Community histories in Port Elizabeth


Young Nelson Mandela in traditional Xhosa dress. Source: Nelson Mandela in traditional Xhosa dress.

Xhosa community

The pre-1994 apartheid system of homelands or 'Bantusans' denied Xhosa people South African citizenship and attempted to confine them to the nominally self-governing homelands of the Transkei and Ciskei, now both part of the Eastern Cape Province. Today, the large majority of Xhosa people remain in the Eastern Cape Province. Many Xhosa live in the urban centres of Port Elizabeth, East London and Cape Town. This article will predominantly focus on the Xhosa communities in Port Elizabeth. However, the history of these communities is inextricably linked to the pre-colonial history, colonial history and the history of segregation within the province.

Settlement and early Xhosa life in the Eastern Cape

Although they speak a common language, Xhosa people belong to many loosely organized, but distinct chiefdoms that have their origins in their Nguni ancestors. The majority of central northern Nguni people became part of the Zulu kingdom, whose language and traditions are very similar to the Xhosa nations - the main difference is that the latter abolished circumcision. In order to understand the origins of the Xhosa people and how they came to settle in the Eastern Cape area, we must examine the developments of the southern Nguni, who moved down towards the Eastern Cape and intermarried with Khoikhoi and San people in the area.

Young Nelson Mandela in traditional Xhosa dress. Source:

For unknown reasons, certain southern Nguni groups began to expand their power some time before 1600. Tshawe founded the Xhosa kingdom by defeating the Cirha and Jwarha groups. His descendants expanded the kingdom by settling in new territory in the Eastern Cape region and bringing people living there under the control of the Tshawe.
Generally, the group would take on the name of the chief under whom they had united. There are therefore distinct varieties of the Xhosa language, the most distinct being isiMpondo (isiNdrondroza). Other dialects include: Thembu, Bomvana, Mpondimise, Rharhabe, Gcaleka, Xesibe, Bhaca, Cele, Hlubi, Ntlangwini, Ngqika, Mfengu (also names of different groups or clans). Unlike the Zulu and the Ndebele in the north, the position of the king as head of a lineage did not make him an absolute king. As they could not centralise their power, chiefs were constantly preoccupied with strategies to maintain the loyalties of their followers.

The Xhosa of long ago were cattle farmers. They took great care of their cattle because they were a symbol of wealth, status, and respect. Cattle were used to determine the price of a bride, or lobola, and they were the most acceptable offerings to the ancestral spirits. They also kept dogs, goats and later, horses, sheep, pigs and poultry. Their chief crops were millet, maize, kidney beans, pumpkins, and watermelons. By the eighteenth century they were also growing tobacco and hemp. At this stage the Xhosa language (isiXhosa) was not a written language but there was a rich store of music and oral poetry.

As the Xhosa slowly moved westwards in groups they destroyed or incorporated the Khoikhoi chiefdoms and San groups, and their language became influenced by Khoikhoi and San words, which contain distinctive ‘clicks’.

Colonial Land Wars

Europeans who came to stay in South Africa first settled in and around Cape Town. As the years passed, they sought to expand their territory. This expansion was first at the expense of the Khoikhoi and San, but later Xhosa land was taken. The Xhosa encountered eastward-moving White pioneers or ‘Trek Boers’ in the region of the Fish River (see Eastern Frontier Map). The ensuing struggle was not so much a contest between Black and White races as a struggle for water, grazing and living space between two groups of farmers. 

Nine Frontier Wars followed between the Xhosa and European settlers, and these wars dominated 19th century South African History. The first frontier war broke out in 1780 and marked the beginning of the Xhosa struggle to preserve their traditional customs and way of life. It was a struggle that was to increase in intensity when the British arrived on the scene. The Xhosa fought for one hundred years to preserve their independence, heritage and land, and today this area is still referred to by many as Frontier Country. 

In addition to land lost to land lost during the Frontier Wars, legislation reduced Xhosa political autonomy. Over time, Xhosa people became increasingly impoverished, and had no option but to move to the nearest urban areas to look for work.

