Port Elizabeth with a Difference

Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape of South Africa has experienced a turbulent and complex history ever since the Voortrekkers settled in this part of South Africa in the early 1800s. From the arrival of 4,000 British settlers sent to PE by the Cape Colony government, to the key transit role the city played during the Boer War, and the international headlines it made during the anti-Apartheid struggle, when Steve Biko was tortured by the security police in PE and later died.

PE Real City tour - Madiba sculpture

Exploring PE by visiting its tourist attractions only will not give you a feel for the true essence of this vibrant and multifaceted city. To get under its skin and touch its soul requires interaction with its people. Only then can you get an appreciation of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Calabash Real City tour led by Nelson Sebezela reveals the inescapable contrast between social deprivation and at the same time highlights the inspirational stories and successes of the present.

Nelson brings the history and political struggle of PE to life with his passion, in-depth knowledge, personal experience, and wit. He was born and raised in Kwazakhele Township, where his family was forced to relocate as non-whites under the Group Areas Act in the mid-1960s. On arrival in this new area, they had their personal belongings, but no money or building supplies. Houses were erected from any materials they were able to lay their hands on without support from the existing government.

PE Real City tour - guide Nelson Sebezela

As a South African resident, I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to visit and even stay in several townships. However, Nelson’s personal interpretation and understanding of the city made this tour into a truly authentic experience. It reiterates my belief that there is no better way to discover a place than to travel as a local.

PE Real City tour - barber shops

Some quirky Port Elizabeth facts:

King Edwards Hotel, built in 1903, was bought by a Dubai group just before the 2010 World Cup. The building has since been renovated and used as a private residence, but its future use remains uncertain.
• PE acted as a transit point during the Boer War with many healthy & injured soldiers, horses and materials passing through the town. During these conflicts, countless horses and mules suffered and more than 300,000 died, and as a tribute the Horse Memorial was erected in 1905.
• On the 18 August 1977, the leader of the anti-Apartheid Black Consciousness Movement, Steve Biko, was interrogated and tortured by the security police in Port Elizabeth. He was later taken to Pretoria, where he died as a result of his severe injuries. His death, exposed by journalist & friend Donald Woods, created uproar around the world. Although Steve Biko’s death played a pivotal role in the anti-Apartheid movement around the world, no sign or statue has been erected in PE so far. The black mural by a local artist painted on a road pillar opposite the Sanlam Building is the only poignant reminder of his death.
• The Donkin Reserve is a piece of land on PE’s seafront that was given to its residents in perpetuity by Sir Rufane Donkin, acting governor of the Cape. He named the city and the pyramid on the Donkin Reserve after his late wife Elizabeth, even though she died while in India and never set foot on South African soil.
• Many of the township container shops are donated as part of economic development programmes and can be used for any business venture. However, the vast majority of container shops around PE’s townships are used as barber shops and hairdressers.
• Although they were illegal under Apartheid, the township pub or shebeen were lively meeting places and still form an integral part of the vibrant township life. While they are now fully legalised, many shebeens are run as unregistered drinking outlets, where music and dance are part of their lure. The word shebeen originates from the Irish sibin, meaning illicit whiskey.

This blog was originally written by Louise de Waal for The Good Holiday.

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