There is only one major city in South Africa older than Port Elizabeth and that is Cape Town.
The name Port Elizabeth (PE) is now in jeopardy thanks to the African National Congress (ANC)’s obsession with name changes.
Soon after it came to power in 1994, the ANC, to its credit, launched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which sought to establish the truth about apartheid-era atrocities.
This process fit in neatly with Nelson Mandela’s vision of a single united non-racial democracy; one where race would increasingly play a less significant role and people would be treated as members of the human race.
The TRC allowed many of the victims of apartheid to tell their stories, and some of the perpetrators of atrocities confessed to their roles. Unfortunately the real instigators — the top dogs in the apartheid regime — escaped any major consequences.
When Thabo Mbeki took over as president in 1999, the whole ethos of the ANC government changed. Suddenly, Mbeki launched a campaign which sought to resurrect the spectre of apartheid when he simplistically described the country as one divided along racial lines – rich whites and poor blacks.
All manner of populist affirmative action laws were imposed, including the Black Economic Empowerment Act and the Employment Equity Act. Black people were going to get their hands on a substantial share of white capital, come what may. Black people, however poorly qualified, were going to take over the commanding heights first of the public sector and then, as part of the National Democratic Revolution, the private sector.
Mbeki seemed to be inspired by President Robert Mugabe’s seizure of white commercial farms in the early 2000s, after the Zimbabwean dictator had lost a referendum to the Movement for Democratic Change and stood to lose the next election. Some 4,000 white farms were seized and Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed. It has yet to recover. But Mbeki and the ANC couldn’t praise Mugabe enough, even hosting and applauding him at rallies in South Africa throughout the 2000s.
It was in this toxic atmosphere that the ANC launched its name-change campaign. First streets were renamed, then small towns. Now they are coming for the cities.
On Wednesday this week, 14 November, the Eastern Cape Provincial Geographical Names Committee (ECPGNC) will host an official hearing at the PE City Hall regarding an application for the name of PE (and its airport) to be changed.
The proposed new names are Gqebera, iBhayi and Nelson Mandela City. Currently, Walmer Township is also known as Gqebera. The former apartheid-era name for the black PE townships was iBhayi. And the metro currently comprising PE, Uitenhage (whose name they also want to change) and Despatch is Nelson Mandela Bay.
One would have thought that compromise arrangement would have satisfied the name-change zealots. Especially considering Mandela only mentions two brief visits to PE in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. So Mandela had very tenuous ties with PE.
Of course, we welcomed having his name attached to our metro – provided they left the original names of the colonial-era towns and cities alone.
But that was not to be. In their quest for what I would call cultural retribution, the ANC has decided to change the name of PE and many other of the most historical towns in South Africa.
The Eastern Cape is a unique part of this country in that it was here that white settlers first encountered the Nguni people. Slow migrations east and west had brought the cattle-herding Trekboers into contact with the cattle-herding Xhosa tribes at about the Fish River around 1780.
Anthropologists suggest the black African tribes had trekked south from somewhere near the equator over the past few millennia, eventually displacing the “first people”, the San, or Bushmen, and an apparent offshoot of the San, the Khoikhoi, who were not hunter-gatherers like the San but also pastoralists like the Nguni tribesmen.
The Khoisan people were thus vanquished from the west and the east by both the colonial settlers and the south-westward migrating Nguni people. Most Khoisan people took on Afrikaans as a language, while many Xhosa words have clicks assimilated from the conquered San.
The Trekboers were the descendants of the first Dutch settlers who arrived at the Cape following the establishment of a small stop-over and replenishment station by Jan van Riebeeck for the Dutch East India Company in 1652. The penalty they paid for their slow 120-year trek eastwards was to be the victims of regular and sustained stock-theft by both the Khoisan and later the Xhosa. The many frontier wars between 1779 and 1879 were largely the result of sporadic stock raids by the indigenes and occasional all-out attacks by them, whereby farmsteads were destroyed and cattle stolen. Counter-raids by the Trekboers into Xhosa country to reclaim that stock usually followed.
By 1819, the Cape Colony, now under British rule, came up with a possible solution and that was to settle some 4,500 British people at Albany, around Grahamstown and what became Bathurst and Port Alfred. Those who arrived in early 1820 were selected from some 90,000 applicants. They were to farm on small locations in an attempt to create a buffer against further Xhosa invasions.
More wars followed, though the first major one only flared up in 1834, 14 years after the settlers’ arrival. Most of the farms they had established were destroyed, many settlers were killed, and the survivors took sanctuary in Grahamstown. White traders in Xhosaland fled west, as did most of the missionaries.
Earlier this year, the ANC saw fit to rename Grahamstown to Makhanda, after a Xhosa tribal chief who attempted to destroy the British military outpost, established as Graham’s Town in 1812. Like PE, Grahamstown is already part of a larger local authority called Makana. That’s the same chief, who also went by the name Nxele. Such is the oral tradition.
