By Dibussi Tande
“The Route will remind you that you are travelling through an extraordinary country, chiselled out of the horrors of racial and social dispossession to become a dynamic monument to human dignity.” Makana Pocket Guide.
After a grueling 18 hour journey from Chicago to Johannesburg where I spent the night, I boarded a South African Airways flight bound for the Indian Ocean port city of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape Province.
Port Elizabeth was founded in 1820 as a gateway for the 4000 British settlers, the so-called 1820 settlers, who were brought in by the British government in a bid to strengthen the crown’s grip on the Cape Colony’s strife-torn eastern frontier – the Frontier Country – where the Xhosas were violently resisting British occupation of their lands – In 1996, Nelson Mandela described the settlers as "Pawns in a larger game" who "were nevertheless caught up on the wrong side of history, unable or unwilling to acknowledge as equals those into whose homeland they had been implanted." From 1779 to 1879, the British and the Xhosa’s fought nine Frontier Wars which left an indelible mark on modern South Africa.
In more modern times, Eastern Cape played a pivotal role in the struggle against Apartheid. It is here that some of the most notable anti-Apartheid activists were born and began their struggle against the Apartheid regime – Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Govan and Thabo M’beki, Oliver Tambo, Steve Biko, Chris Ani, Dennis Brutus, Robert Sobukwe, Donald Woods, etc. It is also in this province that the Black Consciousness Movement, which heralded the Soweto uprisings of 1976, was born.
Welcome to Port Elizabeth!
Some 90 minutes after our SA Airlines flight left Oliver Tambo international airport, we landed at the Port Elizabeth airport where guides from Highway Africa were on hand to pick up participants for the 125 km drive to Grahamstown, situated in the heart of Frontier Country.
As we drove out of the Port Elizabeth, there was little or no sign of the fabled frontier history which so defines this region. Neither were there any signs of the turmoil of the apartheid era with its forced relocation of the non-white population and its restless townships which permanently vibrated to the clarion call of resistance against the brutal police state.
It is in honor of the city’s preeminent role in the anti-apartheid struggle that it was renamed Nelson Mandela Bay – a selection made by Madiba himself out of 800 applications.
The drive along the seafront revealed a laid back and modern city with an imposing skyline and a superb road infrastructure, with the dome of the newly constructed Nelson Mandela Bay stadium visible in the horizon – a city which reminded me of a futuristic version of the town of Victoria / Limbe in Cameroon on the other side of the continent.
There was no sign of the grinding poverty that made Eastern Cape the poorest province in the Republic – the legacy of the Bantustan policy which classified Ciskei and Transkei as "independent" homelands – impoverished Black territories abandoned to their own devices which became part of Eastern Cape in 1994.
It wasn’t until two days later during a trip to Nelson Mandela Bay stadium that the tour guide revealed the seamy side of Port Elizabeth’s breathtaking seafront; after the adoption of the Group Areas Act, the non-white population was relocated to the townships on the outskirts of the city. In 1965, Port Elizabeth’s South End district, home to about 8000 Black, Chinese, Indian, Muslim, and colored families, was razed to the ground to make way for a new white suburb supposedly more befitting of this pricy lakefront real estate – the story of the relocation, dramatically narrated by our white tour guide, was quite disconcerting, however, it was a refreshing insight into how South Africa is trying to publicly and bravely come to terms with its checkered past … a lesson for many other African countries where dark segments of their history are simply taboo, erased from history books and from collective memory.
After about 20 minutes, we finally made it out of the city onto N2, the highway leading to Frontier Country, “the historic heartland of Eastern Cape”, where the Xhosas unleashed a ferocious war of resistance against the British, but were ultimately subjugated by the power of the cannon. We drove past the breathtaking but rugged and dry landscape, with its undulating hills and valleys dotted with isolated farms which Frank Partridge has described as “a tribute to man's tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds”.
As we drove on, I couldn’t help but wonder what stories this landscape would tell if it only could talk. What had these hills and valleys witnessed during the hundred year war? What acts of bravery or outright recklessness occurred as the British clashed with the Xhosas for control of this land? What atrocities had taken place on those hills? What secrets lay beneath those valleys? And what exactly was the story behind these sprawling farms in the middle of nowhere? A few days later, still during that bus ride to Nelson Mandela Bay stadium, Prof. Bheki Sibanda of Fort Hare University, Mandela’s alma mater, would answer some of my questions with a magisterial discourse on “criminal imperialism”, the focus of a book that he is currently working on.
