“South Africans tend to dismiss Port Elizabeth as an ugly auto industrial center and container port,” writes Correspondent Paul Lewis, traveling in that part of the world, “which it is.
“But it also has some of South Africa’s finest bathing beaches and is home to its latest and weirdest museum. From the old city center looking out across what is now called Nelson Mandela Bay, you can see little besides the eyesore of the port, while driving in is a journey from one industrial site to another.
“But the suburbs of Summerstrand and Humewood are English seaside resorts transported to the southeastern coast of Africa. The beaches are vast, of the finest sand, gently sloping into the calm, warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Well-tended gardens with pleasant walks overlook them, with occasional restaurants and a big shopping mall stuffed with eateries called The Boardwalk, as in Atlantic City. Beyond stand hotels and family guesthouses with names like Cleveland and The Grovesnor that could have been flown in from Brighton, Hove, or Margate.
“The most nostalgic seaside hostelry is the Humewood Hotel standing right on the waterfront. Its public rooms are decorated with old sepia photos of this part of Port Elizabeth taken from the Gay Nineties to the 1960s. Some show long-skirted ladies with parasols and floppy hats taking the sea air accompanied by gentlemen in blazers and Panama hats. This was, indeed, South Africa’s Brighton.
“Today, during the mild South African winter, the Homewood part of Port Elizabeth (locally, PE) is empty except for teams of student deep-sea divers practicing, windsurfers, joggers, and hardy children on the sand. But, come warmer weather, it reverts to being a busy holiday resort again, though somewhat less decorous than in those old photos. Across the street on the beachfront is a Sunday flea market, with lots of good quality handicrafts and old junk for sale, as well as Africana of dubious provenance and lots of Chinese clothing and plastic ware.
“The Victoriana-laden historic city center, first settled around 1820, has little to recommend it beyond a curious Italian Campanile and monuments to the earlier Portuguese explorers who came this way, Queen Victoria, and Prester John, the lost Christian king of Ethiopia. Under apartheid, the ‘colored’ (mixed race or Obama-type residents) were moved out, and the place is largely asleep as a result. There are many revival plans, most on hold.
“Well worth the trip is taking a taxi for the 4-mile drive out to the Red Location Museum of the People’s Struggle recently opened in the middle of the African township of New Brighton. This shantytown was originally built around the remains of an old corrugated iron barracks that had housed British soldiers during the Anglo-Boer war and subsequently turned red from corrosion, hence the name. It became a hotbed of African resistance to Apartheid and home to many African National Congress leaders.
“The museum now housed here is a striking building that has won several architectural awards. It is largely executed in gray cinder blocks and corrugated iron reflecting the crude tin shanty huts still surrounding it, with a distinctive saw-tooth roof. It’s devoted to the story of the struggle against apartheid, with exhibits grouped in 12 ‘memory boxes’ of rusty iron, each devoted to an aspect of the struggle.
“We were there on Mandela’s birthday and were able to listen to a jazz group rehearsal for a concert planned that evening, featuring a lady singer who doubled up on tenor sax between riffs.
“There is not much more that can be said about the struggle. But the distinctive architecture of the Red Location Museum manages to convey a powerful sense of fear and hopelessness. Tell your taxi to wait while you visit it (about a half-hour); otherwise you will have difficulty getting back to those pleasant, untroubled English seaside resorts of Summerstrand and Humewood from what remains a lawless shantytown.
“A good fish restaurant, delicatessen, sailshop, and winebar looking out over the lake in the Boardwalk complex is 34 Degrees South, where we dined on snoek paté, prawns, and mussels. With tip and copious good wine, our bill was 330 rand.
“Homewood Hotel charged us 1,120 rand for two weekend nights in a vast double room with bath, waterfront view, and generous breakfasts, but that was out-of-season. Reservations@humewoodhotel.co.za.
“The rand is about 8 to US$1 now.”