Travel

Ugly sister Port Elizabeth a Cinderella at heart

Hagen Engler

True love for Port Elizabeth means taking the rough with the smooth: the beaches and bonhomie with the postindustrial bleakness.

Unike other coastal areas such as Durban or Cape Town, PE is not known for its cityscapes. (Tom Hopwood)

Tim Hopwood is leaving Port Elizabeth. For anyone who knows PE, this will come as no surprise. Hopwood has left PE many times. Also, people in general have been leaving PE for ages. It's what you do in PE; you leave.

Many famous people have left PE. Ask any PE expatriate and he'll tell you. Hopwood is famous himself in certain circles. He's a highly regarded art photographer. He's also a singer-songwriter in the sparse, existentialist tradition of Leonard Cohen.

The sparse existentialism of his music and photography rhymes with the prosaic, windblown glumness of many PE cityscapes – the kind of vistas that make PE the eternal poor cousin to more photogenic rivals such as Cape Town, George and even Durban.

"PE is, on the surface, spectacularly bleak," he says. "Its industrial spaces are very evocative. But its city centre can be beautiful and charming, aside from the parts ruined by terrible town planning." 

When Hopwood eventually packs his bakkie and ups sticks for the rural tranquility of Riebeeck East, he will be the latest in a long line of skilled individuals to leave Nelson Mandela Bay for pastures new.

Safa boss
Danny Jordaan now runs the South African Football Association, though he still has a home in the Bay. Springbok rugby player Schalk Burger was born here, as were cricketers Graeme, Peter and Shaun Pollock. Playwright Athol Fugard set much of his oeuvre in PE: South Africa in microcosm. Actor John Kani workshopped plays with Fugard as part of the Serpent Players.

Zolani Mahola from the band Freshlyground? She's from here, as is late jazz legend Zim Ngqawana. Singer Simphiwe Dana started her music career here. There's also television anchor Jeremy Maggs, rugby veterans and commentators Garth Wright and Gavin Cowley, and Derek Alberts from SuperSport … It's a PE pastime. Every time someone from your hometown appears on TV or so much as comes up in conversation, you blurt out: "He's from PE!"

It's a strange combination of pride and small-town inferiority complex that drives us to affirm solidarity with our "homies", as if to say: "You see! We are good! We are worth mentioning."

In the eyes of the rest of the country, though, we are not. In national media, PE comes up once in a while when there's a cricket one-day international at St George's (we're the ground with the band), or during the annual Ironman South Africa triathlon event. The TV package will feature stock footage of Hobie Beach, the Shamwari game reserve and some quaint Settler architecture.

Size
Size-wise, PE scraps it out for South Africa's fourth-city honours with the likes of Bloemfontein and Pretoria. Although the Nelson Mandela Bay metro might be big, in the minds of most South Africans we lose out because we're so damn remote.

The metro is horrendously distant from other South African cities, unless you count East London, and who does? To non-Eastern Cape people, PE and East London are the same place.

PE is 800km from Cape Town, 1 100km from Johannesburg and even the bright city lights of Bloemfontein are a distant 665km away. But the most telling distance is psychological.

PE is remote. But it's also just about big enough to have a self-sustaining economy, culture and "scene".

Musicians, artists, businesspeople and social activists can grow, become PE legends and then fade away without the rest of the country even being aware of their existence. Melvyn Matthews? Errol Cuddumbey? Jaco Rademeyer? Anton Calitz? Dave Goldblum? Mike Phantsi? Khusta Jack? Janet Cherry? Have you heard of them? Maybe, if you're from PE.

Inevitably, young people face the "should I stay or should I go" dilemma of youngsters in average-sized cities worldwide. Complicating the decision is that it is possible to stay and to earn a living.

'Subversive battle'
It's not easy, though, particularly for artists. "Artists and musicians who do work that is in any way edgy, dark or subversive battle to find any kind of paying audience here," Hopwood says, tying up a few ends before he finally packs his vehicle and leaves. "That is why so many leave. We produce a disproportionately large number of creative people here, as we have good creative tertiary institutions, but the city haemorrhages them year after year to the outside world.

"This speaks of an inherent mistrust of the intellect. We have a reputation as a cultural backwater that is not entirely undeserved. Middle-of-the-road tastes are amply catered for. Musical tribute shows abound. There is a lot of wildlife art and paintings of Tuscan landscapes. There is cultural value here, but it is hidden."

The metropole, comprising PE and its townships – Motherwell, Zwide, Kwazakhele, KwaMagxaki, New Brighton, Korsten and Walmer, as well known as the city itself – Uitenhage and Despatch, has a population of almost 1.2-million, according to the last census. There are significant black, coloured and white populations, integrated after a fashion but still segregated according to economic heritage.

But even PE's most fortunate scions of white privilege are to be found in slops at the shops on weekends.

"PE's big strength to me has always been its unpretentiousness," Hopwood says. "It can be a double-edged sword if it manifests as a mistrust of the intellect or a refusal to embrace new things in art and music, but I do find people here who are pretty switched on and informed without displaying the posturing that I see in bigger cities. 

"I also like the way the older generation of moneyed classes in PE behaves. Ostentatious displays of wealth are frowned upon. The younger moneyed classes here have lost that. They also tend to support the arts a lot more than the nouveau riche. Often you can't tell from the way they dress that they are loaded as hell."

He speaks with pride of once spotting Phil Gutsche – some say the richest man in PE – at a photo lab in an old fishing vest and shorts. "I liked that," Hopwood says.

Celebrity culture
Nouveau riche or not, many of the youth are buying into the conspicuous consumption ethos of today's celebrity culture. However, in a city whose only significant industries are in the motoring sector, the opportunities for legitimate self-enrichment are limited.