I was regularly jolted out of my reverie by the disconcerting sight of cars driving on the “wrong” side of the road. South Africa is one of the few countries where left hand driving is still the norm and cars are right-hand drive vehicles. So each time there was oncoming traffic, it seemed as if it was heading straight at us. And it didn’t help that our bus driver was driving at break-neck speed…
After about 90 minutes, we veered off N2 towards Grahamstown and I saw a sign indicating that King William's Town was farther down the road; King William's Town is the birth place of Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness leader who was arrested in 1977 and tortured by the police in Port Elizabeth before being taken to Pretoria to die. And some 200 miles away, still on the N2, was Qunu, Nelson Mandela's hometown... No wonder Eastern Cape is referred to as “the crucible of South African history”…
As we descended the hill towards the city center, Grahamstown slowly emerged from behind the trees. As the bus turned into Barthust Street I discovered a city center lined with colonial storefronts and old buildings reminiscent of a quaint little English town.
Finally, the bus pulled up to my hotel at the top of top of Bathurst and High Street, the end of a long journey which began in Chicago two days earlier and included stops in Washington DC, Dakar , Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth. As I stepped out of the car, I couldn’t help but smile at the fact that I was lodged in the Frontier Country Hotel which had the feel of a dwelling straight out a Charlotte Bronte novel. Jane Eyre would have felt very much at home here. In fact, I fully expected to see the ghost of an 1820 settler floating across the corridors and rooms...
As I stepped onto the balcony of my room, I was greeted by the sight of an old but imposing church, the Anglican Cathedral of St Michael and St George, the City Hall Memorial Tower, and a small but imposing monument dedicated “To the brave men of Albany who died for the empire during the Anglo Boer war, 1899-1902”. Later, upon closer inspection, I discovered an inscription at its base by none other than the 1907 Nobel laureate, poet Rudyard Kipling:
They came of that same stubborn stock that stood/
at Runymede for freedom without fear/
Wherefore they gave the treasure of their blood/
To 'stablish freedom here.
The irony of the British coming to this far off land to "establish freedom" by subjugating and obliterating the locals was not lost on me. But this was Kipling after all who wrote the infamous White Man's Burden in 1899...
I would also learn that the figure on top of the monument was the “Winged Figure of Peace” sculpted by Stanley Nicholson Bab.
Right in front of me stood two houses that gave the area its decidedly Victorian feel. The colonial feel of this corner of Barthust and High Street was however rudely interrupted by a huge Kentucky Fried Chicken sign above a KFC franchise, an indication that that even this far corner of South Africa could not avoid the claws of globalization. I couldn’t suppress a guffaw at the thought that I might just end up eating KFC in South Africa of all places, after avoiding it for over a decade in the United States. Later that evening, I couldn’t let go of the incongruity of it all and queued up to buy a KFC meal. Expectedly, they lady behind the counter did not ask me “For here or to go?” as they do in the US. Instead she used another phrase which took me a moment to understand. And then asked me “what flavor?” Again it took me a moment to realize that she was asking me the type of drink that I wanted – “localized globalization” in action...
To the left of my balcony was a sprawling hill in the distance which towered over this part of the town. I wondered whether this was famous Makana’s Kop (hill) from where the Xhosa prophet Makana led 10000 Xhosa warriors to a fiery but ultimately doomed daylight attack against the British in the historic battle of Grahamstown of 1819 which historian Noel Mostert describes as "the most significant battle of the nineteenth century in South Africa" – a battle which forced Britain to rethink its strategy in the Cape Colony and resort to beefing up Frontier Country with the 1820 settlers. After his defeat, Makana, also known as Nxele (the left-handed one) was imprisoned on Robben Island, the first in a long list of nationalists who would be locked up in that notorious prison. He drowned in 1820 while trying to escape. [For a detailed account of the battle of Grahamstown see Tim Couzens’ Battles of South Africa]
Today the Grahamstown Municipality is known as the Makana municipality in honor of the great (some say foolhardy) warrior. As I gazed out into the horizon, I recalled the words I had read in the Makana Pocket Guide which described Frontier Country as “an extraordinary country, chiseled out of the horrors of racial and social dispossession to become a dynamic monument to human dignity”.
After completing my survey of the landscape, I went back into my room and turned on the old TV set which also looked like a relic from an age long gone. I stumbled across a South African sitcom which seamlessly alternated between English, Xhosa and Afrikaans with appropriate subtitles provided where necessary. As I watched I mulled over the fact that although the “rainbow” over South Africa might be fading according to pessimists, the country was nonetheless still miles ahead of African countries north of the river Zambezi when it came to addressing and trying to overcome issues of ethnicity and race. With that thought I dozed off as I anticipated my first trip to Rhodes University named after Cecile Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe...