History of Port Elizabeth

The Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in 2009

Port Elizabeth, officially renamed Gqeberha and colloquially often referred to as PE, is a major seaport city and the most populous city in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. It is the seat of the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality, South Africa’s second-largest metropolitan district by area size. It is the sixth-most-populous city in South Africa and is the cultural, economic and financial centre of the Eastern Cape.

Pre History

Cave sites in the area, such as Albany, Wilton and Howiesons Poort, have given their names to various archaeological cultures. The Howiesons Poort has been of particular interest to interpretations about the origins of fully modern human behaviour. Dating to 65,000 to 62,000 years ago, it has yielded extremely old evidence for bow-and-arrow hunting and shell-bead jewellery. Earlier and Middle Stone Age lithic material has been found in the Sundays River Valley, while at the important site of Amanzi Springs, 40 km north of the Port Elizabeth near Addo, Earlier Stone Age artefacts are found in situ with well-preserved plant and faunal remains within spring sediments (Deacon, 1970).

There is Later Stone Age archaeological material preserved in caves and rock shelters, such as Melkhoutboom Cave, in the Cape Fold Belt Mountain surrounding Port Elizabeth (see Deacon and Deacon, 1963; Deacon, 1976; Binneman, 1997) and large numbers of coastal shell middens have been reported at Humewood, St. George’s Strand and the Coega River Mouth (Rudner, 1968). Most recently, Binneman and Webley (1997) reported thirteen shell middens and stone tool scatters about 500 m east of the Coega River mouth in the archaeological assessment carried out for the development of maritime infrastructure for the Port of Ngqura. Importantly, some of this archaeological material was recorded in secondary context in the gravels from older river terraces along the banks of the Coega River.

British settlement

The first Europeans to visit the area sailed with the Portuguese explorers Bartholomeu Dias, who landed on St Croix Island in Algoa Bay in 1488, and Vasco da Gama, who noted the nearby Bird Island in 1497. For centuries, the area appeared on European navigation charts marked simply as “a landing place with fresh water”.

The Portuguese Crown had as one of its main goals in the Indian Ocean taking over the lucrative trade of Arab and Afro-Arabian merchants who plied routes between the East African coast and India. As they took over that trade in Africa, the Portuguese strengthened trading with Goa, their main trading point in India. The name Algoa means “to Goa”, just as the port farther north in present-day Mozambique, Delagoa means “from Goa” in Portuguese.

The area became part of the Cape Colony. This area had a turbulent history between the settlement by the Dutch East India Company in 1652 and the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910.

In 1799, at the time of the first British occupation of the Colony during the Napoleonic Wars, British troops built a stone fort named Fort Frederick after the Duke of York. This fort, aiming to deter a possible landing of French troops, was constructed to oversee the site of what later became Port Elizabeth. The fort is now preserved as a monument.

From 1814 to 1821, the Strandfontein farm was owned by Piet Retief. He later became a Voortrekker leader and was killed in 1837 by Zulu king Dingane during negotiations about land. An estimated 500 men, woman and children of his party were massacred. Frederik Korsten owned the Strandfontein farm after Retief. The suburb of Korsten was named after Frederick in the 19th century. This area was later developed as the Summerstrand beach suburb of Port Elizabeth.

In 1820, a party of 4,000 British settlers arrived by sea, encouraged by the government of the Cape Colony to form a settlement to strengthen the border region between the Cape Colony and the Xhosa people. At this time the seaport town was founded by Sir Rufane Shaw Donkin, the Acting Governor of the Cape Colony (in office: 1820–1821). Diplomat Edmund Roberts visited Port Elizabeth in the early 1830s. Roberts noted that Port Elizabeth in the 1820s had “contained four houses, and now it has upward of one hundred houses, and its residents are rated at above twelve hundred persons”.

The Roman Catholic Church established the Apostolic Vicariate of Cape of Good Hope, Eastern District in the city in 1847. Port Elizabeth was granted the status of autonomous municipality in 1861.