Ncedo Marele, born and raised in New Brighton township, is now a producer and presenter for the Port Elizabeth community station Bay TV. He bemoans this "liking of things".

"Among the youth, it sometimes seems the only guys with money to burn are amagintsa [gangsters]. They're the ones who dress to impress and can drop money on expensive booze. Sadly, you see a lot of the kids are emulating that lifestyle and culture."

He agrees with Hopwood that the creative scene is brimming with talent but battles to find support.

"Art, presenting, scriptwriting, music … There's so much talent, but you can't make any money from it. They won't support you till you make it," he says, mentioning two local music artists who have enjoyed success nationally – house producer Heavy K and rapper iFani.

In the old PE tradition of breeding quality people for export, iFani now plies his kwaito/hip-hop trade in Johannesburg.

The rapper has an interesting take on the Bay mind-set, often criticised as small-minded, conservative and provincial: It's slow-paced compared to other major cities in the country," he says. "It may seem like it doesn't change much over time. But the people are friendly, which makes it an ideal place to learn from and be guided by."

Art school
​PE's role as talent incubator is powerful. The Nelson Mandela Metropol­itan University (NMMU) is now home to the city's long-established art school and the Bay supports a small but vibrant creative arts scene. Collaboration is easy because of the compact scale of the 15-minute city.

In the tradition of small towns that often throw incongruous groups of friends together, artistic collaborations can be interesting. It's not unheard of to see performance art in a nightclub setting, or a photographic slide-projection journey during a live performance by the likes of music stalwart Joe van der Linden.

To pay the bills, musicians are forced to play styles that run the full gamut of genres. Van der Linden can be found playing bass in a jazz band at corporate gigs, doing covers at the hipsterish Bridge Street Brewery or jamming originals on outdoor festival stages with his cult surf-rock band The Brothers.

Maybe he'll be doing a show with his two-piece comedy-rock act Jannie & Baksteen. Their most popular tune exhorts audience members to "show off your PE-ness!"

"I take what gigs I can find to be a professional muso," he says. "I also go on tour with Wendy Oldfield every couple of months." Of his hometown, he says: "PE's a great place to leave, but a great place to come back to."

Glamour
A glamorous city export with little obvious PE-ness about her is model, actress and businessperson Shashi Naidoo, who was born and schooled in the city before leaving to study chiropractic medicine, of all things.

"When I was at school in PE, I didn't even know it was possible to do what I do now," she says. "That you could be a TV presenter or an actress or a club promoter. I only found out what the possibilities were when I left PE and came to Jo'burg.

"I was just told that you leave school, choose a career and study. But when I needed extra cash here in Jo'burg, I started going to castings, meeting people, hustling … I saw the possibilities in promotions, acting and modelling. My eyes were opened."

Despite her glittering career in Jozi, Naidoo remains grateful for having grown up in the Bay. "It was quite sheltered growing up in PE, but I at least feel like I had a proper childhood."

Eternal optimist Amy Shelver has lived in PE on and off since she was 12 and is now involved in several areas of the city's cultural life. She lectures in socioeconomic development at the university and does public relations for the Coega Development Corporation (CDC).

The CDC is the state-owned entity developing the Coega deep-water port and industrial development zone, and the custodian of many of the city's hopes for the future. Like a homeowner eyeing a new neighbouring shopping mall and speculating how soaring land values will make him a millionaire, many in PE have spent the past decade waiting for their Coega ship to come in.

The idea is that "when Coega gets going" the city's beleaguered fortunes will finally change. Indeed, Coega has got going and, with almost a million containers shipped this year, is one of the fastest-growing container terminals in the world.

Construction
Construction of infrastructure at the impressive Ngqura port development has boosted gross domestic product by billions of rands, but local industry has not yet been fundamentally transformed by Coega's growth.

Another string to Shelver's bow is the N_mb City Project (pronounced "numb"), which seeks to "light a fire under the youth". The network aims to "unite the multifaceted creative collective in Nelson Mandela Bay and work towards building a sustained creative renaissance in the city".

She also manages an art gallery and a theatre in the city's revitalised central district.

"I'm positive about PE and I love it. We're looking at ways to unlock the creativity in PE. Of course, PE is jagged and not beautiful; it's like South Africa's ugly stepsister. It can be a bit of a postindustrial existence, but there are cool things happening," says Shelver.

"There are 25 000 students at NMMU, many from other parts of the continent, and that brings an Afro-cosmopolitan attitude to the city. We're looking at ways to keep talent here, network it and feed that creativity."

'Bravado and insecurity'
Shelver describes the PE mind-set as "a mix of gung-ho bravado and insecurity". Also in the city's favour is the PE lifestyle, with a quaint but surprisingly idyllic beachfront easily accessible once – or even before – the day's work is done. "Of course we're salt of the earth," she quips. "We're surrounded by sea!"

When Hopwood finally finishes packing his bakkie and if he eases it out of town on the N2 east, he'll pass a number of iconic PE landmarks. The kilometres-long dolos breakwater of North End beach, the Fishwater Flats sewage plant, the Algorax chemical factory, the Swartkops sulphur springs ... and it'll probably be as windy as hell.

But that's just the kind of bleakness that pushes a PE native's nostalgia buttons. I'm betting the grumpy sod doesn't make it past Coega without tearing up and writing some lyrics about underpasses and old cafés and caravans selling hot dogs, Russians and pork.

That's the thing about PE. Once it gets under your skin, even its ugliness is beautiful.

Ugly sister is a Cinderella at heartTrue love for Port Elizabeth means taking the rough with the smooth: the beaches and the bonhomie with the postindustrial bleakness

Topics In This Section

Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus