteen miles from King Williamstown, in the Ciskei (one of the ten South African homelands). In the concluding sequences, the camera plays on the graves of African children marked with plastic feeding bottles.

"In Dimbaza there were … 60 adult graves and 450 children's graves. This is a special children's graveyard. Nearly all the children died before the age of two …"

The film's statements on the quality of African life, and in particular on the black infant mortality rate, highlight the startling differences between black and white life styles. The harrowing conclusion that during the running time of the film, six black families were thrown out of their homes, sixty black children died of the effects of malnutrition, and the gold mining companies made a profit of $70,000 has wider significance for those outside of South Africa who are concerned about the involvement of major Western corporations.

Unlike LAST GRAVE AT DIMBAZA, the officially produced film LAND OF PROMISE (1974) conveys a utopian view of South Africa.

"…there is a roof for everyone and clothing and enough to eat. You honestly cannot say this of most countries in the world today."

Before the whites came to South Africa it was part of the "dark continent."

"Think of it, you live in a hut somewhere in the hills. You cannot read and write … Your mind is static."

The film compresses a remarkable number of themes into its relatively short running time of 26 minutes. It emphasizes that South Africa is "democratic," politically stable, has great mineral wealth and is above all suitable for large-scale foreign investment. South Africa is depicted as a rapidly growing country, comparable to the United States, "where a dream can be fulfilled by those prepared to work for it." And it is shown as vital to the "Free World" because of its strategic position between Europe and the Far East.

The film underscores several other points: the need to preserve "ethnic purity and identity" and the idea that apartheid diminishes conflict in a heterogeneous society. Throughout, the film's language is unintentionally but patently paternalistic.

"We believe that apartheid promises a peaceful solution to a highly complex problem of human relations. We believe that apartheid responds in full measure to the principals of modern self-determination and, if you'll permit, we do see it as a program which takes us forward rather than a backward look at the hopes and aspirations of man. In this very special sense there are those who still believe that the future of the black man will arrive when he is remodeled into the image of the white man. We reject that idea. So do our black people."

The basic premise of LAND OF PROMISE reflects the government's policy of separate development under which the homelands were established:

"Life styles, cultures, dress and language as varied as the peoples of Europe."

Separate development neatly reduces the ratio of blacks to whites in an artfully remodeled South Africa. Outside the homelands, whites can claim that they are in the majority. Blacks, as so poignantly stated in LAST GRAVE, are relegated to rural slums, and their historic role in the growth and development of South Africa is curtly dismissed. The millions of blacks who work in the cities and live in townships such as Soweto are regarded as temporary sojourners with political rights elsewhere. The crowded urban areas shown in LAST GRAVE do not appear in LAND OF PROMISE. We are rather shown urban renewal schemes and told that most shanty towns have been torn down. In addition, we are assured that schools by the thousands have been built and that sixty percent of blacks are literate. While there are a number of African lawyers and doctors, pharmacists and nurses, accountants and engineers and specialists of all kinds, the African businessman stepping out of his chauffeur-driven Jaguar into his private jet is perhaps the most ludicrous sequence in the film. If it is intended as a generalization, it is grotesquely inaccurate.

LAND OF PROMISE must be seen as part of a campaign by the South African government to create a favorable international climate for the granting of independence to the Transkei in October 1976. To date, however, this independence has not been recognized by any country, but ironically the United States was the only nation at the United Nations to abstain on the issue of recognition.

LAND OF PROMISE is one of the few Information Service films that openly deals with apartheid. In fact, the blurb in the advertising brochure "South Africa Today" bills it as an

"… overview of the history and growth of the policy of separate development (apartheid); … provides answers to questions most often put to South Africans."

About halfway through the film the commentator asks, with melodramatic realism: "But you want to know, don't you, 'What about apartheid?'" Most of the other films available in the United States tend to convey images of stability, growth and of South Africa as a tourist haven with good hotels, skyscrapers and wild animals, or they have merely peripheral political comments.

In direct response to LAST GRAVE AT DIMBAZA, the South African government produced BLACK MAN ALIVE in 1975. This film follows many of the major themes of LAND OF PROMISE, but it is not as tightly organized and it is self-conscious in its efforts to counteract the Mahomo production. Like LAND OF PROMISE, it promotes an idealized form of synthetic primitivism (visually, in the commentary, and in the musical background). It emphasizes cultural diversity and separate development.

BLACK MAN ALIVE also emphasizes that Africans have a relatively high standard of living, good possibilities for education and higher wages than in any other part of the continent. All these statements again conveniently underplay the mineral resources and industrial growth of South Africa, and the role of blacks in developing them. In responding to LAST GRAVE the film attempts to illustrate factual inaccuracies: white doctors treat blacks and hence, the statistics on the number of doctors are inaccurate; health facilities are not as bad as those portrayed in LAST GRAVE; malnutrition is caused by bad eating habits and hygiene and not by a shortage of food; Dimbaza is now going through a period of growth and development; overseas investment has a positive effect on black standards of living; there are significant increases in black wages; and above all South Africa is going through orderly and peaceful change. Facts are open to interpretation and counter-interpretation. What is lost sight of is the fact that South Africa is a modern, rich, industrial nation in which there is overwhelming poverty, injustice and racial discrimination.

Tragically, the delusion present in the South African Information films permeates white South African thinking. Despite their calculated efforts to present a convincing case, the South African Information films ultimately depict a society of white privilege and power and of black exclusion. LAST GRAVE AT DIMBAZA represents a new and powerful vehicle for Africans to express their grievances and adds a new dimension to their struggle for self-determination.


1. I am indebted to Paul Lazar for assistance with some of the ideas for this article and for general organizational help.

LAST GRAVE AT DIMBAZA is distributed by Tricontinental Films, 333 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10014