Port Elizabeth of Yore: Korsten – A Subtext for Freedom

Human nature seeks freedom and the best for themselves and their children. It is an innate urge. By now the dismal track record of politically motivated false choices should have been exposed as a chimera. So it was for Korsten. Instead of readily agreeing to their being relocated to the new “model township” of New Brighton, the black residents of the inner-city locations defied the authorities and moved to an unserviced area outside the municipal boundaries called Korsten.

Thus Korsten’s roots are nourished by the natural human desire for freedom.

Main picture: Elkana Street, a respectable area in Korsten where children play happily in the street

Enter left – Frederick Korsten

The earliest recorded occupation of the land, now known as Korsten and the surrounding suburbs was by Frederick Korsten, a Dutch Settler who acquired the land known as Papenkuilsfontein between Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage and renamed it Cradock Place in 1812, after his friend, Governor Sir John Cradock. The initial reason for the establishment of this enterprise was to supply salted beef to British troops stationed on Mauritius. From this Korsten diversified into whaling and he also set up a trading station. Subsequent to the arrival of the Settlers, Korsten retired to Cape Town but returned in 1836 to live there until his death in 1839.

Palimpsest

The property was divided into 236 plots and sold off on the condition that the name of Korsten be retained. The current spatial layout of Korsten is still largely based on these plots. The current structures of Cradock Place are ruins in the open veld alongside the Uitenhage Road. The Cradock Place farm would have covered areas now known as Korsten and Young Park and Algoa Park.

Korsten initially consisted of privately-owned land to the north of Port Elizabeth, which had been laid out as a potential village from 1853, once the farm of Cradock Place had been divided into plots. Initially it was not a success given that the local black population were housed in locations close to the inner city. The first location to be established was Stranger’s Location at the top of Russell Road. At a later stage, Gubb’s Location was established in Mill Park and Cooper’s Kloof served as an overflow facility of Stranger’s Location.

Demolishing slum dwelling in Korsten in 1903

In 1883 the Town Council passed the Native Stranger’s Location Act, with the intention of removing those living in this area to the more remote ‘Reservoir Location’. This move faced resistance and was never enforced, but it did set the scene for deliberate, planned, race-based developments that would culminate in the growth of Korsten and the establishment of New Brighton, Port Elizabeth’s first formal Black township.

A significant event in the segregation of Port Elizabeth was the outbreak of Bubonic Plague at the turn of the 20th century. This resulted in the demolition of the inner city ‘locations’ and the forced removal of inhabitants to the perimeter of the city, the reason being concerns about sanitation. This disease gave impetus for the removal of the residents of these locations to New Brighton and the demolition of the informal structures upon them.

The history of Korsten and New Brighton are intertwined because both arose, New Brighton formally and Korsten informally, due to the closure of the inner-city Locations. At its root was the Native Reserve Locations Act of 1902 (largely a re-enactment of the 1883 Native Stranger’s Location Act), ‘an experiment in social control which, it was hoped, would help solve the problem of regulating African labour in urban centres’. Essentially, Korsten and New Brighton were both intended as dormitory areas on the outskirts of the town from which labour could be drawn. In their nature, however, they were quite different. There was very little growth there until 1901, when the removal of inner city ‘locations’  (including Stranger’s Location) was intensified. At this stage, those who were being removed essentially had two options: to be settled in the newly created New Brighton township or to go to Korsten. They ‘headed straight to Korsten, avoiding New Brighton at any cost’. Korsten was favoured because it was outside the town limits and the authority of Port Elizabeth and, although colonial law was applicable, it was practically unenforceable. There were also increased business opportunities and opportunities for land ownership. This resistance by Black families to being resettled in the model township of New Brighton endured until the 1930s.

Being a township established in terms of the ‘new model township’ principal, the layout of New Brighton reflects a formal grid of streets whereas Korsten Village, as it was called, displays a more varied structure. The village is divided into three distinct parts. The first, the northern section, centred on the development of the road north west to Uitenhage, now called Commercial Road and the suburb renamed Sidwell. The second part, spatially central to the village, was set out in a radial oval pattern centred on a lake. This area was a dense residential area known as ‘Village Board’, which was declared an industrial area in the 1960s. Its residents were forcibly removed, houses demolished, and the lake drained. It is today partially redeveloped as an industrial area known formally as ‘Ferguson’.


View towards Korsten in 1938, looking over the early  Provincial Hospital

The roots of each township are also reflected in the contrasting physical aspects of Korsten and New Brighton. Korsten was a haphazard settlement in which homes were created primarily from temporary materials and most had no running water or sewerage. Because they were outside the boundaries of Port Elizabeth, the authorities had little control over land use and movement. At one stage, 1 680 of the dwellings were declared unfit by the plague board. ‘Unfortunately, a native free state has grown up outside the Municipal boundaries at Korsten … [which] is practically under no supervision. The lazy, dissolute natives live at these locations in happy content,’ bemoaned the Medical Officer of Health of the Cape of Good Hope.

On the other hand, New Brighton was a highly controlled residential suburb even further to the north, separated from Korsten and the town itself by a wide wetland area. Business was highly regulated and property ownership impossible. Rentals in New Brighton were also notably higher than those in Korsten. The unregulated state of Korsten has led to a perception that the Korsten of the early 20th century was a ‘slum’ and was solely intended for those who were not White.

This photograph, from an issue of The Herald, dated 19 September 1957

After the Anglo Boer War, Port Elizabeth witnessed a steady influx of poor destitute whites from the platteland. Many of them erected their homes in Korsten, because it was cheaper to do so. But Korsten was in fact one big slum … the health conditions were shocking. It was seen as a menace to the health of Port Elizabeth.

With the northern portion being declared an industrial area and the black residents being relocated northwards, only the rump of Korsten remains as a residential area. This portion comprises a grid of three long parallel streets running approximately south-east to north-west – Stanford Road, Durban and Highfield Roads, with a number of cross streets. It is this are that is now officially identified as Korsten by authorities and citizens.

Today the residential area of Korsten occupies a relatively small geographical area, two kilometres long and 300 metres wide. Its north-west end would historically have been at the edge of the town. Over time, the whites were rehoused in Young Park and Algoa Park and the Blacks to the north.

Finally, Ordinance No. 3 of 1931, extending the boundaries of Port Elizabeth to include Korsten, Zwartkops Village, Deal Party Estate, Fairview Township, was promulgated. Removal of the anomaly in the boundaries and property ownership was forever discarded, dooming Korsten to forfeit its moniker as ‘Korsten Village’ or ‘Free Town’. Forever would it have to comply with the dictates of the Council.  

Lorimer in her book Panorama of Port Elizabeth concludes that ‘the name of Korsten survives in Port Elizabeth only as that of a slum suburb – poor recognition for a man who was the founder of its commercial development’.

Sources

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

Nostalgia and Heritage in Korsten, Port Elizabeth, 1956 to 1990 by Bryan Wintermeyer mini-dissertation presented in partial fulfilment of the degree of Master of Philosophy in Conservation of the Built Environment in the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics – June 2015


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