Port Elizabeth of Yore: Hottentot Figs or Gocums

Colloquially Port Elizabethans know the Carpobrotus Edulis as the Gocum. The Hottentot Fig or its more politically correct name, the sour fig, was one of the trio of measures that Joseph Storr Lister adopted in his battle to tame the Driftsands. This small fleshy leaved plant was ideal in binding the swirling sea sand. 

Main picture: A field of Hottentot Figs

Lister used three plants in his struggle to stabilise the soil: the Port Jackson willow, eucalyptus trees and the sour fig – previously the hotnotsvy – whose fruit is edible. Apart from these measures, a narrow gauge railway line was laid from Humewood, over the Shark River to the dunes beyond. Here the rubbish of Port Elizabeth was dumped and spread over the ground.

Joseph Storr Lister

Joseph Storr Lister

In the McCleland household, one of the periodic duties was to collect the fruit of the gocums for jam. The preferred location for the picking expeditions was on the rolling hills between Willows and Schoenmakerskop. Even though it can be eaten fresh, I cannot recall ever eating one but rather consuming its end product, a very tart jam.

The other night while running a trail race across a golf course, I spotted a field of these plants. All that I could recall is their colloquial name Gocum. It took days of searching to ascertain its correct name. That led me to wonder whether people in Port Elizabeth nowadays are aware that its fruit is edible and makes a nice jam. Certainly, my running partner was blissfully unaware.

Carpobrotus edulis is indigenous to South Africa but has been naturalised in many other regions throughout the world. It is an invasive species in several parts, notably AustraliaCalifornia and the Mediterranean, all of which have similar climates. Where this plant has escaped from cultivation and it has become invasive, posing a serious ecological problem by forming vast monospecific zones, lowering biodiversity, and competing directly with several threatened or endangered plant species for nutrients, water, light, and space.

Spreading refuse on the shifting sand

En passant

The coastal artillery battery at Humewood was called the “Gocoms Battery” probably after the prevalence of this fleshy leaved plant in the vicinity. When an acquaintance of mine, started recording the story of these buildings, he was mystified by the meaning of Gocoms. Having a military background, he suspected that it was some military acronym. Finally after much cogitation, he arrived at the plausible answer, “General Officer Commanding’s Battery.”

Undoubtedly his bubble was burst when a friend casually informed him that the gocom was  an indigenous plant.





  1. So glad I found these articles. So interesting. Being a Uitenhager by birth and now living in Port Elizabeth, they are right up my alley.
    Thank you!


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