The Eastern Cape is regarded by many as the cradle of Black resistance against White oppression. After the defeat of the Xhosa by the British in the frontier wars, three significant developments occurred which put the Eastern Cape at the forefront of pioneering African political organisations. The first was the emergence a class of black African farmers who were landowners. This group of people adopted and adapted European methods of farming and selling surplus produce to the market. In addition to participating in the colonial economy, they sought to use the colonial political systems and institutions for their own gain. The second development was the establishment of mission stations with schools which provided education meant to serve the colonial order. As a result, by the 1870s, a small educated African elite emerged in the Eastern Cape. The third factor was the granting of ‘Responsible Government’ in the Cape in 1872. This sparked an increased interest in the number of Africans in political matters such as the vote, although that interest went back as far as the 1860s. In the Eastern Cape, some Africans registered to vote. Together, these factors precipitated the establishment of early African political organisations in the late 1870s and 1880s.

For instance, the Native Educational Association (NEA) was founded in 1879. The NEA was active in areas such as Grahamstown and King William’s Town. Later, the Imbumba yama Nyama also known the South African Aborigines Association was formed in Port Elizabeth in 1882. The Imbumba aimed to unite African people on political issues in fighting for national rights. Some of the leading figures in its formation included people who were clergy such as Reverend Isaac Williams Wauchope, Philip William Momoti, Daniel Malgas, and Peter Kawa. It was the establishment of these organisations laid down the foundation for the emergence of nationalist organisations such as the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) in 1912. Thus, the area is synonymous with the emergence of early Black political consciousness. In addition, it also became the birth place of many of South Africa’s strongest trade unions. Strong political and socio-economic disparities combined with radical political awareness formed an explosive combination of elements that led to places in the Eastern Cape, like Port Elizabeth, to become a hot bed of Black resurgence.


Port Elizabeth was initially a centre of commercial capital, centred on its port.  As early as 1860, Port Elizabeth was the country’s premier port, largely because the distance between Port Elizabeth and the interior was much shorter than that of Cape Town.  Furthermore, the railway into the interior was still a decade in coming. Port Elizabeth’s status was reinforced by the discovery of diamonds, gold and a succession of land wars in the interior as it became a launch point for both business and military activities.

The series of land wars against colonial rule which were finally broken in the southern Transkei during the 1850s as a result of the cattle killing resulted in the destruction of the rural economy of the Eastern Cape. Furthermore, the region also saw the largest influx of missionaries in southern Africa, as well as the establishment of a number of trade schools. Black children attended these schools and acquired skills such as crafting. With the destruction of the African economy, many of the highly skilled crafters Black workers who were trained at mission schools started moving into the cities. This marked the early urbanisation of the black workers in Port Elizabeth.

Urbanisation became extensive amongst the Black population accelerated particularly between 1920 and 1960. Due to its central position between the major population conurbations and port facilities, Port Elizabeth became a logical choice in the 1920’s for South Africa’s fledgling motor industry which transformed it into a secondary industry centre. In 1923, Ford began its assembly line in Port Elizabeth. This was followed by the components industries as well as clothing and food processing factories. 

The opening of the new harbour in 1935 further facilitated the development of industry. Although the Second World War halted the rate of industrial expansion, it stimulated existing factories to diversify their output. By the late 1940s there was a spurt of industrial growth with the establishment of many other factories including the Volkswagen plant, two tyre factories, stainless steel, and canning, metallurgical and electronic companies.  In addition, World War II gave secondary manufacturing industry in South Africa a major boost as was seen  the rise of a local manufacturing industry. Other major cities in South Africa such as Cape Town demonstrated a similar trend during this period.

Industries initially depended on White and Coloured labour, but later, during the 1930s and 1940s, Africans were drawn into the factories in large numbers. This becomes vitally important as Port Elizabeth’s political mobilisation was closely linked to its labour history. In order to understand how Port Elizabeth developed into a politicised area, one has to examine the labour history.

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