Earlier this week, they held a meeting to change the name of Uitenhage. It wasn’t reported on by the Herald, the Port Elizabeth newspaper established by Scotsman Jock Paterson in 1845 as the Eastern Province Herald. It seems it no longer concerns itself with colonial-heritage matters.
But just to give a sense of how historic these place names are, this is Wikipedia’s introduction to its section on Uitenhage:
“Uitenhage was founded on 25 April 1804 by landdrost (district magistrate) Jacob Glen Cuyler and named in honour of the Cape’s Commissioner-General, General Jacob Abraham Uitenhage de Mist by the Dutch Cape Colony governor, Jan Willem Janssens. Uitenhage formed part of the district of Graaff-Reinet (shortly after its short-lived secession).”
It was in this era when the Napoleonic Wars were raging in Europe that Britain, during its first occupation of the Cape from 1795, established a stone fort at the mouth of the Baakens River at what was to become PE. Fort Frederick, built in 1799, still stands, overlooking Algoa Bay. It is reputedly the oldest British building in South Africa, if not the entire continent.
When the British settlers arrived in that same bay in 1820, it was the British officers and men stationed at Fort Frederick who oversaw their arrival. Trekboers, or African Dutchmen, transported them 150 km eastwards in their ox-wagons to start a new life among the ruins of Dutch farmsteads destroyed in the last Xhosa attacks.
Against all the odds, this small community of English-speaking settlers took root on a frontier the likes of which had not been encountered anywhere else on Earth. Never before were a people from an industrialised nation transplanted to live alongside a people living the same Iron Age existence they had been living for millennia.
At the level of ordinary people on the ground (not their rulers), this was an extraordinary period and its consequences, both negative and positive, are still reverberating around the country.
In 1829, Robert Stephenson developed the Rocket, the first viable steam locomotive, at Newcastle upon Tyne in Britain. Other major developments followed. Sailing ships were replaced with steam-driven ships. The telegraph and then the telephone were invented. Gas lighting was followed by the miracle of electricity. Water reservoirs were built in PE, with a pipe laid to the Market Square where cattle could drink from a trough. A road network was followed by railway lines. Schools and hospitals were built. By 1870 a thriving port town had been established.
When those 1820 settlers arrived, Sir Rufane Donkin was the acting governor of the Cape Colony, while Lord Charles Somerset was on long leave back in the United Kingdom. It was Donkin who took the new settlers under his wing and helped them as best he could.
He was also something of a sentimentalist. In late 1820, near the mouth of the Baakens on a hill overlooking the bay, he proclaimed an area of public open space the Donkin Reserve. Near the top of it he had built a stone pyramid 10 m high. On it a plaque was affixed explaining that Donkin had named the nascent town below PE, after his wife who had died at childbirth in India (his previous posting) a few years earlier.
The industrious British settlers started commercial farming, with wool and ostrich feathers among early exports. PE was the best place from which to export their products and, after a shaky start, a harbour was gradually developed. Eventually exports flourished to such an extent that towards the end of the 19th century PE was known as the “Liverpool of the Cape”. Banks and insurance companies followed. The commercial sector flourished. In the early 20th century the country’s first motorcar assembly plants and tyre manufacturers were established here.
While many of the 19th century buildings were lost due to ill-advised development in the mid-20th century, enough of them remain to make PE arguably the most important heritage site in South Africa after Cape Town and Stellenbosch. Some would say that, given its location on that dangerous frontier, its development as a small British-style town was something of a miracle.
Indeed, that legacy still pervades the city today. The City Hall, Opera House, Prince Alfred’s Guard Drill Hall, Pearson Conservatory, the Tramways Building, four or five Victorian Gothic stone churches and a substantial quantity of English-style terraced housing were all built in the 19th century, most of them before Johannesburg was even thought of. All attest to the British-settler character of a town that since 1820 has always been known as Port Elizabeth.
The early 20th century saw the Victorian Gothic Main Library go up on the Market Square, with a marble statue of Queen Victoria outside it soon to follow. The Horse Memorial was commissioned soon after the end of the Anglo-Boer War, another feature of the city’s colonial heritage.
Already the ANC has damaged our country’s social fabric by summarily renaming Grahamstown and Queenstown in the Eastern Cape among other towns bearing historically important names.
Now it is bent on erasing the name of PE which, before apartheid, was one of the most liberal and progressive towns in this country. The heart of the anti-apartheid struggle was a township still called New Brighton. Will the name-change advocates also want to rename it? If not, why not?
And how on Earth can they be happy with the name Fort Hare, a university from which many of the first generation of Western-educated black leaders, including Nelson Mandela, emerged?
If they’re going to rename PE, I challenge them also to rename New Brighton and Fort Hare University, iconic names in the anti-apartheid struggle.
But I would far rather President Cyril Ramaphosa decided that retribution was no longer the policy of the ANC and that he put an end to name-changing, which is a damaging and divisive attack on our rich cultural heritage.
EDIT: Wednesday’s Port Elizabeth City Hall meeting will be preceded by one on Tuesday evening (tomorrow) in Motherwell (a township named after a town in Scotland), with further meetings in Chetty next week Wednesday and New Brighton next week Thursday.