Why you should care
This South African port town is shedding its reputation as a cultural desert.
In November 2018, Port Elizabeth–based artist Steven Carter, aka Joff, held a solo exhibition in a pop-up gallery space he had created specifically for the event. Four hundred people came to the opening, and Joff shattered his overall sales target on the first night. Inspired by feedback from other artists, Joff — who is originally from Cape Town — is in talks with the business owner about making it a permanent exhibition space.
Joff is among a growing number of creative professionals picking Port Elizabeth over bigger South African cities. Just three years ago, he would have received very different feedback. Though naturally beautiful, affordable and relatively traffic-free, Port Elizabeth has long suffered a reputation as a cultural desert compared to Cape Town or Johannesburg. But incentives offered by the Mandela Bay Development Agency (MBDA) — a joint initiative between the municipality and the government-owned Industrial Development Corp. — and the example set by entrepreneurs are combining to allow the city to finally shake off that image.
The MBDA is offering giant tax rebates — 25 percent the first year, 20 percent in the second and third years — on all nonspeculative commercial property developments and restoration projects, says the agency’s marketing manager, Luvuyo Bangazi. The agency funded 23 creative events across Cape Town in 2018. And, between 2012 and 2015, the MBDA invested 40 million rand ($2.8 million) in developing a major events venue called Tramways in the semi-industrial Baakens Valley just outside the urban development zone. The MBDA has also worked with businesses on a precinct plan that has improved traffic flow, added parking and carried out an environmental upgrade to the area.
Previously I would have been forced to do the exhibition in Cape Town or Jo’burg.
Steven Carter, aka Joff, Port Elizabeth–based artist
The impact is being recognized. International ratings agency Moody’s upgraded the rating for Port Elizabeth in March 2018, while it assigned a “negative outlook” for Cape Town. The creative industry appears to be in agreement. WERK_, a coworking space and artisanal incubator in Baakens, has three warehouses, all of which are full, says co-founder Jacques Theron, adding that he gets new inquiries every week. A few miles away, in a previously ignored inner-city neighborhood, 31-year-old Zinzi May’s fledgling design agency the Stable Studio (a translation of her Xhosa name) has consistently turned a profit since its March 2017 launch, with national and international clients on its roster.
Colours of You SA, a platform that May launched with Gerard Addison in 2014, has used MBDA funding to host three creative festivals that brought together Port Elizabeth’s arts community. Already, 550 guests have confirmed participation for the fourth iteration in March. And then there’s Joff, who is planning other exhibitions.
“Previously I would have been forced to do the exhibition in Cape Town or Jo’burg,” says Joff. “And I wouldn’t have sold as much.”
A harbor town with a large industrial sector, Port Elizabeth has a blue-collar history. Changing that has taken time. The MBDA launched the first of its tax incentives in 2003 and has added more, but it’s only now that the city is visibly turning into a cultural hub. It isn’t until a critical mass of professionals in any industry picks a city that it becomes easier for others to follow, says Theron. That moment has arrived for Port Elizabeth.
That shift is evident at WERK_, which started in 2013 but didn’t really take off until 2017 or turn a profit until mid-2018. Its clients are also finding success. The resident leather craftsman, jewelry designer and rock climbing gym have all doubled their floor space from when they started. “Every entrepreneur who’s come on board has done well,” says Theron.
At Donkin Village, a privately funded regeneration project in the inner city, Colours of You SA isn’t alone. It has at least three other creative agencies and, for those who desire company, a coworking space. And while the city’s subsidies have helped attract creative industries, its low cost of living — monthly rentals are about half those in Cape Town — is an attraction in itself.
That’s precisely what Joff has taken advantage of, to transition from being a commercial film director who dabbles in art to an artist who does freelance film work to plug the financial gaps.
Meanwhile, Rooftop Productions, the Port Elizabeth–based company Joff directs for, has also carved out a niche for itself by producing award-winning work for development agencies, including the United Nations, the World Bank and UNICEF. At the time of writing, Rooftop had teams filming in Mozambique, Niger and South America — not to mention Port Elizabeth. The city is “an incredible base to build a business from,” says Rooftop’s joint CEO, Richard Ahlfeldt. It’s affordable, has easy access to every biome and a smorgasbord of cultures and a lack of red tape — it’s easier to get filming permissions, says Ahlfeldt.
That said, the city still lacks specialist gear houses, makeup artists, caterers and casting agents on the scale of its bigger cousins. And that’s a stumbling block to growth as filmmakers often need to fork out large amounts on flying equipment and service providers into the city. Sure, big brands like Nedbank (South Africa’s fourth-largest bank) and Chevrolet have over the past three years produced their commercials in Port Elizabeth, but that allure has subsided. For now, Ahlfeldt says, filmmaking in Port Elizabeth is “for the brave,” but with a bit more infrastructure — and government incentives such as tax breaks for gear houses— he believes the city can compete. And while less capital-intensive industries like leatherwork, charcuterie or graphic design have faced lower barriers than film production, costs are also rising for them. House prices have gone up by 11 percent in Port Elizabeth over the past year.
Still, Ahlfeldt, Theron, May and everyone else I met while reporting this article are convinced that the city is already a creative force to be reckoned with. Can Port Elizabeth (population 1.3 million) realistically overtake Cape Town, a city three and a half times bigger, as South Africa’s de facto cultural capital? Maybe not. But ask me where I’d rather live and you’ll get a very different answer. Port Elizabeth has many of the things that make Cape Town great (creative energy, top-notch food, incredible natural diversity) and none of the downsides (snobbery, high prices, horrific traffic).
Did I mention I’m from Cape Town, born and raised?