Feel my PE-ness!

True love for Port Elizabeth means taking the rough with the smooth, the beaches and the bonhomie with the post-industrial bleakness, writes Hagen Engler.

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Photograph: Tim Hopwood

Tim Hopwood is leaving PE. For anyone who knows Port Elizabeth, this will come as no surprise. Tim Hopwood has left PE many times. Also, people in general have been leaving PE for ages. It’s what you do in PE; you leave.

A lot of famous people have left PE. Ask any PE expat and he’ll tell you. Tim Hopwood is famous himself in certain circles. He’s a highly regarded art photographer in the Obie Oberholzer tradition out of Rhodes University. He’s also a singer-songwriter in the sparse, existentialist tradition of Leonard Cohen.

The sparse existentialism of his music and photography rhymes with the prosaic, windblown glumness of many PE cityscapes. The kind of vistas that make PE the eternal poor cousin to more photogenic rivals like Cape Town, George and even Durban.

“PE is, on the surface, spectacularly bleak,” he says. “Its industrial spaces are very evocative. But its city centre can be beautiful and charming, aside from the parts ruined by terrible town-planning.”

When Tim eventually packs his bakkie and ups sticks for the rural tranquillity of Riebeeck East, he will be the latest in a long line of skilled individuals to leave the Bay for pastures new.

Danny Jordaan now runs Safa, though he still has a home in the Bay. Schalk Burger was born here, as were cricketers Graeme Pollock, Peter Pollock and Shaun Pollock. Athol Fugard set much of his oeuvre in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in microcosm. John Kani workshopped plays with him as part of the Serpent Players. Zolani Mahola from the band Freshly Ground? She’s from here. Jazz legend Zim Ngqawana. Simphiwe Dana started her music career here… Jeremy Maggs, Garth Wright, Gavin Cowley, Derek Alberts from Supersport…
It’s a PE pastime. Every time someone from your home town appears on TV, or so much as comes up in conversation, you blurt out, “He’s from PE!”

It’s a strange combination of pride and small-town inferiority complex that drives us to affirm solidarity with our homies as if to say, “You see! We are good! We are worth mentioning.”

In the eyes of the rest of the country, though, we are not. In national media, PE comes up once in a while when there’s a cricket ODI at St Georges (we’re the ground with the band), or during the annual Ironman South Africa triathlon event. The TV package will feature stock footage of Hobie Beach, Shamwari game reserve and some quaint settler architecture.

Size-wise, PE scraps it out for SA’s fourth-city honours with the likes of Bloemfontein and Pretoria. While the metro of Nelson Mandela Bay might be bigger, in the minds of most South Africans we lose out because we’re so damn remote.

NMB is horrendously distant from other South African cities, unless you count East London, and who does? In the minds of non-Eastern Cape people, PE and East London are the same place.

PE is 800km from Cape Town, 1100km from Johannesburg, and even the bright city lights of Bloemfontein are a distant 665km away. But the most telling distance is psychological.

PE is remote. But it’s also just about big enough to have a self-sustaining economy, culture and “scene”.
Musicians, artists, businessmen and social activists can grow, become PE legends and then fade away without the rest of the country even being aware of their existence. Melvyn Matthews? Errol Cuddumbey? Jaco Rademeyer? Anton Calitz? Dave Goldblum? Mike Phantsi? Khusta Jack? Janet Cherry? Have you heard of them? Maybe if you’re from PE.

Inevitably, young people face the “should I stay, or should I go” dilemma of youngsters in average-size cities worldwide. Complicating the decision is that it is possible to stay, and to earn a living.

It’s not easy, though. Particularly not for artists. “Artists and musicians who do work that is in any way edgy, dark, or subversive battle to find any kind of paying audience here,” says Tim the photographer, still tying up a few things before he finally packs his car and leaves. “That is why so many leave. We produce a disproportionately large number of creative people here, as we have good creative tertiary institutions, but the city hemorrhages them year after year to the outside world.”

“This speaks of an inherent mistrust of the intellect. We have a reputation as a cultural backwater that is not entirely undeserved. Middle-of-the-road tastes are amply catered for. Musical tribute shows abound. There is lots of wildlife painting, or paintings of Tuscan landscapes. However, there is cultural value here, but it is hidden.”

The metropole, Nelson Mandela Bay, comprising PE, Uitenhage and Despatch, has a population of almost 1,2 million according to the last census. There are significant black, coloured and white populations, integrated after a fashion but still segregated according to economic heritage.

But even PE’s most fortunate scions of white privilege are to be found at the shops in slops on the weekend. “PE’s big strength to me has always been its unpretentiousness,” says Tim. “It can be a double-edged sword if it manifests as a mistrust of the intellect, or a refusal to embrace new things in art and music, but I do find people here who are pretty switched on and informed without displaying the posturing that I see in bigger cities.

“I also like the way the older generation of moneyed classes in PE behave. Ostentatious displays of wealth are frowned upon. The younger moneyed classes here have lost that. They also tend to support the arts a lot more than the nouveau riche. Often you can’t tell from the way they dress that they are loaded as hell.”

He speaks with pride of once spotting Phil Gutsche – some say the richest man in PE – at a photo lab in an old fishing vest and shorts. “I liked that,” he says.

Nouveau riche or not, many of the youth are buying into the conspicuous consumption ethos of today’s celebrity culture. However, in a city/town whose only significant industries are in motoring, the opportunities for legitimate self-enrichment are limited.

Ncedo Marele, born and raised in New Brighton township, is now a producer and presenter for Port Elizabeth community station Bay TV. He bemoans this “liking of things”.