Early Black 'locations' in Port Elizabeth

As a rising number of Black workers moved to Port Elizabeth to seek employment, a number of so-called ‘locations’ began to be established on the outskirts of the White suburbs. Rosenthal (1970) has defined locations as being: "Large Native Reserves as well as small areas in municipalities earmarked for residence by Africans". The major Black suburbs of that time were:

  • Bethelsdorp (1803)
  • Fingo and Hottentot Location (1830s)
  • LMS Outstation (1834)
  • Dassiekraal (c1850)
  • Korsten (1853)
  • Stranger's Location (1855)
  • Gubbs Location (1860)
  • Cooper's Kloof Location (1877)
  • Reservoir Location (1883)

With a few exceptions these Black suburbs were informal in nature, and residents there were forced to endure living conditions which contemporary observers described as being dirty and open to exploitation by capitalist landlords. Many Whites considered them to be unhealthy and petitions were repeatedly organised demanding that they be removed to the outskirts of the town. These requests were in direct opposition to the needs of the growing commercial and industrial sectors which preferred to locate their labour sources close to the harbour and the inner city area. These conflicting vested interests created political tension within the Port Elizabeth Council, and they were only resolved in 1885 when the Municipality adopted its first set of markedly segregationist regulations.

As a result, suburbs for the exclusive use of Black residents who were not housed by employers, and who could not afford to purchase property, were established on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth. The most prominent amongst these were:

  • Racecourse (1896)
  • Walmer (1896)
  • New Brighton (1902)

In 1901, an outbreak of Bubonic plague struck the town. This was the direct result of Argentinian fodder and horses being imported into South Africa by the British military during the South African War. These cargos also carried plague-infected rats, and although many members of the White and Coloured communities were also affected, the Black population bore the brunt of the Plague Health Regulations. In 1902, most of Port Elizabeth's old locations were demolished (with the exception of Walmer), their resident's personal belongings were arbitrarily destroyed, and restrictions were imposed upon inter-town travel. Although these curbs might initially have been necessary, they were only loosely applied to Whites, and were maintained upon the lives of Black residents well after they were eased elsewhere, in spite of repeated complaints by the community's leaders.

New Brighton and Korsten Location

The racially segregated suburb of New Brighton was established in 1902 on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, some 8km north of the city centre, to house mainly Xhosa families who had been displaced during the plague outbreak.

Because New Brighton was located relatively far from the centre, many families preferred to settle in Korsten which, at the time, was beyond the Port Elizabeth municipal boundary, but was still substantially closer to town. Korsten also had a substantially more relaxed attitude towards the brewing of illegal liquor, an activity to which many families turned to as a strategy to balance their monthly household budgets.

Therefore, during the colonial period, the location system created a pattern of residential segregation, sowing the seeds of the 'apartheid city'.

Xhosa Townships and Homelands

The dawn of apartheid in the 1940s marked more changes for all Black South Africans and the Xhosa communities living in PE were no exception. These changes included the separation of citizens into so-called ‘White’, ‘Bantu’, ‘Coloured’ and ‘Asian’ suburbs. Apartheid legislation layed down that such areas should be set apart by buffer strips at least 100m wide. Black suburbs were developed on the remote outskirts of the city making daily travel to the workplace expensive. Also, little retail and business development was permitted within the townships (as they began to be called), forcing residents to conduct the bulk of their shopping in the central city area.

The process of apartheid expropriation, relocation and residential control had the effect of increasing New Brighton's population from 35,000 persons in 1951 to 97,000 in 1960. As a result KwaZakele was established in 1956, and following the demolitions of Salisbury Park, Fairview and South End in the late 1960s, Zwide was declared in 1968 and Motherwell in 1982.

In 1953, the South African Government introduced homelands or Bantustans, and two regions - Transkei and Ciskei - were set aside for Xhosa people. These regions were proclaimed independent countries by the apartheid government. Therefore many Xhosa were denied South African citizenship, and thousands were forcibly relocated (many from Port Elizabeth) to remote areas in the Transkei and Ciskei. Conditions of extreme poverty in the homelands meant that many young Xhosa men had no option but to move to interior cities as migrant mine labourers. By the late 1990s, Xhosa labourers made up a large percentage of the workers in South Africa's gold mines.

The homelands were abolished with the change to democracy in 1994 and South Africa’s first democratically elected president was African National Congress (ANC) leader, Nelson Mandela, who is a Xhosa-speaking member of the Thembu people. He was born in the Transkei.

We are still developing this section, we will be adding information on; the San and Khoikhoi, English, German, Malay and Chinese people in the region. If you have information to contribute please click on the contribute tab.

Last updated : 23-Feb-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Mar-2011