An index to this trip appears on the first post.
March 23, 2016
Port Elizabeth is the city at the heart of Nelson Mandela Bay, and it is the largest city in the Eastern Cape. As the sixth largest metropolitan area in the country, Nelson Mandela Bay had more than 1.1 million inhabitants in 2011. By contrast, it had the highest unemployment rate in the country, at 36.6%. I felt more nervous about visiting Port Elizabeth than I did any other stop for this trip. Large cities intimidate me (yes, Cape Town does, as well), and driving to my hostel had already established for me that road signs do not necessarily agree with Google Maps. On the fifth day of my trip, I visited the historic square and monument park for the city.
I had given myself permission to sleep in that morning, and I didn’t rise until 7:10 AM! I took a recommendation from the hostel to set up an appointment for a guided tour of “Route 67.” This area celebrates the 67 years of public life contributed by Nelson Mandela, the first democratic president of the country. The Route begins at the transportation hub for the city, extends through its most historic square, and comes to a finish atop the Donkin Reserve that dominates the downtown skyline.
Tony Neveling is a tour guide for Gecko Tours. I met him at 10:30 at the lighthouse of the Donkin Reserve. Driving downtown was somewhat less frightening than I had worried. My path led down the M19 (labeled R367 by Google Maps) to the R102 (briefly) and then across John Tallant (called the M3 by Google) to the N2. Near downtown, I transferred to Settlers Way (a.k.a. the M4), which dumped me into R102 (again), careening up a hill and through two left turns into the uphill side of the Donkin Reserve. I must say that this route does not leave one with a positive impression of Port Elizabeth. It’s essentially a big industrial zone through the first two-thirds of that path. Townships with new public housing or old shacks are in evidence in either direction. Once I was at the N2, I could see the waves crashing into the shore, though much of it seemed to be lined with huge concrete stabilizers rather than marketable, sandy beaches. The lovely beaches are certainly here to be found, though, just a bit further South than I drove to the Donkin Reserve.
Tony began our tour at the base of the hill, next to a busy transportation hub. He reminded me that Port Elizabeth began as a simple fishing village. This area rapidly escalated in importance, though, when Britain began settling this area in earnest in the 1820s. Many of the settlers were given 100 acres of land and a year’s provisions, but those lands bordered lands occupied by the Xhosa. Essentially these new farms were intended to serve as a buffer zone to establish a viable border to the British colony. The British installed as governor Rufane Shaw Donkin, an experienced leader from India.
The place where we stood represented the original fishing docks, but today one can see ranks of minibus taxis, the train station, the docks, and the bus station. Tony walked me through the government murals on the freeway supports, celebrating the Xhosa circumcision ceremony, defying racism, playing with the lobola dowry tradition, and otherwise celebrating the new South Africa. We looked at the fountain next to us and saw word bricks from English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, and Arabic surrounding the water and “spraying” toward the stairs up the hill. Climbing the stairs, we saw the first of the 67 quotes from Mandela, beginning in 1946, that line the Route.
After passing a sculpture like a ship’s keel, we arrived in the historic square of the city. The major buildings surrounding the space are the former city hall, the Feather Market Center, and the Public Library. The city hall is an interesting mix; the original structure suffered a terrible fire in 1977, and the building was resurrected in a way that saved the facade but constructed an entirely different building behind it. The lobby is currently hosting three statues that form “The Conversation.” The figures of Nelson Mandela, Raymond Mhlaba, and Govan Mbeki were chosen to represent the prisoners sentenced through evidence uncovered through the Lilisleaf Farm raid.
These three statues are intended to sit across the street from a magnificent statue of Queen Victoria, commissioned to celebrate her Jubilee. They are in this lobby to await repairs to the pavement to fix damage from cars parking on the square.
Tony explained the interesting history of the Feather Market Center. It began life as a jumble of steel headed for the Durban dockyards that was accidentally unloaded at Port Elizabeth instead. The framework was built into a cavernous hall that would be suitable for a train depot, but instead it formed a major commercial center used for sorting wool or ostrich feathers into different grades for export. Later, administrative offices were added to a new annex facing the market square. The building was refurbished after being named a national monument in 1980, and now it is used for conventions and a concert hall. The administrative offices have been transformed into an epic two story lobby with high ceilings on both levels. I sang a few bars from “Why we Sing” in the large chamber (it’s a standard number from my days in Nashville in Harmony). I think the concert hall would echo less when chairs covered the floors!
The public library has a beautiful facade, and even its original entrance (now on the side) is quite nice. Unfortunately, problems with the structure have led to mold issues, and the city has been busily at work trying to rectify those issues for quite some time. Port Elizabeth’s Anglican church is across the street from the library. Its stained glass seemed like quite a lovely sight, but a musical performance for school kids was underway when we passed that way.
The next steps led us upward to the crown of the Donkin Reserve for the remainder of Route 67. The first set of stairs was lined with metal etchings that signified the violence during the last half of the 20th century in South Africa as Apartheid police and military forces tried to maintain minority rule in the face of the Struggle from ANC and Black Consciousness movements.
Each flight of stairs leading upward from there slowly moved from darkness to light, until a stairway mosaic of the rising sun represented the first democratic election, ushering in a bright day of white and red. The winding pathway represented the long lines of voters, awaiting their first chance to vote in a democratic election. A lovely black and white mural on a rainbow-colored wall represented many roles from urban life.
Near the top, the pathway of voters was made more concrete, with silhouettes of voters of all races and occupations lining a rounded wall up to the top of the Donkin Reserve.
The three main monuments of the Donkin Reserve are obvious at the crest. The lighthouse gave way to a simple beacon as city lights filled in beneath it. A massive pyramid memorializes the wife of Governor Donkin, the Elizabeth after whom the city takes its name. A massive flagpole appears at the top of the stairs. Though no flag was visible the day I visited, I was able to see the flag from miles away on the N2 the day before. The flag that normally waves from the pole is roughly half the size of a tennis court, at twelve by eight meters.
Our tour also took in several other structures along the Reserve. The first school in the area appears along that avenue, as does the massive King Edward Hotel. Like many major buildings in Port Elizabeth, the new owner of the King Edward Hotel has committed to refurbishing the structure. A walk to the South took us past the Grand Hotel as well as Atheneum / Little Theatre. Tony showed us a reinterpretation of the 67 quotes from Mandela as bead work mosaics, all on display in the coffee shop of the Atheneum. Finally we walked to a 1799 fortress built to protect the harbor during a war with France.
By the end of our walk, my neck was reminding me of my need for sunscreen. I decided to drive to a restaurant for lunch, but none swiftly presented themselves. I drove in a broad loop around St. George’s Park, just to the west of the Donkin Reserve, but I didn’t see any place that seemed suitable. I began retracing my drive to the hostel, but no restaurants became apparent. Later that afternoon, I drove to a pizza place in Despatch with a friend from the hostel. My touring day was complete!