“Among the youth, it sometimes seems the only guys with money to burn are amaginza (gangsters),” he says. “They’re the ones who dress to impress and can drop money on expensive booze. Sadly, you see a lot of the kids are emulating that lifestyle and culture.”

He agrees with Tim that the creative scene is brimming with talent, but battles to find support. “Art, presenting, scriptwriting, music… there’s so much talent, but you can’t make any money from it. They won’t support you till you make it,” he says, mentioning two local music artists who have made it nationally – house producer Heavy K and rapper iFani. “He’s from PE!”

In the old PE tradition of breeding quality people for export, iFani now plies his kwaito/hip-hop trade in Johannesburg.

iFani has an interesting take on the Bay mindset, often criticised as small-minded, conservative and provincial.
“It’s slow paced compared to other major cities in the country,” he says. “It may seem like it doesn’t change much over time. But the people are friendly, which makes it an ideal place to learn from and be guided from.”
PE’s role as talent incubator is powerful. The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University is now home to the city’s long-established art school and the Bay supports a small, but vibrant creative arts scene. Collaboration is easy because of the compact scale of the 15-minute city.

In the tradition of small towns that often throw incongruous groups of friends together art collabs can get interesting. It’s not unheard of to see performance art in a nightclub setting, or a photographic slide-projection journey during a live music performance by the likes of Bay music stalwart Joe van der Linden.

To pay the bills, musicians are forced to play styles that run the full gamut of genres. Van der Linden can be found playing bass in a jazz band at corporate gigs, doing covers at the hipsterish Bridge Street Brewery, or jamming originals on outdoor festival stages with his cult surf-rock band The Brothers.

Maybe he’ll be doing a show with his two-piece comedy-rock act Jannie & Baksteen. Their most popular tune exhorts audience members to “Show off your PE-ness!”

“I take what gigs I can find to be a professional muso,” he says. I also go on tour with Wendy Oldfield every couple of months.”

Of his home town he says, “PE’s a great place to leave, but a great place to come back to.”
A glamorous city export with little obvious PE-ness about her is model, actress and businessperson Shashi Naidoo, who was born and schooled in the city before leaving to study chiropractic, of all things.
“When I was at school in PE I didn’t even know it was possible to do what I do now. That you could be a TV presenter or an actress or a club promoter? Or start a modelling agency! I only found out what the possibilities were when I left PE and came to Joburg.”

“I was just told that you leave school, choose a career and study. But when I needed extra cash here in Joburg I started going to castings, meeting people, hustling… I saw the possibilities in promotions, acting and modelling. My eyes were opened.”

Despite her glittering career in Jozi, Shashi remains grateful to have grown up in the Bay. “It was quite sheltered growing up in PE, but I at least feel like I had a proper childhood.”
Eternal optimist Amy Shelver has lived in PE on and off since she was 12 and is now engaged in several areas of the city’s cultural life. She lectures in socio-economic development at NMMU, and works for a company doing PR for the Coega Development Corporation (CDC).

The CDC is the state-owned entity developing the Coega deep-water port and Industrial Development Zone (IDZ) and custodian of many of the city’s hopes for the future. Like a homeowner eyeing a new, neighbouring shopping mall and speculating how soaring land values will make him a millionaire, many in PE have spent the past decade waiting for their Coega ship to come in.

The idea is that “when Coega gets going” the city’s beleaguered fortunes will finally change. Indeed Coega has got going and with almost a million TEUs, or containers shipped this year, is one of the fastest-growing container terminals in the world.

Construction of infrastructure at the impressive Ngqura port development has boosted GDP by billions, but local industry has not yet been fundamentally transformed by the growth of Coega.
Another string to Amy’s bow is the N_mb City Project (pronounced “numb”), which seeks to “light a fire under the youth”. The network aims to “unite the multifaceted creative collective in Nelson Mandela Bay and work towards building a sustained, creative renaissance in the city.”

She also manages an art gallery and a theatre in the city’s revitalised Central district.
“I’m positive about PE and I love it. We’re looking at ways to unlock the creativity in PE. Of course PE is jagged and not beautiful, it’s like South Africa’s ugly stepsister. It can be a bit of a post-industrial existence, but there are cool things happening.”

“There are 25 000 students at NMMU, many from other parts of the continent, and that brings an Afro-cosmopolitan attitude to the city. We’re looking at ways to keep talent here, network it and feed that creativity.”
She describes the PE mindset as “a mix of gung-ho bravado and insecurity”. Also in the city’s favour is the PE lifestyle, with a quaint but surprisingly idyllic beachfront easily accessible once – or even before – the day’s work is done.

“Of course we’re salt-of-the-earth,” she quips. “We’re surrounded by sea!”

If and when Tim Hopwood finally packs his bakkie and eases it out of town on the N2 East, he’ll pass a number of iconic PE landmarks. The miles-long dolos breakwater of North End beach, Fishwater Flats sewage plant, the Algorax chemical factory, the Swartkops sulphur springs… It’ll probably be windy as hell.

But that’s just the kind of bleakness that pushes a PE native’s nostalgia buttons. I’m betting the grumpy sod doesn’t make it past Coega without tearing up and writing some lyrics about underpasses and old cafes and caravans selling hotdogs, Russians and pork.

That’s the thing about PE. Once it gets under your skin, even its ugliness is beautiful.

Writer for television, print and digital, corporate and editorial. Editor and writer of books. Musical performance, spoken word as Inspector Ras. Guitar/vocals for The Near Misses, (Worst Band In JoburgTM). The last whitey at umsebenzi. Latest book 415 Action-Packed Neighbourhood Marketing Tips with Basil O'Hagan, out now. @hagenengler

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