Cape Colony Prime Minister John Molteno had formed the Cape Government Railways in 1872. Completion of the railway to Kimberley in 1873 was a major stimulus to trade and a rapid increase in population in the town. With the massive expansion of the Cape Colony’s railway network to the interior over the following years, the harbour of Port Elizabeth became the focus for serving import and export needs of a large area of the Cape’s hinterland. The rapid economic development around the port, which followed the railway construction, caused Port Elizabeth to be nicknamed “the Liverpool of South Africa”, after a major British port. The town expanded as a diverse community, comprising Xhosa as well as European, Cape Malay, and other immigrants.

During the Second Boer War of 1899–1902, the port served as an important transit-point for British soldiers, horses, and materials headed by railway to the front. No armed conflict took place within the city, but it felt the effects of the war with the arrival of many refugees who moved into the city. These included Boer women and children, whom the British interned in a concentration camp.

After the war, the British erected a monument to military horses that died during the war. “The unveiling of the monument commemorating the services of the horses which perished during the Anglo Boer War, 1899–1902, took place on Saturday afternoon, February 11, 1905, with His Worship the Mayor, Mr A Fettes, performing the ceremony.

Apartheid era

Under apartheid, the South African government established legal racial segregation and started programs to separate communities physically as well as by classification and custom. The forced relocation under the auspices of the Group Areas Act of the non-white population from mixed areas began in 1962, causing various townships to be built for their use. Classification was sometimes arbitrary, and as in many other localities throughout the country, many citizens appearing to have mixed ancestry were at times subject to re-classification, which often had intrusive sociopolitical results. The non-white tenants of South End, and land owners in Fairview were forcibly relocated from 1965 through to 1975, as these areas were valued as prime real estate.

The city-planning was viewed as the prototypical apartheid city.

1952 Defiance Campaign

In 1952 the African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) called all South Africans to stand up against the apartheid government’s unjust laws directed at the black African, Indian and coloured population. On April 6, while most white South Africans celebrated the tercentenary of Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival at the Cape in 1652, the ANC and SAIC called on black South Africans to observe the day as a “A National Day of Pledge and Prayer”. 15 000 people attended in Johannesburg, 10 000 in Cape Town, 10 000 in Durban and 20 000 in Port Elizabeth. The meeting in Port Elizabethwas led by Professor Z. K. Matthews and by Raymond Mhlaba.

1985 Consumer Boycotts

After the formation of the ANC-affiliated United Democratic Front in 1983, political consciousness in black townships grew. With numerous protests across the country and the massacre in Langa township near Uitenhage, Eastern Cape police presence had increased in South African townships. In the townships, black South Africans demanded the integration of public institutions, the removal of troops from black townships, and the end of workplace discrimination. To launch an effective campaign to cripple the white-owned institutions of Port Elizabeth and to undermine the legitimacy of apartheid, several women suggested the idea of a consumer boycott to the Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organisation (PEBCO) in May 1985.

The economic boycott began on July 15, 1985, and received massive support in townships around Port Elizabeth. By September 1985, white business-owners became desperate and called on the government to meet the demands of black South Africans. In November the boycott was still hurting white businesses in Port Elizabeth greatly. The white South African government reached an agreement with PEBCO which stated that the boycott would halt until March 1986 if business owners arranged for the release of black leaders.

Modern history

With the establishment of the Coega Industrial Development Zone (CIDZ), foreign direct and also national-level investment has improved substantially in the region of Nelson Mandela Bay/Port Elizabeth. The IDZ, under the stewardship of the Coega Development Corporation (CDC), since inception has managed to attract to its investment account in excess of R140-billion into the economy of the Eastern Cape and has enabled the creation of over 45,000 jobs.

This is significant for the sustainability of the IDZ, Nelson Mandela Bay, and the economy of the Eastern Cape. The CDC consistently continues to demonstrate its capability as the leading catalyst for socio-economic growth in the Eastern Cape, with a view to becoming so for South Africa.

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